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 11/2-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," researcher Marcus Smith wrote on their Web site, clemburkedrummingproject.com.
Smith recently told the Guardian in London, "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, in the 1990s, drummer for the 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.
"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."
"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. They are going for the fastest speed humanly possible."
Johnston, who shoots instructional exercise videos for drummers, says either light weights or non-weight-bearing exercises are needed to build up drummers' arms, shoulders and legs.
"Your forearms swell up and lock up on you," Johnston 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.
Heart-Racing Drum Playlist
We asked Sacramento drummer Tim Metz, who has played with rock and jazz bands, to compile a workout list of songs that drummers can play to increase their cardiovascular fitness.
1. "Yellow" by Coldplay: "Good warm-up song."
2. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day: "Continues with warm-up; a little heavier-hitting, though."
3. "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel: "Getting faster, not as heavy-hitting."
4. "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon: "Good, hard-hitting tune."
5. "Everlong" by the Foo Fighters: "Good endurance tune."
6. "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" by Nirvana: "Up-tempo and hard-hitting."
7. "Apocalypse Please" by Muse: "Exciting song to play a little slower, but adrenaline pumping."