Warm-up Exercises for a Guitar Player

Sounds strange but it helps

And it doesn’t involve scales or the use of a guitar!

Recently, I found the desire to play the guitar again after letting both my electric and acoustic pretty much collect dust for the last 10 years. One of the outcomes of getting back into playing is that I overdid it and played too much, too soon because it was so enjoyable. So now I have joint pain in the left hand (my fret-board hand) and a mild soreness in the elbow which has all the symptoms of tennis-elbow.

For that matter, my personal pain has the symptoms of arthritis or tendinitis where I have joint pain and find it difficult to bend the pointing and ring fingers if I don’t do some simple warm-up exercises before playing either guitar. I must admit, I prefer the electric especially since I have gone to medium gauge flat wound strings (stays in tune much better as well). I find I play better than I have ever in my life and won’t let a little pain stop me but I have found a series of simple stretching and other exercises that make the pain virtually disappear while I am playing.

It seems that nerves, tendons, ligaments and muscles in the forearm, wrist area, palm and fingers all want to find ways to get shorter and in each other’s way after playing the guitar for an extended period of time. Sometimes I can barely make a fist with my left hand since the fingers won’t close due to various points of discomfort and tension. So it makes sense to rid one of these problems and warming up makes this so.

Start with this simple exercise and also do it in between each stretching exercise. Simply rub your hands together vigorously like those guys at the gambling tables that think they are going to win big and stop just short of starting a fire. The obvious outcome here is that you are increasing blood flow and warming the tissue in your hands. You will feel the effect quite quickly and you should see some improved flexibility because of this simple repetitive task.

Once we get some improvement in flexibility of the finger joints, we want to work on the forearms and wrists. Here is a simple exercise that can be done sitting down on your guitar stool or while on the seat in your favourite reading room (aka the bathroom). Simply rest your forearms on top of your legs, make two fists (palms down) and roll your wrists up and down numerous times to stretch a lot of things in our arms and hands. Now roll your arms over so your palms are facing upwards and do wrist curls up and down to continue with the stretching procedure. Remember to do the hand rubbing thing first. Playing the guitar might not make you rich monetarily but you will certainly be guaranteed to be a richer person for having taken up the art of music.

Another exercise to help with flexibility is to tuck your elbows against your stomach and hold your hands together like you were praying (to be a better guitarist will work) and fan out your fingers while creating a small amount of pressure against each opposite finger. Now work the hands together, to the left and right, so that one hand is bending the other backwards. Do the hand rubbing thing again and move your elbows up and out so they are close to shoulder level. Now roll your hands towards your chest and then away from your chest keeping the pressure of each finger against its opposite counterpart with fingers fanned out.

The fretboard hand seems to need added attention and this pair of exercises seems to help the wrist and loosen up the finger joints. Extend your fretboard hand out like you were holding the steering wheel of your car and make a fist. Now make a series of rotation scoops just like you were scooping ice cream (counterclockwise for me). And the rotate in the opposite direction like you were hitting one of those ball-on-a-string-paddle things. You should feel both of these in your forearm muscle, wrist and the back of your hand.

Now do the hand rubbing thing again and finish with the cat stretch which is nothing more than extending your arms out in front of you with fingers fanned out and reaching out as far as you can. Yawning and stretching your tongue out as far as it can go is optional but not for cats, it seems.

I wear a bicycle riding glove (padded leather palms) that helps with keeping the hand warm but is very useful for this way of providing heat to the hand joints. I take a Pyrex cup (4 cup size) and boil water in it in the microwave (also to make my drip coffee) and place it on the leather palm for a period of time to allow the heat that is contained in the Pyrex to work deeply into the joints. It is a lot more effective than any expensive drug store solution to getting heat into the hands. Do not do this on bare skin since you will quite likely burn it. The glove or a towel is an absolute necessity. Holding the hand under the tap and running fairly hot water also works pretty well.

Now once you have finished playing the guitar, or piano or doing any other activity that requires a lot of hand dexterity, do some or all of these exercises afterwards. Playing the guitar well requires flexibility and strength in the hands to control the subtlety of the technique in the jazz player and to deal with vise-grip approach of the power rock style. Taking the time to do some or all of the above exercises will just make it more pleasurable and are plainly just worth the effort. Learn how to play softly with a delicate touch and you will see that there is more than one way to play the guitar and the softer touch doesn’t create so much muscular tension in the hands and arms. Practice doesn’t make perfect, in the case of the guitar, but it does make it better and more fun.

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