How Offloaded Strength Training Improves Your Flute Performance

In Uncategorized by Reinald Tabudlo

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You can scan this QR Code to get a copy of the NFA handout that was used  in this lecture.

Balance Training for an Unbalanced Instrument: How Offloaded Strength Training Improves Your Flute Performance

In this recent 50th Annual NFA Convention at Chicago, me and  Dr. Katie Mess had a presentation  on how offloaded, lopsided and uneven strength training can give your workouts the stability and benefit they’ve been missing to be able to offset our asymmetrical instrument! 

Dr. Katie Mess is a flutist and Corrective Exercise Specialist whose research focuses on using sports med concepts in applied music settings for injury prevention for performing artists.

The presentation theme is BALANCE. Specifically as it relates to flute playing and physical fitness, and how strength training can help you play and feel your best!

Here are some of the topics that were discussed in this lecture:

Muscles, and often groups of muscles, work in pairs around a given joint. This is because muscles can only pull in one direction, they cannot PUSH a joint in the opposite direction, so a muscle group is needed on either side to pull the joint however it needs to be positioned. For that pairing to work at its most efficient, we want the muscle groups to be fairly balanced in strength. If one is too tight or shortened, then the opposite group is stretched out and weak, and therefore a strength imbalance can happen and the joint may not stay in ideal positioning.
As musicians, we tend to spend a lot of time in the same positions, typically with our arms out in front of us, to play our instruments, which means that one half of a muscle group pairing is working harder than the other and often becomes overly tight in comparison. If we don’t counter balance this, we can develop strength imbalances, chronic postural changes, and even overuse pain and injuries.

The idea that the site of pain is often not the source of pain. That means exactly what it sounds like, if you have pain in your wrist for example, stretching and icing just your wrist may help the discomfort initially but may not fix the issue when the problem is tension further up your arm. Similarly, if you ever had pain in your upper back near your shoulder blade, it’s example of something hurting because it is weak or too stretched out, so the fix is to stretch out the opposite muscle group and STRENGTHEN where the pain is happening.

Latissimus dorsi
latissimus dorsi (red) Image from wikipedia.org
offloaded strength training image of LATISSIMUS DORSI

For example, the latissimus dorsi (see image above) or what we usually call Lats! is a pretty large muscle on your back, but notice how this end starts to work it’s way around the side and works its way in the FRONT of the arm! Why is this important? Think about what would happen if this large muscle is overly tight and shortened (it will pull your arms/shoulders down so that they are rounded and slouching!

Let’s talk about how all this relates specifically to flute.

The traditional positioning of our instrument has the bulk of the instrument off to the right side. This means that both of our arms reach to the right, causing the left arm to cross the chest and the right arm to support the weight of the flute AWAY from the center of gravity. One of the biggest issues here is how this asymmetrical playing position is not ergonomic and can cause fatigue the longer we have to stay in this position. When we get tired, we tend to change our positioning to compensate and this is where we can get in trouble in terms of sounding our best and preventing injury.

Let’s start with imbalances between front and back.

Front to Back

We hold our arms in front of us for long periods of time when playing- this means that the muscles on the front of the body are frequently shortened and tight while the muscles on the upper back are frequently stretched out and therefore weak in comparison. So here in these images above, we’re looking at the muscles of the chest on the front of the body that commonly are too tight- the pectorals (or just pecs!) with the larger muscle on the surface, and smaller the layer below, and we also commonly see the biceps muscles on the upper arm tight from keeping our arms bent to hold the flute. On the back, the muscles that have to stretch to allow the arms forward are the middle and lower portion of the trapezius (or traps!) on the surface, and the rhomboids in the layer beneath.

Now let’s take a second to consider some of these changes that happen to our posture when fatigue sets in. Perhaps you’ve also seen students who play like this by default.

Turtle Neck

We have that turtle neck position where our head juts forward (when we are leaning in to see the stand!), and there again is that rounding forward with the shoulders that we mentioned earlier. Then, in the other photo, we can see how our asymmetrical playing position starts to get extra exaggerated when we droop to the right side- take a look at the neck angle, and even what this can do in the torso and hips.

Let’s look at the muscles of the neck for a second- often when we stretch we stretch just to the side- but we have muscles on all three sides!

Neck Muscle

The big ones to remember are the SCM on the front aspect, the scalenes on the sides, and the upper trap and levator scap on the back. It’s important to understand that these all work together to move and hold up your neck all day, so we want to be giving them all attention. But first let’s consider some of these posture changes some more.

Upper cross

When the head juts forward and becomes a chronic position, it is often referred to as Upper Crossed Syndrome. The cross comes from the relationship of tight and weak muscles situated diagonally to one another, creating an X or crossed pattern across the joint, in this case the neck. So we see the muscles on the front aspect of the neck are stretched out while the back of the neck is scrunched up and tight, then the chest is tight while the back is stretched out like we talked about a few slides ago. You can see in the photo above how much we can shift from our center of gravity when we slouch. Notice how this combination not only causes your head to jut forward, but also the shoulders are often slouching and rounded forward- remember earlier when I mentioned how the Lats can make this worse when they are tight? The body doesn’t work in isolation! There is a chain effect for every muscle that has to compensate when things are out of balance!

Now let talks about how these balance issues affect the shoulder region:

shoulder issues

So, when the left arm reaches across the body, especially for those of us who might be really used to a marching band setting where we feel we need to keep the flute as parallel to our body and where we are facing as possible, you can see how this can scrunch up those muscles in the chest and shoulder region on the front of the body.

These yellow lines here are nerves (the anatomy term for this big bundle is the brachial plexus, brachial means arm and plexus means network, this region is also called the thoracic outlet – less important to remember those terms, but you may have heard them especially if you’ve had an injury, like thoracic outlet syndrome) and they run from your neck where they emerge from your spinal cord, all the way down your arm. So, if they’re compressed, you can see how that can travel down your arm. Similarly, on the right side of the body, when we become fatigued and droop down to the right, and those scalene muscles become tighter, we can have compression of these nerves happening as well. SO a huge plus to using strength training to balance out our inherently unbalanced instrument is that it helps us delay that fatigue and stay in a more ideal postural alignment so that we can play our best and feel our best.

Recommended exercises

Neck exercises

Stretches for all 3 aspects of the neck (front, back, and side), and chin tuck exercises with resistance band progression for strengthening the deep cervical flexor muscles.

Neck

Doorway stretch for the chest/pectoral muscles

Stretch

Bent-over T's exercise for strengthening the mid-back

Exercise Mid Back

Resistance band shoulder external rotator exercise

Shoulder

offloaded, whole-body exercises

Core:
Deadbug Variation (Cross Body and Side Band), Paloff Press, Low to High Chop, Bear Crawl Touch / Bird Dog, Side Plank and Row

Caries:
Offloaded Farmer’s Carries, One-Arm Overhead Carry

Strength:
Single Arm-Floor Press / Alternating Shoulder Press

Core: Deadbug Variations

Palloff Squat (anti-rotation squat)

Palloff Press

Strength: Floor Press and Variations

  • Single
  • Alternating Arm
  • Bridge
  • Half-Bench
  • Half-Bench Alternating Arm
  • Half Bench 1-Arm

Overhead Carry Exercise

Farmer's Carry (or walk) with Variations

Alternating Shoulder Press