As a personal trainer, if I’m not in the gym helping clients improve their mobility, strength, and live pain free, I’m practicing my guitar. That said, sometimes I've found that aches and pains can occur when guitar playing time ramps up, just like when we push ourselves hard in life or in the gym. In this post I will cover 6 strategies guitar players (or other musicians) can apply right away to help them practice pain free and avoid injury. Some of which may surprise you.
Postural awareness. This may not be the most interesting point to start off with, but it's foundational. Besides, there's often a gap between knowing vs applying. You probably already know that maintaining proper posture is essential for playing guitar at your best, but saying it another way may be more impactful. Poor posture (joint mechanics) and excessive muscular tension are a recipe for inefficiency of movement and can result in poor technique and overuse injuries. So to refresh, the idea is to sit or stand with your back upright, shoulders relaxed, and neck aligned. Avoid hunching over the guitar, as it can strain your neck, back, and shoulders. Invest in a footrest and/or guitar strap to ensure your guitar is at a comfortable height, to allow your wrists and hands to remain in a relaxed and natural position. That said, even with the best posture, sitting for prolonged periods isn’t ideal, especially if you consider the cumulative toll each day. Think of how much the average person spends siting at work, commuting, meal times, and watching TV. When you add practicing guitar on top of all this, it's likely your body will probably bark at you. So try to stand as much as you can during practice time, or alternate standing and sitting every 15 minutes. It's also wise to embed standing into your practice time if you plan to stand for your performances.
1 Rep Max rep breathing to set posture. Breathing is a powerful tool. It can be used to brace the body to lift something heavy, to help calm the muscles and the mind, as well as down regulate pain. In this context, follow these steps here to apply 1 rep max breathing to set postural alignment. To give a visual, think of a max bench press or max deadlift, but instead of lifting the maximum amount of weight possible, you are trying to take in the maximum amount of air possible in one breath. What this does is it automatically puts you into a great postural position! (It’s impossible to get a true max breath in with slouched over crappy posture.) 1 Rep Max breathing can also be used in your warm up routine or to reset posture when you forget. Just set a timer for every 5 minutes and take 1 Max breath.
Warm up beyond your hands! This point likely falls into a category of something you have heard before. However I suggest thinking beyond exercises for just our fingers/hands. The reason being is that if you do develop an overuse injury, say in your wrist or forearm, it’s most likely the result of mechanical inefficiency of the joints above and/or below. Generally speaking, the site of pain is rarely this main issue. For example, someone that presents with tennis elbow, needs to look upstream into the back, neck, and shoulders, as well as downstream to the wrist and hand to fully resolve the issue. With this perspective in mind, I’d recommend spending just a few minutes mobilizing the upper body to get blood flowing and warm up the fascial system. (especially if you sit a lot during the day). There’s a million exercises you could do, but here are just a few: Arm spin-ups, t-spine mobilizations, band pull aparts. For those with lower back pain, try this full body fascial movement sequence. As for the best way to warm up the hands, check out world expert Tom Hess’s video here.
Give yourself a deep tissue message with Soft tissue work. Going through life with minor aches and pains is a fact of life, but we should be able to manage most of it ourselves*. This becomes even more true the more we physically challenge our bodies, especially as we get older. If you haven’t tried it yet, you will be amazed at what a lacrosse ball and 10 minutes a day of targeted soft tissue work can do to help resolve and prevent aches and pains (I have a number of testimonials to back this up). Learning how to perform basic maintenance on our own body is one of the core messages Dr. Kelly Starrett has been teaching for years. His new book “Built to Move” is a great resource if you want to dig deeper on his philosophies. His certification courses also serve as a foundation for my personal training practice, especially when it comes to keeping my clients pain free. To get started, this video shows you how to relieve muscle tension around the thoracic spine, which may help guitarists experiencing pain in the shoulders and neck.
Be aware of your eye level. This is the point I struggle with. Your neck and shoulders will adjust based on where your eyes are looking. So if you are constantly looking down at your hands, fretboard, or reference material, your neck and shoulders will eventually pay the price. Take the time to set up your music stand or reference material at eye level vs torquing your neck down or to the side. Try to practice without looking down as much as you can. Save looking down for large hand position shifts or more technically challenging parts. When it comes to monitoring or correcting technique video is best anyways. On that note, if you want world class help with your technique, check out Mike Phillippov’s site here for material and programs.
Spread out your practice time if you can. Even if you have the best posture in the world, you still need a break from sitting for extended periods. Not only is this good for the body, it’s best for your brain. Smaller, more frequent bouts of practice are proven to improve mental focus and retention. So insert movement breaks when you can. Go for a walk, take a stretch break, or go through some of your warm up exercises again to get the body moving. You can also take a physical break from guitar and use visualization to extend your practice time without the extra physical toll to your body. Since our brains are ultimately the main mechanism for improvement, we can use visualization to augment our progress. We can probably mentally rehearse most items on our practice list. From memorizing the fretboard, to song structures, even physical skills like scale sequences and arpeggios can all be visualized, practiced, and improved without our guitar. You could even combine visualization and movement with the less technical items. For example, going for a walk and recalling the fretboard or arpeggio shapes. For 10 tips that may help you learn faster, check out Dr. Huberman's article, “Teach and Learn Better with a Neuroplasticity Super Protocol.”
A few additional points on pain.
Sleep is the rockstar of recovery. Sleeping 8 hours consistently is key for reducing pain sensitivity and healing injuries.
Try thinking like a detective to figure out the root cause of pain. Maybe your back is hurting because you are not hinging your hips to pick up your kids, or your computer monitor is facing one way, while your body is facing another. Guitar technique is similar, try to figure out the inefficiency.
Capacity vs demand. Some pain may be due to exceeding your body's tissue capacity. Slow progressive overload is how we safely get stronger in the gym. This applies to guitar practice time as well, jumping from 15 minutes a day to 2-3 hours a day may be too much too soon. Slowly build up.
*Finally, this is not a substitute for medical advice. Seek out professional help if your issue persists.
I hope you find these tips useful in your guitar playing journey. Even if some concepts initially seem irrelevant, their application will benefit your overall health in the long run. As John F. Kennedy said, "The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining." If you have any questions or found this article helpful, please don't hesitate to reach out and share it with fellow guitarists. You can also join my private group here to stay updated on future blog posts.
If you, or someone you know, needs help with a sleep, nutrition or fitness routine, please reach out. Either online or in the gym, I specialize in helping busy professionals over 40 get fit without burning out. My personal training studio services downtown Toronto and is just steps away from the UP Union to Pearson Express Station.