This month we’re going to explore the critically important relationship between the drum throne and the human body. Selecting an appropriate throne height is one of the most overlooked steps of setting up a drumset, yet it could have the greatest impact on your comfort and execution on the instrument.
I vividly recall when one of my favorite drummers posted a message online saying he was going to stop playing the drums because of back pain. He blamed the drumset for causing his back pain, but that was such a misguided notion. Of course, it’s possible to injure yourself playing drums, but only if you don’t respect the role that your specific body mechanics play in the process. Fortunately, if we take a few minutes to grasp a basic understanding of the internal components of the human body, we can dramatically decrease the likelihood of developing back pain due to improper throne height.
Joint pain can occur when we force a joint to do something that it isn’t capable of doing. Think of any joint (i.e., where one bone meets another) like a 200-pound magician lying on a bed of 200 nails. While it may seem like an impressive feat, basic mechanics tells us the magician is only dealing with one pound of body weight per nail when evenly distributed over all 200 nails. Our joints respond the same way to stress. Healthy joints distribute force evenly. But if we sit too low or too high on the throne, the bones will naturally start to apply pressure to one side of the joint over the other. That’s when pain starts to set in. Unfortunately, by the time you begin to experience pain, it’s often because the cartilage has been worn down to the point where the bones are rubbing against one another. This condition is called osteoarthritis.
By taking the time to learn how we should position ourselves on the drum throne, we’ll be able to protect our joints for the long term while also recognizing how to deal with current issues. Let’s start by examining what parts of the body are affected by sitting on a drum throne. From there, we’ll explore a simple assessment to help you determine exactly where you should be sitting to avoid aggravating current pain or causing new pain.
Before I delve into this topic any further, I have to emphasize that I’m not a doctor or pain specialist. I’m a drummer and a specialist in human mechanics. If you’re currently experiencing high-level back pain, and the upcoming suggestions don’t make a difference for you, I strongly advise you to connect with your primary doctor to talk further about the issue.
Now, let’s begin.
Drop the Dogma
Strictly adhering to cookie-cutter rules, such as sitting with your legs at 90-degree angles or keeping your shins perpendicular to the pedals, won’t do you any favors. Concepts like those have been handed down for generations, but they don’t take into consideration science or—more significantly—your individualized body structure.
What you need to figure out is how high you should sit given your personal joint structure and muscle system. Is it possible that you’ve simply cloned the setup of your favorite drummer? There are several legendary players who sit extremely low, but following their example may prove problematic for you down the road.
Understand and Respect Your Body
The hip is a ball-and-socket joint that has three degrees of freedom. One of the most important steps in determining your ideal drum throne height is to identify the shape of your hips and how much motion the joints will allow. The muscles across this system are commonly referred to as hip flexors. However, there are multiple tissues involved, including the psoas, TFL (tensor fasciae latae), and rectus femoris. The mechanical output of these tissues will determine how high you are able to raise each leg.
Pedal width is an important topic that will be explored in a future article. For now, set your throne at a medium height and sit down. With your feet flat on the ground and at a comfortable distance apart, slowly lift one knee up towards the ceiling. Check to ensure that your back does not move from front to back or side to side. Your weight should stay evenly distributed between your glutes and thighs. Relax and repeat the process with the other leg.
What did you observe? Can each knee be lifted to the same height? Or does one side have a greater range of motion than the other? As we get older, the structures in our back often change, so you might be able to lift one of your legs higher than the other. If you prefer to sit relatively low at the drumset, then the hip with the lowest range of motion will determine your throne height. If you find that you curve your lower back to allow the hip to flex, then your seat is positioned too low for optimum output.
Once you have an idea as to how high you can lift each leg, lower or raise your throne to find the most comfortable height that allows you to utilize a full range of motion without pushing your back and hips into positions that you can’t control.
The active range of motion assessment described previously is a great way to determine your ideal throne height. But can your active range of motion improve over time? Absolutely! By exercising your limbs within your active range of motion, you can see an increase in flexibility because you’re not pushing your joints into unnatural positions.
The following images will help you understand what happens if you sit too low or too high.
Sitting Too Low
In the first photo below, I’m sitting too low. The second photo shows what happens to the spine in this position. The lower lumbar spine is pushed into flexion from its normal curvature. It’s not a problem to be in this position on occasion. But when challenged to do so regularly, the structural integrity of the lower spine is decreased by 30 to 40 percent. This reduction in stability is often what leads to long-term injury. Repetitive motions, such as playing the bass drum and hi-hat with the feet, will eventually create friction in the lower back, which irritates the surrounding tissues and structures. No one wants that.
Sitting Too High
Now in the first photo below, I’m sitting too high. My spine is being pulled back into extension to help manage my balance on the throne. This extended position of the spine is shown in the second photo. Forcing the spine into extension will actually lead to an increase in structural integrity and compression. The challenge with this position, however, is that you may end up losing some range of motion because a few vertebrae could become locked. Trying to force excess movement into a locked joint will likely also cause irritation to the surrounding tissues.
Following the seat height principles outlined here might not completely eliminate back pain if you’re already experiencing it. But it should help you create a scenario where your body is working as well as it can within its current range of motion. See you next time!
Muscle and exercise specialist Brandon Green is the founder of Strata Internal Performance Center, and is the owner of the drummer-centric biomechanics and fitness website drum-mechanics.com.