Practice like a bodybuilder: slow, steady and super strong!

This guy likes modern dumbbells, but his friends prefer 18th-century Italian.
This guy likes modern dumbbells, but his friends prefer 18th-century Italian.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were bodybuilders?” my wife asked me last month, after a tough practice day. “After all the pain, we could walk down the street and people would actually see how hard we worked!”
I had to agree. How gratifying would that be? Imagine if we could wear our practicing like clothing. Think of the looks I’d get: How about that guy. I bet he really hits the arpeggios hard.
Then again, maybe it works both ways. Perhaps bodybuilders hit the showers saying, “If only I were a violinist. Right now instead of being ripped, I’d be able to play Paganini!”

Progressive training

I’ve learned a lot about the violin while playing golf. But I’ve also learned plenty at the gym. And while I’m no “gym rat”, I’ve been fascinated by weights ever since I was young. My dad even got me a used Soloflex from the local prison for my 16th birthday! What attracted me to weights back then was the idea that I could do a little work each day and actually see my progress, both in the mirror and in the journal I kept.
That idea still attracts me to the gym today. But it also directs my daily violin practice.
Here’s the lure of bodybuilding in a nutshell: progressive results through progressive training. “Progressive” simply means that there’s progress involved. You ask more of your muscles over time, and they respond by growing bigger over time.
We’re accustomed to thinking of violin practice as a more creative process: worlds away from a bunch of he-men pumping iron over and over. But while music is certainly a creative art, what is the ultimate point of practice? Isn’t it to make progress, both technically and musically?
And while you may swear that you do make progress in the practice room, how do you really know? If you’re like many violinists, you start the day with good intentions, but by day’s end you’re not sure just what (if anything) you’ve accomplished. Your mind has gone in too many directions, and you feel frustrated.
Bodybuilders keep it simple. And it’s not because they’re muscle-bound jocks! It’s because simplicity works. Simplicity gets results. So let’s look at how bodybuilders practice…I mean work out…then apply it to ourselves.

Turning expectation into reality

It’s natural for bodybuilders to make steady progress, for several reasons:

  • They use consistent routines
  • Their improvement is easy to measure
  • They focus on internal rather than external comparisons

Routine

A bodybuilder wouldn’t dream of walking into the gym without a specific plan for the day. Instead he looks at last week’s workouts and builds the current week based on them. He makes sure that by the end of the week, every part of the body has gotten its due.
And the planning doesn’t stop there! Each exercise’s workload is based on last week’s performance. If last week’s Exercise A was three sets of twelve repetitions at 50 pounds, then this week’s Exercise A might be three sets of twelve reps at 55 pounds. The extra five pounds is a small but manageable step. Therefore success is expected and built into the routine.
Compare that to a typical practice session: some noodling, perhaps a few scales, maybe an etude, then repertoire. Lots of stopping, lots of cursing and personal recriminations. Each day resembles the last. You might say that the usual practice day is more like a Groundhog Day!

Improvement

In the gym, whenever you wonder whether all the work is worth it, all you have to do is open your notebook to see where you were one month or six months ago. There you’ll see the evidence that you are stronger now than you were before. The numbers stare you in the face! And they make perfect sense: 50 pounds for a time, then 55, then 60. You can assume that 65 and 70 won’t be far behind.
In the practice room, how do you know where you stand? Unless you have audio or video evidence, the equivalent of your notebook, you don’t know! You’re relying on your memory, which is anything but objective. It’s riddled with emotional holes and scarred over from previous failures. If you trust memory, you’re setting yourself up for continual disappointment.

Comparison

At the gym, bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Chances are you’re neither the smallest nor the biggest. When you see someone lifting more weight than you, it’s obvious to you that they’re further along on their journey. You don’t beat yourself up about it, because you compare yourself to your past self, rather than your journey to someone else’s journey.
Unfortunately, we musicians are trained from a young age to compare ourselves to the best. Not just the best at our age or stage of development, but the greatest in the history of the world. Instead of measuring your Bach against last week’s Bach, you measure it against Milstein’s. Not last month’s Brahms concerto, but Perlman’s. And while ideally you would draw inspiration from the practice habits of the greats, in truth you only get to see their triumphs: not the steady work it took to reach those high points.

Staying healthy to stay on track

If you can’t train, you can’t gain. So say the bodybuilders. Therefore, their first priority is staying healthy and injury-free. And they do it by maintaining proper form.
Each exercise is designed to work a certain muscle or group of muscles. When you use good form, all is well. But when the going gets tough and the muscles you’re working start to fatigue, it’s tempting to “cheat” by allowing other muscle groups to help out. When you do that, you run two big risks: one short-term, the other long-term.
The short-term risk, of course, is immediate injury. If you unwittingly allow your lower back, for example, to “help” in a chest exercise, you may find, to your dismay, that your lower back is far too weak to handle the workload. Injury brings your training, and your progress, to a dead stop.
The long-term risk of bad form is that of faulty expectations. Let’s say that two workouts ago, you successfully lifted 75 pounds for an exercise. But at your last workout you couldn’t quite manage 80. This time you do barely make 80, but only by “cheating”. At the next workout, naturally, you hope to lift 85. But your body wasn’t even ready for 80! The risk of injury next time around is even greater.
But just as importantly, you’ve set expectations that you can’t hope to fulfill without more cheating. By trying to rush your progress, you’ve ensured that you’ll taste failure or injury. The only solution is to go back to where you last touched solid ground: at 75 pounds. Then you can pick up where you left off.

The risks of “bad form” in the practice room

Our risk of injury isn’t as immediate, or as constant, as that of the bodybuilders. We have the freedom to select any weight on the floor, as it were, without fear of anything catastrophic.
But that freedom brings the same long-term risks. If bodybuilders are tempted to “cheat” in order to move from 75 to 80 pounds, how often are you tempted in the practice room to crank up the metronome and “go for it” at 100 bpm?
With no immediate consequences, it may seem worth a shot. And many violinists do just that, day after day! They spend most of their time attempting feats that they’re simply not capable of handling at their current level. The inevitable result is repeated failure. And once failure becomes built into the routine, progress becomes impossible.
No matter your instrument, the marks of “good form” are easy to define:

  1. pitch
  2. rhythm
  3. sound quality

Simply put, if you are not achieving these marks, then you are cheating. You need to modify your routine so that you’re back on solid ground again. Otherwise, steady progress will remain just wishful thinking.

The cycle of success in the gym

There are so many parallels between the practice room and the gym that it’s hard to find a piece of advice that doesn’t apply to both! But let’s focus on my guidebook, 8 Practice Mistakes, and see how bodybuilders avoid the traps we set for ourselves as musicians.
If you haven’t read 8 Practice Mistakes, follow the link above to grab your free copy, then come right back!
Now, let’s turn my 8 Mistakes around and see what bodybuilders do to ensure steady progress:

  1. They succeed. Their routines build incrementally, so they know that they are capable of completing each day’s work. Success builds on success.
  2. They use good form. Their equivalent of making a good sound is performing each exercise as it’s laid out: using the prescribed muscles and no others.
  3. They work smart, not hard. Since their workouts are tailored to their level, completing them doesn’t require a Herculean effort. They expect to finish with energy to spare.
  4. They have specific and appropriate short-term expectations. This one is a no-brainer! Bodybuilders know what they’re capable of and expect to improve incrementally, one step at a time.
  5. They have goals that are worth attaining. Perhaps they’re in it to lose weight. Maybe they want to compete and win. But imagining that target weight, or that trophy, keeps them going in the right direction day after day.
  6. They work out in order to achieve their goals. Jerry Seinfeld poked fun at this when he quipped, “The only reason that you’re getting in shape is so you can get through the workout. So we’re working out, so that we’ll be in shape, for when we have to do our exercises.” Seinfeld isn’t wrong, but there’s a bigger picture too! Serious bodybuilders treat each workout with importance, knowing that it brings them one step closer to a goal. Similarly, when practice becomes performance, you knock down an arbitrary wall that may keep you from realizing your best playing when it counts.
  7. They’re willing to adapt. If an exercise is painful, they substitute another. If they need extra work in one area of the body, they add another exercise. And as a matter of course, they switch up their routines once a month or thereabouts. They know that both body and mind can get stuck in a rut, and when that happens, progress slows to a crawl.
  8. They get feedback. Besides the natural camaraderie of the gym environment, bodybuilders take advantage of some of the most objective feedback known to man: scales and rulers. If their goal is to lift a certain amount of weight, they always know where they stand in relation to that number. If they want to lose weight, they can easily chart their progress.

How to “pump up” your practice routine

I want you to be excited about each day’s work on the violin, so here’s how to do it:

  • Set a long-term goal such as a performance or audition date
  • Set three sub-goals, with dates, on the way to the big goal
  • Start a daily practice journal where you record what you practiced and for how long
  • Each day, before you play, devise a routine based on yesterday’s session
  • Maintain “good form” through attention to pitch, rhythm and sound quality
  • Expect incremental progress and some plateaus
  • Record your progress, with audio or video, at least once a week
  • Draw inspiration from the greats, but realize that you’re seeing only the end of a journey

If you’ve been inspired in the gym, I’d love to hear about it below!

And if you enjoyed this article, please take a moment and share it with your friends on Facebook. Let’s get everyone practicing for success.

11 thoughts on “Practice like a bodybuilder: slow, steady and super strong!”

  1. I record my practice many times in each practice session. I also occasionally listen a lot later to check. It’s amazing how much one can miss during practice.

  2. Thank you for the excellent article.
    As an adult beginner, I have been frustrated for a long time with the steadiness of my slower up bows – especially as the bow approaches the frog. In hindsight, I allocated too much time to piece work and not enough time to open string bowing. Eventually I realized beginning string players are also beginning body builders. Of course, there are many factors besides one’s muscles/tendons that affect bowing, but open string bowing is an efficient way to develop the bowing muscles/tendons. Five minutes of open string bowing is five minutes of the bow hair moving on a string.
    Five minutes of piece work is how many minutes of bow hair moving on a string?

  3. I do weights at the gym and you are correct about the basic training procedure. I find that it is often harder to train the fine motor movements involved in playing violin because these are more subtle and vary more from day-to-day.
    Still, step by little step.
    To quote another website (acknowledgement to James Clear): “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”

  4. Music making is not bodybuilding. Music making is hardwork – yes – but no bodybuilding. I might be simply a romantic but, if success means this, I still think it is not worth selling your soul. Music making is opening your eyes, it is searching for sounds, for gestures, for being able to tell stories, to pour your soul. This cannot be achieved with mindless work, with body conditioning, with making this amazing art of not playing the violin, but making music, into athletic feats of coercing one’s body into producing empty displays of “perfection.”
    http://wpo.st/BrGJ2

    1. Thanks again for sharing the article from the Washington Post, which I read earlier today. Certainly none of our work should be mindless. But I hope that my description of a great bodybuilding routine also shows that that should not be mindless either! And just as the further you advance on the violin, the more nuanced and indeed spiritual it becomes, the same is true for other pursuits. You can play violin just to show off (many people do, and they practice that way too!) or you can achieve something higher. The best practice routines would allow you to do both, but true artists choose only the latter.
      Obviously, between this young lady and her teacher, the wrong message was given or received. That’s a vulnerable time in violin development, and it can be hard to recover from wrong emotional turns during those years and still reach the very top. Luckily, it seems that she’s found her true calling as people often do!

    2. The Wapo piece reminds me of a popular violinist website – full of “see what I great writer I am” self-indulgent essays – some of which have little to do with the violin. I wonder how many times the writer consulted a thesaurus.
      Your reply, Adrian, suggests your safe space was violated.
      So sorry!

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