Physiology 101: How Our Feet Do What They Do
Since the development of double bass pedals, the sound of fast footwork has been incorporated into numerous musical styles such as funk, fusion, rock, metal, and progressive rock. Despite the fact that drummers have played double bass drums for many years, mastering this double bass drum technique can be extremely difficult. As a former athlete and saxophonist, I was well aware of the muscle mechanics and functions necessary to acquire skills needed to play a sport or an instrument. However, when I decided to learn to play the drums four years ago, I severely underestimated what it would take for me to develop the muscle memory and coordination necessary to move my four limbs independently while balancing on a small throne. Furthermore, learning to play sixteenth-note double bass patterns with my feet was an additional challenge.
While playing double bass may seem to be a routine movement to some, developing this skill requires our bodies to create thousands of neurological pathways to coordinate electrical signals from our brain to our extremities. Thousands of neuromuscular connections occur simultaneously to signal our legs to move in a synchronous movement pattern, using our trunk to balance, and moving our arms in a different movement pattern. Regardless of whether you play double bass heel-up, heel-down, or a combination of both, a number of leg muscles and muscle movement patterns need to be developed (see Fig. 1).
Whenever we discuss various playing styles, such as “heel-up” or “heel-down,” from an anatomical standpoint, we usually concentrate on which leg muscles function to allow us to perform these movements. What we commonly overlook is the group of muscles that are the base and support for all other muscles to function, which is referred to as the core.
These are the group of muscles defined as the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. There are 29 different muscles that make up the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. The core operates as an integrated functional unit, enabling the entire kinetic chain (muscles from the foot to the spine) to produce force, reduce force, and dynamically stabilize against force. A strong core provides optimum neuromuscular efficiency throughout the entire kinetic chain, allowing for maximum acceleration, deceleration, and dynamic stabilization during integrated movements.
There are predominately four muscle groups in addition to the core that work synchronously to permit the foot and ankle to move the drum pedal while playing heel down. In order to allow the beater to move away from the drumhead, the foot must point upward while the heel rests on the floor. To bring the foot upward, the foot elevators or dorsiflexors (anterior tibialis, peroneals) and toe extensor muscles are activated. In order to drive the beater into the drumhead, the foot must push downward while the heel stays on the floor. To push the foot downward, the foot depressors or plantarflexors (soleus) and the toe flexors are activated (see Fig. 2).
The muscle groups used to play heel up are slightly different than those used to play heel down. The predominant muscle groups necessary to play using this technique include the hip flexors (iliopsoas), the foot/plantar flexor muscles (soleus), and the foot elevators (anterior tibialis). These muscles also work in conjunction with the core musculature to maintain balance and trunk stabilization. The hip flexor muscles elevate the leg, bringing the foot off the pedal and releasing the beater from the drumhead. The foot flexor muscles push the foot down to depress the pedal, driving the beater into the drumhead. The anterior tibialis muscle eccentrically contracts (lengthens) to assist slow ankle and foot plantar flexion (see Fig. 3).
As you can see, double bass drum technique requires the core and various leg muscles to be trained and conditioned, regardless of the preferred technique. While conditioning as a drummer, keep in mind that the core is the basis for all your leg movements. Strengthening the core and trunk is vital for the drummer to play with speed and endurance.