The Impact of Exercise and Physical Fitness on Performance under Pressure

Freshman year, one of my roommates was the starting center on the basketball team and went to the gym every day to work out. Intrigued, I began tagging along and started learning how to work out properly.

I found that I rather enjoyed it. I liked that there was a direct relationship between the effort I put in and the results I got. Unlike the practice room, where the effort I was putting in didn’t seem to translate into results as predictably as I would have liked.

However, I didn’t see as many conservatory students at the gym as I would have expected (though there were some notable exceptions which I’ll share in a moment).

Indeed, working out takes time, energy, and effort. When there are excerpts and endless repertoire to learn and perfect, rehearsals and coachings to prepare for, and an endless list of technical issues to fix, tweak, and master, taking a couple hours out of the day to work out, shower, and get dressed can sometimes feel like a luxury we can’t afford.

But does being physically fit provide musicians with a meaningful advantage? Especially when it comes to performing optimally under pressure?

Anxiety about anxiety

Feeling a bit of anxiety is a normal response in pressure situations. Our heart rate goes up, our breathing quickens, we feel more alert, and so on. But if a few butterflies are the extent of it, we usually handle ourselves just fine.

The problem of course, is that it often doesn’t end there. We start dwelling on the unwelcome physical changes and worry about what it all means. Are we going to crack or miss notes? Have uncontrollable bow shakes? Produce an audible tremor in our sound? Have a memory slip, embarrass ourselves, ruin our reputation, get black-listed, be unable to pay rent, get evicted, and end up living in a box under a tree in the park?

Of course, none of these thoughts are especially calming or comforting. So as our thoughts snowball towards worst-case scenarios and other negative consequences, our body responds accordingly, in a misery-inducing feedback loop.

Our heart pounds even faster. We start sweating. Our breathing feels constricted. We tighten up, and can’t release tension. All of which makes the threat of negative evaluation by our audience (or audition panel) seem even more likely, leading us to worry and freak out even more – which then kicks our fight-or-flight response up a notch or two, and on and on it goes…

This fear of the consequences of anxiety-related physical sensations has been termed “anxiety sensitivity” (think of it as anxiety about anxiety) and seems to be a predictor of the degree to which we might experience anxiety in a number of settings.

For instance, a study of US Air Force Academy cadets found that those who were high in anxiety sensitivity were three times more likely than those low in anxiety sensitivity to experience panic attacks during their highly stressful 5-week basic military training.

Another study found that of the six personality factors they looked at, anxiety sensitivity was the best predictor of the kind of anxiety one might experience before giving a public speech or performance.

So is anxiety sensitivity something we’re born with? Or is it something that can be changed?

Exercise and anxiety sensitivity

The wide-ranging benefits of exercise are well-documented, from decreasing our risk of dying from various diseases and health conditions, to improving our mood, boosting our energy, and improving our sleep.

Exercise also has pretty significant “anxiolytic,” or anti-anxiety effects, and is often recommended by psychologists as a way to manage anxiety (click here for a recent study that makes a compelling case).

A number of studies (here’s a particularly interesting one) have also found that aerobic exercise appears to reduce not just generalized anxiety that we might experience on a day to day basis, but anxiety sensitivity too.

Meaning, exercise could potentially help us be less reactive to those physiological changes under pressure, and help us keep them from spiraling out of control.

Admittedly, this hasn’t been studied much in the context of performance anxiety and elite performance (to my knowledge), so I may be stretching things a bit. However, a recent British study of conservatory-level musicians did find that the fitter musicians in the study appeared to perceive less anxiety after a stressful performance.

So, while the evidence connecting exercise and fitness to better performing under pressure may not be conclusive, it is rather suggestive, especially if every little advantage counts.


Remember those conservatory students I mentioned earlier whom I often saw working out at the gym?

These examples prove nothing of course, but if nothing else, it’s always nice to come across examples that go against the stereotype of the unathletic musician…

1) The intramural soccer team which won the intramural championship my freshman year was composed (ha!) primarily of music students. One of the team’s captains and best players went on to become the second violinist of a prominent Grammy Award-winning string quartet, and eventually, a faculty member at the conservatory.

2) Another conservatory student I often saw lifting weights at the gym is now the first violinist of yet another renowned award-winning string quartet. The cellist in that same quartet played on the varsity tennis team in college.

3) Yet another regular at the gym has since run the Chicago, St. Louis, and New York City marathons, and is now a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Take action

How to start exercising is beyond the scope of this post, but regardless, the first step in making exercise a habit is to decide whether you think exercise and physical fitness is worth making time for in one’s life. What do you think – should exercise be an important part of a musician’s training?

(Incidentally, I’m particularly curious about those who lift weights. Historically, I think musicians have avoided resistance training, but I sense that this is changing, much like the old myth of how basketball players shouldn’t lift weights because they would get stiff and lose their shooting touch. If you do engage in resistance training, have you run into any music or performance-related problems or issues because of it?)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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43 Responses

  1. I can confirm that exercice makes a big difference. To me, at least, it did a huge one!
    I’ve been working out for one and a half year and I must say, I’m very glad and proud that I started exercising and that not only my body has gained some shape and strength (very important when playing an instrument – especially the cello or, even “worse”, double-bass), but also I feel that my mental state is just more “fit” and concentration has been increasing!! It is, though, extremely important to get enough sleep! Otherwise the muscles can’t regenerate themselves and concentration will suffer!
    By the way, I’ve never gone to the gym yet, but I’ve learned every single exercise I’ve been doing (with and without weights) by a german youtuber. Exercising itself requires a lot of concentration, too, since if you lack enough concentration, more or less serious injuries can happen!! (I.e. wrist strain! Very bad for musicians!)

  2. 1. seems like the most common reason given for not starting at a gym is fear of looking awkward…..truth is: everyone thinks everyone is looking at them so nobody is looking at anybody…..

    2. it doesn’t matter how much or little you lift…it helps

    3 don’t forget yoga for both flexibility and mind calming

    4. when i run (waddle), i leave the earplugs/music behind…..give the ears and the brain a break….good for getting perspective back….

  3. I was on the track team in college and I believe it really helped me with form while playing violin, more than anything else. My coach was very much into lifting weights properly so you don’t hurt yourself, and competing properly so you don’t injure yourself and can perform even better the next time. This carried over into my performance and practice to some extent! The funny thing is that my violin teacher did NOT like the idea of me lifting weights as he believed my shoulders would become too bulky to hold my violin properly! That never happened!

    1. Interesting. It’s encouraging to hear that lifting can be a helpful part of a violinist’s training. I think sometimes we worry way too much about our fingers, and getting too tight.

  4. I used to think it was “bad”, especially resistance training. A couple of years ago I tried to get into resistance trainig but as many others, I was afraid of concequences (which I thought I experienced). I did run in periods but didn’t think of how that changed performance.Then last year I took a break from music for personal reasons and happened to started with resistance training (I felt weak). Now playing again I feel I’ve better stamina, relaxation and control over my muscles. But most importantly my posture is better. What I experienced as “bad” for my technique some years ago was nothing more than a new stimulus, muscles feeling a pump, burn or whatever. Now I run almost everyday. It clears my head through out the day leading to easier concentration. So, yes I find it very very important, I view it as practice=)
    Love your blog!

  5. Let’s not forget the importance of exercise in injury prevention. If your muscles and connective tissues are strong and flexible, you are less susceptible to things like carpal tunnel syndrome (anecdotal evidence only, but I’m sure science will catch up). Wind players will certainly benefit from a strong core, but any musician can achieve better posture and alignment through exercise. And of course, those of us who play the bigger, heavier instruments like percussion, tuba and bass will thank themselves for being strong (and so will their backs!).

  6. Great article! I’ll be sharing this one, for sure. I didn’t get serious about exercise and proper nutrition until I turned 60. But, improved strength, coordination, balance, good posture, endurance, cardio-vascular health and general well being can’t help but improve one’s musical performance. As a vocalist, cardio exercise has a direct impact on improved breathing and lung capacity. I especially like your observations about anxiety sensitivity and I also believe that the improvement in self confidence that comes from getting in better physical condition does carry over to standing before an audience. Of course, there are many fine and professional musicians who are over weight, but even they don’t know how much better they would feel, what adverse health issues could be avoided and how many productive years could be added to their life if they were in better condition.

  7. Yes! Of course playing music is a physical activity. It just happens to be very specific to fine motor skills of the fingers. Other kinds of exercise–cycling, running, dancing (I love dance!)–are great ways to keep the whole body engaged. I’ve also been doing Pilates which can be a great way of integrating inner core muscles if you can find an instructor who has a good understanding of the underlying principles. Pilates uses weights in an intelligent way. Although I don’t remember her discussing exercise per se, the author of A Soprano On Her Head reminds us how essential movement is to the playing of music–I highly recommend it.

  8. I’m a conservatory pianist and I definitely do my share of resistance training. Cardio training is great, and I definitely notice a boost in concentration and learning ability when I’ve gone for a run or done something equivalent (after all…neurogenesis), but resistance training is absolutely critical for my performances. Having upper-body strength makes it comfortable to sit at the bench every day. It makes it easier to perform pyrotechnical jumps with accuracy and ease. It’s meant that I have more control over my sound.

    It also makes it easier to walk on stage. Feeling good about how one looks really makes a difference. Before I started working out, I felt flabby and awful when I walked on stage. It was uncomfortable to sit through an entire concerto. But now that I focus on the whole body aspect of my playing, it makes an enormous difference in my practice and performance.

  9. I have been cross fitting for 3 1/2 years now, and before that, I did yoga and ran almost religiously. I definitely think that playing is improved by lifting weights because, if you are doing it right, it reinforces good posture and positioning for when I play. That’s anecdotal of course, but I’ll still do it. The only time I have hindered my playing is if I tear a callus from doing pull ups. Then i have to play pretty gingerly around it for a day or two. Anytime before a big event, I either wear gloves, or abstain from the pull-ups on that workout.

    1. I have a violinist friend who also is into crossfit, and have recently come across a professional percussionist who is into powerlifting, so it seems that more “hardcore” lifting is by no means off-limits to musicians, if done right…

      1. Just re-visiting this excellent piece as part of the 2014 review.

        I am a freelance Horn player, I believe Horn players “hold” the heaviest instrument. Anything larger is supported on the body or by straps or pegs. We play for hours with the full weight of the instrument held off the knee.

        I powerlift and train with body weight resistance for strength and cardio. This really helps with the physical toll of playing, supporting a strong back, core and legs BUT more importantly for me, gym training is performance training. I use it as an opportunity to challenge my mind in the same way I come under pressure in performance.

        It is a wonderful opportunity to take my consciousness and intent away from feelings of physical discomfort (performance anxiety!) and focus on a greater goal (musical expression and repetition of all the good work done in the practice room). It also associates a truckload of endorphins with visioning successful perfoance outcomes so I’m also using my body’s chemistry to trick my mind and body not to respond so aggressively when under pressure.

        Good luck with your journey to mind and body balance.

  10. As a harpist, I don’t know how I could continue to play my instruments WITHOUT exercise. The arm, shoulder and core routine that I’ve developed keeps me in playing shape. Playing an instrument is exercise in and of itself but you really need to have a balanced program to prevent injury.

    I always love your blog!

  11. I would share this article on twitter but for the photo you have chosen. I worked as a personal trainer while I was building my teaching practice, and this is not an image that will inspire people to take up resistance training. It is a lift gone bad. Resistance training is very beneficial to musicians of all ages when properly taught. It is well worth the price of a few training sessions to get set up properly with good form and program that enables you to progress carefully.

  12. Being a clarinet player myself, I have found that running is very helpful. When running, I naturally take deep, quick breaths, and knowing how it feels to breathe like that allows me to improve breathing when playing. Before I discovered this, I had a tendency to constrict my throat and/or tighten my chest when inhaling, but this has mostly corrected that problem.

  13. Cardio is one of the most effective ways to get the voices in my head (anxiety driven thoughts) to leave me alone!
    A few miles on the track during the week of a big recital or concert do wonders for me.

  14. It’s all true! Exercise accomplishes so many wonderful things, that being a better musician is just icing on the cake. I have done running, biking, rowing, and resistance training for decades. Lately I have mixed in sprints and interval training. One of the main benefits of all-out aerobic efforts (in contrast to say, walking or jogging) is that it seems to guarantee the endorphin “high.” I love having that kick right before a stressful performance! Try it!

  15. I’ve been doing Crossfit for over a year, and I am a better bass player because if it. Overall health and fitness are obviously critical for musicians; we rely on our bodies to move correctly in order to perform. Maintaining our body’s health will obviously help us be better musicians.

    Crossfit is big on weight training, among other things. I have never been injured, but I have heard of injuries happening as a result of improper technique. You have to take fitness seriously enough to do it RIGHT, otherwise it won’t work as effectively, and you could hurt yourself. I regard Crossfit as practice time, and I concentrate on it the same way I would concentrate on learning a new Afro-Cuban bass line.

  16. I do boot camp type exercise 5-6 times/week and am consequently fairly fit. I can’t say that it has reduced my tendency for situational anxiety, and I have plenty. I can see how Yoga might help. Exercise most definitely dispels anxiety once it is present.
    Your description of how anxiety progresses from increased heart rate to homelessness is hilarious and accurate. 🙂

  17. Nice article about exercise. I have been a runner all my life, and I find in does help me stay calmer and more “in the zone”. Weights and exercise like push-ups however I now have to be careful with, as that kind of muscle building exercise does seem to further inflame the chronic tendinitis I’ve developed from years of playing, practicing, and teaching the guitar. What’s bad about that is that I enjoy a little aneroebic exercise.

    Rob McDougle

  18. I’ve made music my whole life, professionally for the last twenty two years. Over time I developed severe shoulder and back issues which plagued me for close to a decade.

    I have always enjoyed the calming emptiness resulting from jogging in silence, but I reached a point when the pain was too severe for me to run anymore. Finally, eighteen months ago, I met a chiropractor who isolated my problem. It turns out my issues stemmed from weak core muscles. She prescribed a mild exercise regime. The effect was instantaneous.

    I was hooked and now exercising my core is a daily habit. The strength, stamina, improved posture and self confidence gained from daily exercise is priceless. Choosing not to exercise would be a disservice to myself and my art.

  19. I am a classical guitarist by profession, and I have been consistently lifting weights since I was 12. For the last year, I have been getting involved in competitive powerlifting even! I have no science to back this up, but I firmly believe that I have never had an injury from playing guitar BECAUSE I lift weights. I’ve watched my colleagues during undergrad and my masters get all kinds of wrist and hand injuries… Even neck injuries from playing. I think lifting weights helps protect me from injuries and hasn’t affected my speed or light touch at all. So I’m a big proponent of lifting weights! My professor from my masters program is coming off a serious wrist injury and hadn’t played in years. He’s had stem cell injections and all sorts of other drastic treatments, and none of them worked until ultimately he figured out that doing some light weight training was what really helped!

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