When we were younger many of us were already firmly set on a music-career path. We knew by the time we hit high school that breaking a finger in a sport could cause a set back in our chances at our chosen career and so we gravitated our fragile, artistic, souls and bodies to the safety of the practice room.
Now we know that one out of every ten musicians who experiences an injury will have to leave performance permanently. While a broken bone is unlikely going to be a symptom of our music practice, muscle issues are very relevant and incredibly common. Maybe we should have taken our chances on the basketball court?
A muscle imbalance is what happens when the muscle length and strength around a joint are not even. Remember those muscle buddies I talked about in the last blog? The flexor and the extensor? They’re what we want to have balanced.
Take our shoulders for instance. If the pectoral muscle in the front is tight or shortened then it’s going to pull our body into a position that’s rounded forward. To keep the muscles buddies balanced, the pectoral muscle in the front needs to be stretched out, lengthened and relaxed while the muscles of our back, the Trapezius and the Latissimus dorsi, need to be strengthened through flexion exercises.
The imbalance of this buddy group will reveal itself when our shoulder joints begin experiencing pain through pressure in the nerves or inflammation and micro-tears in the rotator cuff.
How do we cause imbalances?
An imbalance is usually caused because one muscle group is being asked to work more often then the other muscle group. This leads us to the common terms of overactive and underactive. We may believe that the overactive muscle is the one that moves the most and the underachieving one is the lazy guy not working at all but:
Not all overactive muscles are the ones moving around.
Something called a static muscle now comes into play. A static muscle is a muscle that’s working but maybe not moving.
Let’s revisit our bicep.
When a musician plays their instrument their elbows bend. This activates the bicep muscle which is now in flexion. In order to relax our bicep muscle and straighten our arm, the tricep muscle needs to extend to relax the bicep.
But let’s say you’ve been playing for several hours. That poor bicep has been sitting there working in flexion for several hours and the tricep thinks he’s off the hook. What are the chances he wants to work now? And what are the chances that your bicep even remembers how to relax? Pretty slim.
In fact, muscles subject to static work need twelve times longer to recover from fatigue than those involved in work requiring movement or dynamic usage.
If you’re a string player that means your left arm needs twelve times longer to recover than your right arm. If you’re in a marching band that means your upper body need twelve times longer to recover than your lower body.
The reason is because of blood flow. Muscles that are moving (dynamic) are receiving constant, fresh blood supplies filled with oxygen. That means your number one recovery move for muscles involved in static usage should be promoting circulation.
In fact, circulation is so much more important than stretching because there is a difference between a short muscle and a tight muscle. A short muscle may limit your activity and could potentially be eased through stretching. A shorter muscle may even be something you just happened to be born with. But a tight muscle is likely a chronic problem.
A tight muscle has been so overused that it’s actually having trouble relaxing; it doesn’t remember how to anymore! This means, once again, that circulation is going to be your best friend on the road to muscle recovery.
It also means that you should be actively working on the prevention side of things. Drop your arms down to your sides, advocate for rehearsal breaks and use that time to stretch, stand or move around, take practice breaks and limit your practice and rehearsal hours. Whatever you need to do to avoid static muscles resulting in tight muscles.
Also, make sure to cross train. That means taking notice of the under-active muscle groups. Whether it’s still and static or dynamic and moving, each of those working muscles has a buddy who’s getting lazy. Find them and strengthen them. This is your musical cross-training! Marathon runners lift upper-body weights. Elite skiers go running. Athletes have come to an understanding that they must to work all parts of their body for optimal performance success and career longevity.
If you want to be an elite player, train like an elite. You are more than your instrument. In fact, the instrument is only a tool and you are the greatness being applied to it. If you want a life of less pain and more music, set yourself up for success by training for success.
If you’re looking for ways to promote circulation in your static upper body, we’ve got tools in the Musician Health Resource online store.