Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Rock Drummers = Top Athletes?

So says the BBC. Researchers tested oxygen uptake and heart rate for rock drummers, including Blondie’s Clem Burke. They concluded:

“It is clear that their fitness levels need to be outstanding – through monitoring Clem’s performance in controlled conditions, we have been able to map the extraordinary stamina required by professional drummers.”

and further,

“It is hoped that the results could help develop outreach programmes for overweight children who are not interested in sport.”


Hey, a study aimed right at the intersection of my avocations. Wonderful! I’ve been drumming for about 40 years and running/racing almost as long. While I agree that drumming, especially hard rock drumming, does require some effort and stamina, I would not classify the energy expenditure as anything near top athletic performance. Consider their numbers. Mr. Burke was tested as having a heart rate of 140 to 150 beats per minute with a peak of 190. That’s considerably higher than the resting HR of 70 for a typical male, but we don’t know what Mr. Burke’s HRmax is, and it’s the percentage of HRmax that counts. By comparison, if a runner has an HRmax of 210, 140-150 BPM would be considered an easy recovery run. For an older guy like me with an HRmax of around 180, that same rate represents something a bit harder, but it still doesn’t even qualify as a solid lactate threshold “tempo run”.

The researchers go on to comment that Mr. Burke played 90 minute sets, so these are sustained levels, not peaks. Further, they estimate that during an hour of concert playing he’d burn between 400 and 600 calories. Time for a few numbers from my own “personal experiment of one”. I weigh about 145 pounds and that means that I will expend roughly 100 calories per mile of distance running. My normal, every day pace is in the low to mid seven minute per mile range, so that yields around 800 calories expended per hour. And while the researchers make a big deal about drummers playing perhaps 100 concerts per year, I run every day. Sometimes twice, and averaging over 10 miles per day for months on end. And mind you, these are my “easy” runs. If I look at a race, the numbers are a bit more extreme. For example, I have run a local half-marathon (13.1 miles) twice in recent years with times of 1:16 and 1:17. In about an hour and a quarter, I’ve expended a good 1300 calories. Last year I ran the Boilermaker 15k (9.3 miles) in a shade over 54 minutes. Both of these examples show energy outputs way above the drumming numbers and I’m decidedly not a world class runner. Granted, I don’t do 100 races per year, but I certainly do a very large number of hard workouts per year which are well above my easy runs.

As a drummer, I know my practice sessions are nothing like my running workouts. Out of curiosity, several years ago I strapped on my HR monitor and sat down to see what I’d get. I had to drum in an exaggeratedly furious fashion in order to get my HR up to even my “easy run” HR, let alone a hard workout or race. In fact, on average, I’d say my drumming output is no higher than that of a brisk walk. To be fair, one of my goals as a drummer has been an economy of motion. I’m not a thrasher. I tend toward a more “jazz” approach to the kit, but still, I can bang it out if I need to and the numbers are just not there. I have also used my HR monitor while performing workouts on my bike and water running, and again, the drumming numbers do not compare.

While I receive great enjoyment from drumming, in no way would I expect it to keep me in nearly the same shape as running. It is undoubtedly better than watching TV or eating cupcakes, perhaps the equivalent of a brisk walk or easy bike ride, but it in no way rivals top athletic performance for energy output.

Comments

  1. #1 G. Williams
    July 22, 2008

    Interesting idea, tho. I played drums (mostly rock, some jazz and blues) for about 15 years. It definitely was a workout, but the kung fu class I’ve been taking since 1998 is more so–we do a lot of cardio.

    I’m a “jazzy” player, too; my teachers were all jazz drummers and favored economy of motion because you have more control and it’s better for your joints. You can see how much Max Weinberg’s style has changed since the early 80s, after he had to have surgery on his wrists…

  2. #2 natural cynic
    July 22, 2008

    There is one major difference that has not been mentioned – drumming is mostly an upper body exercise in contrast to running which is almost solely a lower body exercise. The differences in muscle mass involved in these two activities is significantly different. Running involves the largest muscles in the body: glutes, quads, hamstrings and gastrocs. Drumming involves comparatively smaller muscles: triceps, deltoids. lats and numerous lower arm muscles. The maximum oxygen uptake that can achieved doing arm ergometry is approximately 60% of the VO2max that can be achieved doing combined arm-leg ergometry and and about 70% of the VO2max with leg ergometry alone see here. Therefore, 600 cal/hr expended drumming compares favorably with 800 cal/hr running in terms of maximum effort.

  3. #3 JimFiore
    July 22, 2008

    Partly true. Apparently you’ve never seen a speed metal drummer with dual kick pedals. ;-)

    Personally, I’d like to see them test a large range of drummers under a variety of conditions. The accompanying video implies that the researchers picked up HR data from a Blondie concert. Now, how much of the HR elevation is due to the rush of being on stage and under hot lights versus aerobic output? As I mentioned, when I experimented with my own drumming using a commercially available HR monitor (a Polar), I had to thrash like a madman in order to get up to 75% of my HRmax (and yes, I have dual kicks). I can play for 30 minutes and not break a sweat which is something I cannot do with even the easiest of 30 minute jogs.

  4. #4 Bill from Dover
    July 22, 2008

    Why not combine both by simply being late for your gigs?

  5. #5 JimFiore
    July 22, 2008

    Bill, you don’t know many rock musicians, do you?

  6. #6 mxracer652
    July 22, 2008

    Ah, the noob days of “put on your HR monitor & see what kind of a workout you get doing ________” LOL

  7. #7 kemibe
    July 24, 2008

    Hey, I saw on letsrun.com that Phil Collins ran a 31:47 10K when he was 17. Oh, and Keith Moon and John Bonham both broke 2:00 for 880 yards, but these performances were considered drug-aided. Neal Peart could have ridden for Phonak in the Tour de France a few years ago but was busy with other projects.

    Finally, Tommy Lee ran a 15:19 5K, but that was in a three-legged race.

  8. #8 JimFiore
    July 25, 2008

    I seem to remember that Neal Peart rode a bike all over China back in the 1980’s.

  9. #9 Billy
    April 29, 2009

    they should run those tests on an extreme metal drummer like George Kollias of the band Nile. I am a drummer and I know that extreme metal drumming is way more phisicly demanding than rock drumming.

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