Training Your Lip For Endurance

Your lip is a muscle. And understanding the physiology of that muscle can help you play better - and longer.

In another post, I wrote about a concept sometimes referred to as "muscle memory." You can read that post if you click this link; but essentially, muscle memory is a term that refers to your body and brain forming connections so that your body "remembers" how to do certain motions.

Essentially, according to Wikipedia, muscle memory is "a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.”

In other words, muscle memory is how your body turns your practice sessions into "not wasted time" if you do it right, and "somewhat wasted time" if you practice wrong, because your body remembers the form and the detail of what you practice as much as the course motor movements. It really is worth a read.

Watch out for fatigue and how it can hurt you to practice when you're too tired.

One of the topics I addressed in that post was the importance of not practicing beyond your "fatigue limit," especially when working on tricky stuff - like trying to hit low notes when your lip is really tired. The reason is that in a case like that, your body is going to start to do all kinds of things (little things, but all working together against you) to compensate for the fatigue to try to get those notes out anyway, but if you can't control what you're doing, you're not going to control how the body remembered (wrongly) how to do it that last time you practiced when you were tired.

So the question is: is there any trick to help you develop more endurance? The short answer is "yes."

More...

It is fascinating sometimes to see what you can learn from someone who is both passionate and knowledgeable in his or her field. And I hit on a "secret" (it was a secret to me until I asked my favourite trainer) that I have found has helped me significantly with developing endurance in my lip in a way slightly different from the mantra of  "just practice, practice, practice."

It just so happens I have a bit of a fitness guru built into the family. 

One of my sons - Josh Dech, of "Aftermath Fitness," is a personal trainer. He deals with a lot of what you would call, "high end" clients. He knows his stuff. If you look at his web site, you'll see that his clients hold a combined total of 16 world records in their respective weight-training categories.

Not everyone can say that.

I don't think the kid is much more than about 200 pounds. But he's a lean, strong 200 pounds. I've seen him pick up almost 800 pounds off the floor.

Not everyone can do that.

Let's just say Josh knows his stuff.

We discussed the specific issue of the endurance of the lip from the perspective of muscle endurance and recovery.. 

What Josh and I worked out as an exercise has really helped me. It really is fascinating stuff. And I've been doing this for a little while now. And the results are notable.

So what's the gig? Actually, in the end, it's pretty simple, really. But if you're like me, understanding WHY something works gives it some perspective. 

So, it seemed to me that rather than just giving my two cent's worth as to what I do, I would give you here a little context: a "rough transcription" of a conversation I recorded with Josh about this issue of muscle endurance, with a bit of revision and editing to help fill in some gaps. I would have posted the recording but it is very noisy (done with my iPhone in a car at 70 MPH). So...

Here is the (sort of) transcribed conversation about how to maximize muscle endurance and recovery of the lip...

Me: the problem I have with sax sometimes, Josh, is if I don’t practice, my lip has a problem with endurance. We talked before about this issue of muscle recovery and what exercise, if any, I could do to increase my lip endurance as a sax player.

Josh: any capacity of exercise will help develop endurance. Essentially, muscle strength and endurance is built as a factor of the muscle being under tension over time. Working the muscle with different amounts of stress over different amounts of time will cause the muscle to develop a greater ability to recover and to endure for longer periods of time.

Me: As I remember, instead of just practicing for an hour, we concluded that I should sometimes do an exercise of clamping tightly for 60 seconds several times through, releasing and giving a minute for recovery, followed by another round of clamping tightly for 60 second windows of time. But I'm trying to understand the physiology and how we got to that conclusion. 

How does this exercise relate to the issue of muscle recovery and endurance of the lip?

Josh: Everything works with the energy systems in the body. Your body has different “energy systems” to deplete. The muscle recovers after stress by means of different recovery systems working together. So rather than burning them out all at once, if you work the muscle a little - deplete it a little, and allow it to recover, you’re boosting your muscle’s ability to recover by means of drawing on these different energy systems in the lip muscle.

​​​​There are different types of muscle in the body - slow twitch muscles and fast twitch muscles. Your lip is the first kind. It is made up of slow twitch muscle fibre. 

Josh: the two different types of muscle are recovered and restored differently. They draw on different combinations of the energy recovery systems in your body. Your lip muscle is "slow twitch" muscle.

Me: an example of slow vs. fast muscle?

Josh: slow twitch vs. fast twitch is speed vs. endurance. Dark meat vs white meat on a chicken. The dark meat is the fast twitch muscle. They run like crazy when they need to. Bursts of speed.

Most muscles in the face are “slow” muscles. There is slow muscle and fast muscle. Dark meat and white meat. The fast muscle is the hamstrings, the glutes. These are the muscles that would be like the cheetah. Run at 60 mph to kill that sucker. Fast muscle isn't built for endurance. It's built for fast blasts of speed and/or strength. Like lifting the couch with one hand because your kid got his head stuck under it.

Me: Funny thing. I know that if I'm tired, even cutting notes in a phrase a half beat short at the end will allow my lip to "recover" and buy me some playing time before I'm done.

Josh: So part of the problem with the lip muscle is developing that muscle’s ability to recover. That is why, when you’re playing long amounts of time, you can last longer even just by cutting the notes that half beat short on the end. If you allow the muscle a little recovery between notes, it allows your lip muscle to draw on one of the other "energy systems" that will help get you through. 

Your lip was never designed for marathon running any more than the rest of you was.

Me: I remember one time I did a studio session for a guy who wanted me to play a "pad" on my sax throughout this one song. NO rests. CONSTANT playing. And my lip wasn't in great shape for lack of practice at the time. After two takes on that song, I was DONE for a half hour.

Josh: Yes. That would have been "iron man training for your lip." Extreme endurance training. But the longer you work the muscle - the more you train it to contract and relax, contract and relax - for longer periods of contraction and shorter periods of relaxation, the more you “train” those muscles to recover more quickly in those windows where you are taking the rests. But you do have limits.

Me: So let me see, now, looking back at the time we discussed this previously. I guess the idea was that if it takes 40% of maximum "lip strength" to contract the lip muscles to form the proper embouchure and I do that for 2 minutes, I want to give that lip muscle 100% contraction for 30 seconds because it is overall the same amount of “time under tension” because time under tension causes a muscle to “learn” how to recover better in those times of non-tension. Will that do it just as well?

Josh: yes and no. You see... the idea is that, like I said before, you want to tap into the different “energy systems.” He explained further....

Muscles recover differently depending on what type of exercise they went through, as well as what type of muscle they are.

There are different "energy systems," and different ways the muscles recover. Muscles recovery differently depending on the type of muscle they are; but they also recover differently depending on how they were depleted.

So, if you were to do  squats, holding at the lowered position for a period of 10 seconds of sustained tension and then stand again for 10 seconds and do that for a minute, your body and those muscles affected will use a different "energy system" than if you were to do 30 squats over a couple of minutes without the sustained stress. The recovery process is quite different, depending on the exercise and the type of muscle involved.

Your lip muscle will develop maximum endurance and recovery potential with more than one kind of "exercise."

Josh: And the fact is, your muscles do well to be trained in different ways so that they "learn" to maximize their use of these multiple types of "recovery systems" that your body uses to re-fuel and repair them.

Me: so in other words, if I do both the practicing long periods of time and the "clamping exercises" we talked about, it helps the lip recover better than just doing the one. 

Josh: exactly.

So, is it important for a marathon runner to do weight training? (And does your lip endurance benefit from more than one kind of "lip exercise?"

So then, my question to Josh was this: "is it important for a marathon runner to do strength training?"

Josh: absolutely.

Me: why?

The answer surprised me and made me realize why every wind instrumentalist should to this lip exercise.

(And I'm writing this post specifically explaining the why so people can appreciate the "why" enough to do it so they can have the same benefit I have had from doing the exercises.)

Anyway, hear it from the guru. You might find this fascinating. I sure did.

Josh: the problem with only doing distance running and not strength training is that it will deteriorate or eat away or burn up a lot of the muscle (actually cause atrophy) in the muscles because the body deconstructing the "excess" muscle improves the muscle recovery. Putting a constant demand on the muscles to perform feats of extraordinary endurance causes the body to go to drastic measures to maximize the ability to recover muscles from the types of exercise they were never intended to do. 

​Part of the thing with muscle is that it eats calories just to sustain itself. Constantly (and only) doing endurance exercise causes the body to de-construct "unused" muscle.

A lot of muscle mass eats a lot of calories just to “survive.” So constantly (and ONLY) working for endurance will force the body to take down that unnecessary muscle so that it doesn’t have to waste a lot of the muscle recovery system sustaining that “unused” muscle. It makes the body much more efficient for the primary purpose it detects that it is having to support, which, in the case of the endurance runner, is endurance.

In other words, you don’t take a car with a V-12 engine from Detroit to Toronto when you could do it with a 4-cylinder if the objective is to save gas. If you’re endurance training, you’re teaching your body that you need to go a thousand miles on a 5 gallon tank, so re-adjust the body to maximize mileage and therefore reduce the amount of “fuel consumption” required.

The body is great at adaptation. The more you do something, the more your body will adapt and compensate to make you better at it. So...

If endurance running is what your body determines is the goal, the more it will maximize energy recovery for the long haul; it does this at the “cost” of “deteriorating" unused muscle.

Josh: In other words, if the body senses that the muscle mass is "waste" because it is never called on for strength, and the only demands are always ever "endurance," then the body will deconstruct the unused bulk because it helps in the overall determined goal of maximizing recovery for long distance running.

Me: So in other words, the marathon runner, by never doing weight training, is not helping his other goal of being able to lift the couch off his kid in the living room with one hand if the need should ever arise….

Josh: Essentially, yes. Look at the physique of Bolt who is a sprinter vs a marathon runner. Bolt maximized his phyisique for sprinting - cheetah - vs marathon running.

​There was actually a study where they took identical twins and one was a marathon runner; the other was a truck driver. When they did an analysis of their muscles, the truck driver actually had better muscle QUALITY than the muscle quality of the marathon runner."

Me: Really? Better muscle quality meaning what?

Josh: Less wear and tear. Think of a car with 100,000 miles on it vs one with 5.000 miles on it. That being said, a car that has sat for 10 years not being driven might have trouble starting. You need to remember that we are talking about a very specific aspect of muscle here which is the aspect of muscle recovery - specifically in relation to your lip endurance.

The point is that the human body has a remarkable ability to adapt to many things. But the fact is that it is just not designed for marathon running. It is designed like a lion or a cheetah. Short bursts of energy with long rests in between. A lion takes down a gazelle every 10 to 14 days but it can jump and kill that sucker when it needs to.

Me: So back to the endurance of the lip...

Because the lip is “slow muscle” it is designed for "endurance running" rather than "sprinting." But if I force it to sprint occasionally, it helps trigger other “alternative recovery systems” to be more activated in the muscle system, so that when I activate it, it has "more than one card to play," so to speak.

Josh: Yes. Yes. Both slow and fast muscle be “trained” to work a little differently than their original intention. A fast twitch muscle can have its endurance built up. A slow twitch muscle can have its power built up. 

In other words, I can’t take a sports car and turn it into a luxury sedan but there are things I can do to make it more “comfortable.” Similarly, you can beef up a luxury car a little to survive rough roads a little better, with some trade-offs.

But with your lip muscle (slow twitch muscle) and specifically in relation to endurance and recovery, some "strength training" will make it more versatile and more able to recover from the multiple types of recovery systems the body has.

So what is this magic recipe? What is this secret sauce that helps me play better and longer without being able to practice for hours every day?

The secret sauce

  • Your lip is a muscle.
  • Your best muscle tone is built by a combination of exercises.
  • You need "sprinting" lip exercises 
  • You need the medium-length exercises from regular playing and practicing.
  • long tones are good, as they force the muscle to also draw on different "recovery systems" than just playing and resting.
  • think of the regular practicing as the foundation, but add some "clenching" exercises in there too.
  • To do the clenching exercises I do: hold your mouthpiece or even a pen (like a bit and bridle - between your lips) and squeeze - try for twice the squeeze your typical embouchure takes, and hold that until you have to quit.
  • Do that about 5 or 6 times, giving a good 5 minutes to rest in between "reps.".

It might sound a little odd. But I will tell you that the result for me has been quite noticeable. I've been able to play for longer stretches lately even though much of my "lip endurance" has been developed not by practicing for hours on end, with the typical durations of pauses between exercises, or the pauses between songs on a gig. It has been helped to do those things better by exhausting the lip occasionally with long tones at the end of a rehearsal (extreme "marathoning" my lip) and also by occasional rounds of "power working" my lip muscle while driving - doing the clenching exercises - maybe 5 sixty-second stints, with 5 minute rests in between, while driving to and from different spots.

Trust me. It's worth a try. The kid worked through this with me and we kind of brainstormed together. The "interview" was just so I could remember the "why" enough to share it with my readers.

Do it for a month or so, and see the difference it makes. And as usual, your feedback is appreciated. Let me know if it works for you or if there is anything I can clarify. I always love hearing from my readers.

Don't forget to check out the other post on "muscle memory." It's funny to me but it's almost gone "viral" among some people in various martial arts groups because it makes an apparently good point about the importance of accuracy in practice.

Check it out here! And let me know what you think! Thanks.

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