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Exercising to a new beat

Rock drumming builds strength, cardiovascular fitness, and can be a nice option for kids not interested in sports

Sam Mcmanis I Mcclatchy Newspapers

Rock drummers, some claim, are finely tuned athletes, as fit as any long-distance runner.

But to get your head around that idea, you’ll have to put aside all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes.

First, forget “Spinal Tap,” that hilarious mockumentary in which all of the band’s besotted drummers perished mysteriously, such as in a gardening accident or by spontaneous combustion.

Forget, too, ’70s icons John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and the Who’s Keith Moon, whose extended drum solos were seemingly fueled not by a well-developed cardiovascular system so much as by, well, pharmaceuticals.

Consider instead: A recent study by two British sports scientists measured the heart rate, oxygen consumption, lactic acid buildup and peak endurance of Blondie drummer Clem Burke over a 10-year period ending in 2007 to find out just how much energy he used in a gig.

The researchers from the University of Chichester and the University of Gloucestershire found that Burke’s exertion rate during a 1  1/2-hour concert equaled that of a 10K runner or a professional soccer player.

His heart rate averaged 140 to 150 beats a minute, reaching as high as 190 beats. He burned an average of 600 calories per performance and averaged about 2 quarts in lost fluids.

In short, banging on the skins is quite a workout.

“Live rock drumming performance relies heavily upon the interplay between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems,” Smith wrote on the researchers’ Web site,

Smith recently told the London Guardian, “Through monitoring Clem’s performance in controlled conditions, we have been able to map the extraordinary stamina required by professional drummers. We can now use this data to benefit others.”

The researchers hope that children who aren’t interested in traditional sports might take up drumming as a way to shape up.

Drumming as fitness is not news to drummers, who have long felt their physical prowess is undervalued. They won’t go so far as to call themselves athletes – that would hardly be drummer-cool – but they acknowledge that fitness is a huge factor in performing well.

According to Mike Johnston, owner of the Drum Lab, an instructional business in Carmichael, Calif., and drummer for the successful ’90s punk band Simon Says, drumming builds strength and cardiovascular fitness.

But he also says serious drummers – those touring and doing shows every night – need to cross-train.

“I was young, 22, and cardio was the only thing that bothered me on tour,” recalls Johnston, now 33. “It was like doing 45 minutes of hard cycling.

“I was hitting so hard straight through the night that I had to start running every day and do other training to stay in shape. I also had to do a good 10- to 15-minute warm-up before I played so that my heart was ready to go.”

Presented the “Spinal Tap” cliche, Johnston laughed but stressed that drummers have a much more physically demanding job than do singers or guitarists.

“There’s no other instrument that involves moving all four limbs in a chaotic manner like drumming,” he says.

“You know, rock drummers don’t take their shirts off (during shows) to try to get chicks. It’s because they’re sweating and it’s really hot up there.”

Most drummers, of course, never reach major label and national touring status, as Johnston did for six years in the ’90s and early 2000s.

But even hobbyists can build up quite a sweat banging on the skins for an hour in the garage.

“It’s an extreme workout,” says Tim Metz, a 32-year-old Sacramento drum teacher who has played rock and jazz since age 6.

“As far as heavy metal or speed metal, those (drummers) treat it like an athletic exercise,” he says. “They are going for the fastest speed humanly possible. They are pushing themselves.

“Whereas with jazz, it’s more of an endurance thing. Jazz gigs last a long time. I’ve played one-song gigs up to five or six hours.

“In jazz, you’re more relaxed and not moving as much physically. In jazz, there’s more economy of motion when you’re playing.”

The way Metz sees it, rock drumming is like sprinting; jazz drumming like marathon running.

“Either way, you’ve got to be in shape,” he says. “There are a lot of drummers who ride bikes.

“Drumming (alone) is not enough exercise for me. I ride my bike daily. I don’t lift weights because I don’t want to get too bulky.”

Johnston, who shoots instructional exercise videos for drummers, says either light weights or non-weightbearing exercises are needed to build up drummers’ arms, shoulders and legs.

“Your forearms swell up and lock up on you,” he says. “There are a couple of positions you play in that put your arms in weird positions and make your shoulders really tired. It’s like jumping rope, holding your arms up in the air for an hour.

“I’d use extremely light weights and crank the repetitions up; instead of eight to 10 reps, do 150 to 200 reps. It’s all about building massive amounts of endurance and strength. It’s almost more like a Pilates and yoga thing, which tones the muscle and really strengthens it for endurance.”

Even though drummers are sitting, they still are using their legs.

“The lower body is crucial,” Metz says. “A lot of my students have a hard time playing the bass drum.

“There are a lot of muscles developed in the calves and quads where you have to hold your foot at an angle the whole time. If you’re not developed enough, it hurts.”

Injuries, mostly arm and shoulder strains but also hip flexor tears, are an unfortunate part of drumming. But curiously, one malady not often seen is carpal tunnel syndrome of the wrist and hand, Johnston says.

“Only in cases of extremely bad technique, like someone never taught them to properly hold sticks,” he says.

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