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Warm-up Before Playing Guitar to Avoid Pain

Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Guitar Playing Can Be a Pain in the... Hand!pain from playing guitar

Beginning guitarists have their share of obstacles to their growth.  There's the raw fact that at first, the sounds they make never sounds as good as what they heard on the radio.  There's the sudden demand for time that this new
toy makes upon them.  (This is a bittersweet demand, of course... it hurts so good.)

But one of the most certain obstacles is the plain old hand pain that comes from exercising muscles that have been relatively undisturbed until now.  (It's all fun and games until somebody buys a guitar and starts trying to hold down the right strings so they don't buzz.)

NOT JUST YOUR HANDS

If you've sat with your guitar for any extended time, you might also have noticed that your back hurts (and your shoulders, and your deltoids, and maybe your hips...).  This is somewhat unavoidable since we usually sit asymmetrically in our seat, twisting to see music or lesson videos, or whatnot.  This, along with the fact that we wrap ourselves forward over our guitar to see the fretboard (at least at first), creates muscle stresses and imbalances that twist us and our vertebrae in painful ways.

Guitar posture can be helped by warming up and stretching before you take your guitar on your lap.  And I mean full-body warm-ups, not just hand stretches, which we'll get to in a moment.

Here is a quick sketch of my most helpful "guitar player stretches":lower back stretch for guitar

1)  Upper/lower back--Sit in your seat, and slowly fold yourself forward between your knees until your knuckles curl onto the floor.  Just hold yourself there for about 20 seconds.  In case you didn't know it, most stretches don't really "take" until they're held for at least 20 seconds. (see upper right image)

2)  Shoulders--First, just stretch your hands as high as they'll go and hold them for 20 secs. if you can. Next, do a repeat, but gently reach over with one hand to the opposite elbow and pull it toward Back stretch for guitarthe back side of your head.  Let the forearm of the arm you're grabbing just relax down behind your head while you're tugging.  Hold for about 20 secs. then switch arms. (see lower right image)

3)  Wrists--First put your right fingertips into your left palm and let your left hand gently tug them back toward your shoulder. Hold for a few seconds, then place your left palm on the back of your right hand and VERY gently push your right hand downward, bending at the wrist in the opposite direction as just before.  Hold for a few seconds, then repeat this with the opposite hand/wrist.

4)  Fingers--Put your fingertips against their counterparts on the opposite hand in front of you like an evil scientist who is about to monologue about taking over the world. Skip the monologue and just do some gentle "finger pushups" with both hands pushing against one another.  Now close a tight fist and open again repeating 4 or 5 times.

You should be fairly limbered up for a good rehearsal now.

As you begin to play, start slowly and simply.  Save the speedier, more demanding exercises until your fingers are re-oriented to the frets and strings.

BREAKS

It may feel like you're "busting your groove" to do so, but it's a great idea to take a 2 minute standing break after every 20 mins. or so of playing/exercising.

I suggest gently shaking your hands and arms during the breaks.  If you're practicing while reading music, it's also a good idea to place the heal of your palms against your eyes and gently press for a few seconds, then look at different distances around the room just before returning to your sessions.

It's not a bad idea to take a longer break after 45 mins. if you're going to be practicing/playing for more than an hour.  You may even find it good to repeat some of your stretches during this break.  Walk around.  You'll need it.

RELAX WHILE PLAYING

One of the most difficult habits to form is sitting "relaxed" while you practice or play.  It's just such an after-thought... most of us are thinking, "can we just play already?"

But training yourself to get your body aligned and relaxed EVERY time you play is going to be a well-rewarded habit!  You'll be able to last longer and enjoy playing more.  First, let's learn how to sit!

Choose a chair that fits well, and allows you to put your feet on the floor without pressure behind the knees.  Align yourself so both seat bones are equally positioned under you (not favoring one "cheek" or the other).  Then allow your shoulders to "feel heavier" and press downward only slightly and let your head sit a little taller than your normal slouch.

Now for the guitar.  You will find it difficult not to twist slightly at the torso when you start to position your guitar.  The left knee is the best place to rest the guitar and so many guitarists arrange some sort of stool or prop for that leg to get the guitar in the proper positon for playing while still at rest on the thigh.  Footstools (maybe even the specialized "guitar footstools") can do the trick, especially for practice.

Bring the guitar close to the body (especially the left hand) and you'll keep your center of gravity inside your body, preventing excess shoulder and back strain.

WHILE PLAYING

It's probably no surprise that most of the tension you'll experience builds up while you're practicing or playing.  This is because your mind is on playing, not maintaining good posture and relaxed form.

So the best advice I can give is to just make a conscious effort to monitor your level of stress and strain and make mid-session adjustments.  Let go of the neck from time to time and shake out your left hand.  Press your shoulders downward into your chest from time to time to pull the tension out of your neck and shoulders.  Lengthen the spine and re-align your seating position whenever it comes to mind... and make it come to mind often.

It's just a matter of building habits and that will take a while if you're just starting out.  And as in anything... don't forget to breathe!  All the tension tends to flow to the hands because that's the most active part of you when you play guitar.

Guitar playing shouldn't be a pain in the hands or any other part of you.
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