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If you play guitar regularly, you probably already know how important it is to keep your hands, shoulders and back healthy so that you can continue jamming for years to come. Playing guitar can put a lot of stress on your muscles, ligaments, and tendons, especially if you practice for long hours or use improper posture. It is common for guitarists to develop conditions such as arthritis later in life. The repetitive movements and stationary posture can become quite damaging to your joints and the stress adds up over time if you don’t take measures to counteract it.
As a washed-up bodybuilder, powerlifter, and general fitness fanatic of over 15 years, I have spent a lot of time studying functional movement, mobility, and injury prevention. I have since moved away from heavy weightlifting, but with the amount of time I spend working at a desk or with a guitar on my lap, I find myself prioritizing movement now more than ever. The most important thing I have learned during my time training is that everything is connected. If you want healthy fingers and wrists, it starts with having healthy hips, spine, and shoulders.
It’s important to note that movement is about more than just stretching muscles. It’s also important to strengthen them. If you stretch a rubber band and let it go, what happens? It immediately snaps back to the original shape because there is no structure to hold it in the new position. When you stretch, you must then utilize your muscles and joints in their new ranges of motion, to create stability and permanence. Flexibility isn’t necessarily healthy on its own. It's also important to build strength and stability. Flexibility + Strength = Mobility.
That's why I have compiled a list of ten essential movements for guitarist hand, shoulder and back health. These movements will help you prevent injuries, reduce tension and improve your performance. Unlike most guitarist stretching guides, which consist of the same boring passive stretches, these active stretches will also help you gain strength and build more resilient muscles, tendons, and joints. No gym required!
For obvious reasons, finger stretches are typically the top priority of guitar players looking to improve mobility and maintain joint health. Finger push-ups are one of my favorites because they not only provide a great stretch through the fingers and forearms, but they also increase strength and provide the benefits of a loaded exercise versus a static stretch.
Wrist rocks are the perfect movement to compliment finger push-ups because they provide an additional stretch and added range of motion. Getting that deep stretch in the forearms and wrists is essential to maintaining proper wrist mobility.
By using your own bodyweight to create this stretch, rather than just pulling one hand back with the other, you are forcing your joints to stabilize and work with muscles throughout your body as a system instead of just isolating a small region of muscles on your forearms. You also receive the added benefit of increased load which will increase strength unlike a passive stretch.
This wrist flexion movement is a great movement for counteracting the constant inward curling motion guitarists experience on their fretting hand. In fact, most people probably spend too much time pulling their hands inwards and not enough time strengthening the muscles on the backside of their forearms.
This wrist flexion exercise will help maintain a balance between those muscles and help prevent injuries and overuse. As with the wrist rocks, there are multiple benefits of using your bodyweight to both stretch and strengthen in comparison to the static stretch where you simply grab your hand and bend your wrist.
Tip: You don’t need to put a lot of weight on your hands and wrists during this movement. It’s better to go light and get more reps in. Start with ten reps a few times per day and gradually increase your reps and load over time.
This stretch focuses on stretching and strengthening the hand and fingers. Most guitarists, and people in general, spend a lot of time with their hands closed, gripping, typing, texting, strumming, the list goes on. It is not often that we apply load to our fingers and hands in an extended position.
Tip: The first time you do this exercise, go very light and don’t go overboard. It’s always better to go very light with any new exercises. I recommend starting with 20 reps per day for the first week and gradually working up to 60 reps per day over the course of a few weeks.
I could talk all day about the importance of healthy shoulders. Most of our days are spent in a forward position with our hands, and oftentimes our heads, in front of our hips. This posture is responsible for a great number of issues, from neck and shoulder problems to finger numbness. The scapula, or shoulder blade tends to suffer greatly from this modern lifestyle. Over time it can lose strength and mobility, leading to shoulder instability and a wide array of potential issues.
Wall angels focus on improving scapular strength and stability are an excellent movement for maintaining healthy shoulders and counteracting the near constant forward posture we all experience.
Tip: Make sure to keep your back as flat against the wall as possible and don’t let it arch. It will be challenging, as your body will try to compensate for the lack of shoulder mobility, but make sure to keep your core tight and your ribs down, even if you aren’t able to touch the wall with your hands.
Shoulder wall rotations are a staple movement for building and maintaining healthy shoulders as well as improving overall upper body mobility. This movement is excellent for opening up the chest and anterior (front) shoulders.
Tip: Make sure to keep your spine, hips, and legs as still as possible and make sure you are focusing only on the shoulder and the muscles in your back. Doing these on one knee helps keep everything else still, but if you are unable to get into that position you can do them standing as well.
Shoulder Y’s and W’s are a movement similar to the wall angels, but by lying face down, you will notice that your upper back and the muscles around your spine will work much harder to keep your arms, head, and shoulders off of the ground. This makes it a bit more of an advanced movement with additional strength benefits, but if you can manage them, you will notice a big benefit in your overall back and shoulder mobility gains.
Quadruped extensions are an excellent movement for improving core stability and back strength while also helping to open up the shoulders, chest, and hips. Again, make sure your spine is not arching up towards the ceiling as this can cause excessive compression in your lower back.
Tip: Keep your core tight and focus on extending your hand and foot forward and backwards in a straight line, as if you are trying to get them as far away from each other as possible. The goal is to extend or lengthen your body, not to move your foot and hand upwards towards the ceiling.
Dead bugs are the perfect movement to combine with quadruped extensions since they work the opposing muscles through the same range of motion. They are also great for understanding how to keep your spine still throughout the movement since you can feel if it remains flat against the floor or lifts up and arches.
Dead bugs are a fundamental movement in any functional training program and will help keep your core, back, and hips strong and healthy. If you spend prolonged hours sitting or hunched over a guitar or computer, dead bugs are the number one exercise for you.
Tip: Keep your core tight and your ribs down to prevent your back from arching as you extend your leg and arm.
I see a lot of guitarists recommending wrist and finger stretches, but the hips are severely neglected when people are addressing shoulder issues and poor posture. While it might not seem obvious, the hips play a huge role in our overall mobility and affect every other joint in our body. 90/90’s are my favorite movement for increasing hip mobility and improving rotation which is so often neglected in our modern lifestyles. Building healthier hips will lead to a healthier spine and shoulders which will keep your elbows, wrists, and fingers healthier too.
Tip: Extend your arms straight out in front of you and hold a light weight or small object if you are struggling to stay upright during this movement. If you have particularly tight hips, you might find yourself falling backwards and the small weight will counterbalance this and help pull you forward into the stretch.
These ten stretches can make a big difference in your guitar performance and health. They can help you avoid injuries that can affect your playing, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and back pain. They can also improve your flexibility, strength, and endurance, which will boost your guitar skills.
The key is to be consistent and do these stretches regularly, but not to overdo it. Your body needs time to adapt to a new stretch or exercise, so start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration. And remember, everything is connected. If you want to stay healthy you must take care of all of your joints, not just the ones in your hands.
Don’t forget to warm up before playing, take breaks often, and listen to your body. Follow these tips and you’ll be able to play guitar for a long time without hurting yourself. Happy strumming!
Brett, the owner and founder of Ploutone, is a modern guitarist on a mission to create a sustainable future and build a thriving community through the power of music. Brett founded Ploutone to celebrate independent artists and foster connections among guitarists worldwide. With a vision of spreading positivity and promoting sustainability, Brett hopes to inspire others to push the boundaries of their instruments and contribute to a better world.MEET THE OWNER