by Bryan Cahill
Is gravity getting you down? Have you taken a look in a mirror or at a photo recently and thought, “I really need to straighten up”? Whether the bulk of your work is as a Mixer, Microphone Boom Operator, or Utility Sound Technician, we are all susceptible to postural deviations that can lead to more serious conditions.
Now, I’ve always been aware of my own fitness level, trained as much as time will allow and tried to take care of my body. Even so, this has not always prevented me from injury on and off the job.
As Chair of the Injury Prevention Committee at I.A.T.S.E. Local 695, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking particularly about how Boom Operators might avoid injury in a world with takes lasting twenty, twenty-five, and thirty minutes or more.
We need a three-pronged approach that includes devices such as the exoskeleton, contractual obligations, and corrective strength training. I’ve written a few articles on devices and will give an update on that approach soon. In spring of this year, the Safety Awareness Sheet for Long or Successive Takes became Safety Bulletin #45. I thank our leadership for spearheading what was an arduous and lengthy negotiation, yet I believe excessive takes is an issue that must be addressed in our next basic agreement.
Finally, there is corrective strength training which is the subject of this article.
Due to the constant work with our hands at shoulder height or higher, Boom Operators are susceptible to a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS. It is a term used to describe a group of disorders that occur when there is compression, injury, or irritation of the nerves and/or blood vessels in the lower neck and upper chest. While our work already puts us at risk of developing TOS, that risk is exacerbated when combined with upper crossed syndrome (UCS) which is another condition that can be caused by our line of work.
According to WebMD: When the muscles of your shoulders, neck, and chest are out of balance—that’s called upper crossed syndrome… When your shoulder, neck, and chest muscles do not work together as they should, the results can be quite noticeable and painful for you.
Having TOS and/or UCS can present real-life dangers for your long-term health. Symptoms can include chronic pain in your back or neck, numbness in your hands, and on and on. Many of those conditions will also interfere with your ability to work and can lessen your quality of life.
Severe cases may even need corrective surgery. Stephen Strasburg, the fireballer for the Washington Nationals, recently had a rib and two neck muscles removed to relieve TOS.
The good news is that in most cases, TOS, UCS, shoulder impingement, and other disorders can be fixed or prevented without surgery. Just as muscles and joints have been trained through years of misuse, they can be retrained to find the correct resting position and this is where Luke Kelly comes in.
Luke is a Boom Operator/sound guy-turned-personal trainer. While working on a show in icy conditions, he tore a muscle rescuing sound gear from collision with a sliding truck.
Compensating for the injury led to a shoulder impingement which put him out of commission for eight months, at which time he decided to change the course of his career. According to Luke, “I myself had a career-altering preventable shoulder injury. I was very fortunate to have skills to fall back on, but not everybody does.” Although he still does some sound work, his steady gig is as a corrective strength training specialist and owner of Elemental Movement Personal Training. With experience both as a personal trainer and as a Boom Operator, Luke has unique insight regarding the type of strain we endure and how best to train our bodies.
Luke and I found we have the common goal of helping Boom Operators avoid injury and work relatively pain free, possibly extending careers and avoiding surgery which brings me back to the question I asked at the top of the article.
I looked at a photo of myself and saw my shoulders rounded forward: an indicator of upper crossed syndrome. I also deal with chronic pain in my hips, ankles, and feet from years of standing so many hours each day. So, I proposed that Luke design a program around me and I’d write about my experiences.
Luke and I meet over Zoom for an assessment of my current physical state documenting fifty-nine years of injuries starting at my feet and working up. I state my goals as correcting my posture, increasing flexibility, and decreasing pain. Luke agrees and says those are our goals for the first year!
I attend a Zoom workshop Luke is holding specifically for Boom Operators. He goes through the anatomy of the shoulder and demonstrates stretches, exercises, and movements with names like Wall Angels and Dolphin Press. It is great information but too much to absorb at once. Fortunately, Luke records the session and I review it many times so I can get a head start doing some of the routine on my own.
In my first private session over Zoom with Luke in Michigan and me in my Los Angeles office, we stuff as much into an hour as possible. My space is a little small but we make do. The session is challenging, requiring a great deal of concentration to maintain correct shoulder position throughout the tiring routine. And that is the point. As we become more fatigued, maintaining proper form (form that prevents injury) becomes increasingly difficult.
I continue the sessions with Luke’s expert tutelage once a week throughout the summer, sometimes in my office and other times from home very early in the morning before anyone else is out of bed. As I get stronger and more adept, Luke adds exercises and increases the difficulty.
Everything is interconnected and needs to be kept in balance. So some days, we concentrate on abdominal work and lower body exercises. A weakness or injury in one part of the body can lead to overcompensation injuries and other problems elsewhere.
On days in-between sessions, I incorporate many of the exercises into my daily routine and stay mindful not to over train some parts of my body to the detriment of others focusing on what I am doing and why. After each workout, I do my best to take notes but, my emphasis is on the doing not the note taking.
How do I measure success or progress? There is a device called a goniometer that is used for measuring the range of joints but it can be quite subjective when measuring range of motion. So, we measure improvement by eyeball and feel.
On some weeks, I seem to make significant progress while on others, I seem to remain the same or even regress. I don’t let this get me down because I know that progress is not linear. Instead of week to week, it is better to measure in longer time periods such as six months. Some temporary regression is natural and just part of the process. Two steps forward, one step back.
After working with Luke throughout the summer, we both become too busy to find time for our weekly meet-ups but I continue to incorporate what I’ve learned into my workouts. After six months, I can see improvements in my posture. I am definitely stronger through my upper back and I believe my pain has decreased.
I have always trained on my own but now understand how working with a personal trainer like Luke Kelly has been quite useful in assessing my strengths, weaknesses, and needs while keeping me on track and improving the efficiency of my workouts. While we don’t currently meet weekly, I do plan on checking in with Luke regularly to get an assessment.
The bad news for Boom Operators is that there is no magic pill. The difficult work required to stay healthy will never end. We will need to maintain a certain level of fitness and body awareness throughout our careers.
Once the pain is gone or minimized, what’s next? It’s time to set new goals. Maybe get back to some activities you enjoyed in the past but haven’t felt able to do recently or something new. As for me, I’m looking forward to training for a triathlon and more!
To summarize: Exercise, movements, and stretching can be extremely beneficial but are only part of the equation. Making your production aware of the Guidelines for Long or Successive Takes Safety Bulletin and requesting options such as Fisher booms and exoskeletons or extra crew members when necessary, will help you stay safe, healthy, extend your career, and defy gravity.