Warmup Exercises

Take care of your hands

There is no question about it. Playing a guitar is work. It uses muscles and actually burns calories. The human body is a wonderful mechanism. One of the reasons for our success (biologically-speaking) is that we are not specialized for anything in particular. We are a Jack of all trades, and Master of none. So, to that effect, our bodies are a series of compromises. The muscles in particular, are capable of instant, rapid action, but it comes at the price of stretched fibers, micro-lesions, and such. The muscles are also capable of sustained output over considerable amounts of time, but they must be warmed up and stretched first. This series of lessons will show you how to ease your finger and arm muscles into the rigors of guitar-a-thons. Warming up and stretching means you won’t have to cut practice short because of sore or stressed muscles.

This series is taught by Canadian guitar-shaman Erik Mongrain from Jamplay. Eric has been in the trenches, literally, as a street guitarist for a number of years. He has explored new territory with the acoustic guitar, and was one of the first to employ the "lap-tapping" technique, now used by such gurus as Andy McKee, and others. He’ll show you how to get the most from your sessions.

He starts with a section on posture. Posture is important, because if you are not comfortable, you are not going to play your best. The classic posture does not work for everybody (me included…). Some people do better standing, others sitting. You’ll have to experiment to find what is best for you. I prefer sitting, usually with the guitars lower bought centered on my right thigh, and having the guitar cocked up at a 450 angle, and tilted slightly towards me. This is because over the many decades that I have been alive, I have sustained many injuries to my knees, back, shoulders, hands, and joints. This posture puts the least stress on my hurt areas. Your mileage may differ.

One of the best investments you can make after buying a guitar is to buy a good guitar stool, with a nice cushion. Don’t use a bar stool, but one made for guitar playing. They are the right height, have a bar to brace your foot on, and are very solid-feeling. The foot bar is a good thing to have, because when your back starts hurting, you can put one foot on the bar, and that will relieve the pain, for a while, anyway. They also do not have backs, so you can lean back and stretch your back muscles when you need to, even while playing.

For warming up the right hand, Eric just does some light finger-picking. If you are trying to play along, and are wondering why your guitar doesn’t sound like the notes he is hitting, it is because his guitar is in an alternate open tuning…DADGAD, I think. Just run through some finger-picking patterns for a few minutes, starting slow and gradually increasing your speed, then get a pick and strum a little, nothing too intense, just nice easy strumming. For the left hand, Erik is running through some scales and light arpeggios. Do this for 5 minutes or so, then combine the left and right hand exercises for a few minutes.

One thing the video does not show is how to really warm-up. This starts before you ever touch your guitar. You need to pre-stretch the muscles in your hands, wrist, arms, shoulders and back. This gets more important as you get older, trust me. Here is what I do:

Start by loosening your fingers. Slowly make fists, then release them. Do that 10 times. Next, using your left hand, grab your right thumb and move it gently in circles, not so big as to cause pain, but enough to gently stretch the muscles and ligaments. Repeat for each finger. Next, switch to your right hand, and do the left hand. Finish by interlacing your fingers together, both thumbs up and palms facing you, and gently move your hands to your chest, stretching the fingers backwards as you do so. Next, while keeping the fingers interlaced, rotate the hands until the palms are facing away from you, thumbs down, and move your hands out as far as you can without causing pain.

Next, we do the wrists. Relax your hands, and extend your arms out in front of you. Move your hands gently up and down at the wrists, as if you were slowly waving goodbye. After 10 times or so, switch to moving the hands side-to-side at the wrists. After 10 times, rotate the wrists in a complete circle, first clockwise about 10 times, then counter-clockwise 10 times.

The next step is to loosen the forearms by extending your arms straight out at shoulder level, hands relaxed and palms down. Now slowly bend at the elbow and bring your forearms towards your face, without moving your upper arms, sort of like a reverse curl in weight-lifting. Once they are all the way in, rotate the hands to palms facing you, and return the forearms to the original position. Do this 10 times, then reverse the hand positions and do it 10 more times.

To loosen the upper arms, let them hang at your sides naturally, then raise them forward up above your shoulders, and lower them again. Do this 10 times. Now, do the same thing to the sides, 10 times.

To loosen the shoulders, simply rotate them 10 times forward, then 10 times to the rear.To loosen the back, just bend forward at the waist and do a toe-touch, then return to the starting position. Then bend backwards at the waist as far as you can without moving your hips, and return to the starting position. Do this 10 times.

Finish by gently massaging your hands, your forearms, upper arms, and shoulders. Now, you should feel loose, and ready to make some music.

One last thing. For those of us who are a little more up in years, a common problem is pain in the webbing of the left hand, after playing for a while (opposite if your are left-handed). This may, or may not be accompanied by swelling. Stretching beforehand will help this a lot. If the pain gets too bad, you can gently massage the webbing, and use some analgesic ointments like Bio-Freeze. If the swelling persists, you have no choice but to stop playing for a while. When this happens, soaking your hand in warm water and Epsom salts can provide a lot of relief. For many of us, arthritis is a fact of life, and all you can do is deal with it the best you can. You don’t have to give up the guitar. You just have to a little more creative in how you go about it….

Warming up and exercising your hands and arms will greatly increase your comfort, which means you will play and sound better. Do it often.

Author: Joel C. Brothers

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