Physical Training and Recovery for Bagpipers

Darrell is a pleasure to coach. In part because he’s willing to put in a sincere effort at whatever challenge he’s faced with in the gym, but also because he’ll laugh at my corny jokes.

One day in class I watched Darrell execute some beautiful Cossack squats. I was flabbergasted. I’d never seen him move like that. He went on to tell me about his past experiences with martial arts. I expressed my admiration for his movement, and he said:

“I would give up all of my martial arts knowledge for just a few more bagpipe tunes.”

That is probably the most unique thing I’ve heard in all my years of coaching.

My interest was piqued. I love watching people talk about or perform their passion. I want to see people happy, and encourage them in it. I knew Darrell played bagpipes, if only because he has a surprising number of bagpipe-related t-shirts, but I had no idea his love ran so deep until that moment.

I had to know more. We got to talking about his practice. Specifically, what sort of exercises a bagpiper might need to counteract the repetitive stress of their particular instrument. One thing led to another, and now we’ve got a basic fitness plan for you bagpipers out there!


THE PLAN

From the few that I’ve talked to, it seems that many bagpipers don’t make a lot of time for exercise. Or if they do, it’s of a more general sort. And there aren’t any that I’ve spoken to who spend time doing specific, targeted mobility or strength drills to recover from their sessions.

This simply will not do.

The truth is that just about every hobby and vocation out there has some form of repetitive stress. General physical preparedness (what many people might describe as being basically “in shape”) is important to maintain, but following a general plan will only bring you general results. If you want something that makes you better by leaps and bounds, you need to personalize. You should consider what your most common physical activities and bodily positions are, and work to support those positions and recover from them. If you don’t, any dysfunction will only deepen.

Bagpipe players are the perfect group to serve as an example. Players come in all shapes, sizes, genders, backgrounds, ages, and states of health. But their positioning and physical issues are similar, owing to the demands of the instrument.

Common issues seen among bagpipers include:

  • Weak glutes
  • Weak feet
  • Poor shoulder flexion and scapular mobility (especially on the left side, where the bag is usually held)
  • Back pain
  • Limited neck mobility and thoracic extension

Of course, these are not absolutely universal. And there are other issues that are not necessarily as “urgent” to address, such as the way the hands tend to stay in slight extension for the duration of playing. All that to say that the drills we recommend below are not comprehensive, and are no substitute for working 1-on-1 with a coach on your specific needs.

But we’ve put this together as a starting point for the passionate bagpiper who wants to improve strength and mobility, decrease pain, and generally improve her or his playing and life.


EVERYDAY DRILLS

These drills can be performed at home in your spare time, before playing, after playing, or during breaks. All but one do not require any special equipment, nor do they take much time.

1. Shoulder figure 8 with straight elbow

Reach your arm out to the side, elbow straight, hand open, fingers spread. Draw a large figure 8 out at your side, leading with the thumb. After 3-5 reps, reverse the figure 8 and lead with the pinky instead. Focus on the upper, back portion of the figure 8 and take that especially slow, with extra attention.

Bonus: try doing both at the same time, either mirroring one another or doing oppositional directions.


2. Hinge with fingers laced behind the head

Stand tall, raise your arms, and lace your fingers behind your head. Pull your elbows back to keep your chest open. Try not to pull against your head as that could strain your neck. Bend your knees slightly, and push your butt back while keeping your back straight. This is not a squat; the slight knee bend should not increase substantially throughout the movement. You can use a wall, tree, or other stationary object as a “target” to reach your butt towards. Do not round your back.

Bonus: Hawaiian squat variation. While standing, cross one leg over the other in a figure 4 position. Then hinge backwards as described above.


3. Side bend with leg cross

Reach one foot behind you, toes pointed away. Reach that same arm overhead in the same direction as the foot. Make a nice big arc through your side, trying to connect your body from the tip of your toes to your fingertips. Try to reach up just as much as you’re reaching to the side. Depending on how you shift your weight, you’ll feel the stretch in your obliques, back, hips, and legs. Try it as a hold or as repetitions. You can use a nearby pole or wall for additional leverage.


4. Closed chain hip capsule circles

Spread your feed wide. Focusing on one hip at a time, move your hips in a circle so that the head of your femur (thigh bone) moves within the socket through its outer range. Try figure 8s and other movements, as well.


5. Wall bridge traverse

With your back to a wall or tree, feet facing forward, rotate your torso to place your fingers on the wall. Keep your elbow bent, and turn it up towards the sky. As your shoulder rotates in the socket, straighten the elbow a little more. Try to open your armpit and chest as much as possible.


6. Banded pass-throughs

If you have the space in your bag for a small band, get one. It should be relatively light, such as the lowest weight available here. (It doesn’t have to be this particular brand — Amazon has tons of these and they’re mostly all the same.)

Hold the band with both hands, engage outward slightly, and bring the band from front to back slowly while keeping the arms straight. If you can’t keep your arms straight, move further out on the band until you can. Take your time on this one — you’ll get way more out of it if you move slowly and well rather than quickly and sloppy.


KEY EXERCISE FOR BUILDING STRENGTH

Dan John often speaks about two of the biggest holes in most people’s training.

The first is squatting to full depth. I mean, generally most people don’t do enough squatting. It’s such an essential movement that it gets discussed in every single article of this sort. There are plenty of great resources for squatting, so here I’ll just say SQUAT MORE AND BETTER.

But for this section I’m going to focus mostly on the second item he mentions. (And the one that’s more appropriate for doing in a kilt.) Weighted carries. Simply pick up something heavy and take a walk.

This is the bagpiper’s best friend for building the kind of strength that will not only help you recover from long sessions, but will also reinforce your body to better handle future ones. Get your band together to do heavy walks with sandbags on your days off, and watch as everyone’s posture and breathing improves.

Key things to remember with weighted carries in this context especially:

  • Bagpiping has its roots in military tradition. So treat your training with similar respect. Heft the bag onto your shoulder and take a walk. Both sides will need the work for different reasons. Keep the place slow enough to maintain balance and control, and stay as straight through the torso as you can.
  • Weight used is going to depend on the individual. It should be heavy enough to make jogging difficult and challenge your breathing, but not so heavy that it makes you sag through the spine or experience distinct pain. Sensory rich is fine, pain is not ideal.
  • You can either pick a distance, such as one lap around a regular high school track, or walk for a certain amount of time. Say, three rounds of 1 minute heavy carries, with a minute rest between each. Gradually increase the time, distance, and weight.
  • Perhaps most importantly: don’t overthink it. Just pick something up that’s a little heavy for you and take a walk. It doesn’t have to be some perfectly calibrated pattern of weight, reps, time, etc.

I would also recommend spending some time with the sandbag tucked under your non-playing arm to balance things out. By squeezing with the heavier sandbag you can get your non-playing side balanced out.

For the purposes of this article and practice, I had Darrell carry a 50 lb. sandbag. The type of bag is not important. You can find specialty training sandbags on any number of websites. But at Agatsu NC, we simply bought several canvas toolbags from Amazon and bags of sand to stuff inside. It helps to wrap the inside sandbag in duck tape so the it stays tight and doesn’t burst if you drop it.

If you want to mix things up further, try some squats while holding the bag to your chest. Maybe not in your kilt in public, though.


WANT MORE?

In this post we just wanted to provide a starting point. We had the hardest time trimming this down to just a handful of exercises!

If you like all of the above and want to learn more, it helps to know what you need as a bagpipe player. Look for exercises that improve the following:

  • Glute strength, all over — work that booty
  • Finger extension
  • Wrist flexion
  • Elbow extension
  • Shoulder flexion
  • Scapular mobility
  • Thoracic extension
  • Hip and knee flexion
  • Ankle plantar flexion (pointing your toes)

Also there’s one area that deserves special attention: feet. While bagpiper shoes look pretty great, they’re not the best for overall foot health. Get those feet and ankles moving freely as often as possible.


THE MAN

Darrell is 58 and has been playing bagpipes since 2001. He’s been competing solo since 2007, and with NCSU Pipes and Drums for 10 years.

Want to hear more bagpipes in North Carolina? From Darrell:

The best way to see and hear more bagpipes is to go to  Highland Games. Loch Norman Highand Games is in Rural Hill just north of Charlotte on April 13th-14th. Bethabara Celtic Festival is in Bethabara Historical Park just north of Winston-Salem on May 4th. In Maryville Tennessee we will play at the Smoky Mountain Highland Games on May 18th. The big event is Grandfather Mountain Highland Games on the Mountain July 12-14. All these and other events can be viewed on www.euspba.org. As usual I play most school days at the corner of Minerva & Duke St. from 12:00-12:30. The band practices at Fairmont Methodist Church in Raleigh 2501 Clark Ave., on Tuesday nights from 7-9 pm. Visitors and potential players always welcome.


I wanted to write a little something silly for April fool’s day, but the content itself is no joke. Our goal is to offer real, simple, effective, and immediately practicable training personalized for for your lifestyle and goals. Whether your hobbies include music, martial arts, CrossFit, or anything, really — we want to help you get fit in the way that allows you continue doing the things you love. Even if (or maybe especially if) the majority of your time is spent sitting, we can help. Come try a free class at Agatsu NC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina!