After one week of focused on trying to taking better care of my hands, my fingers are feeling much better and I am starting to look for ways to begin building more strength in them. If you are struggling with soreness in your playing, I highly recommend making the following additions to your practice routine.
I used the following warm-up before even touching the guitar.
- Hand-shakes: Keep your hands loose and shake them to get them warmed up. Any way that is comfortable and gets them moving will do.
- Finger taps- lightly tap each finger to your thumb, moving from pointer to pinkie and back. Do this with your hands facing away from your body, in neutral (hands facing each other) and with hands facing your body. 3-5 times
- Finger presses- press each finger to your thumb firmly, moving from pointer to pinkie and back. Do this with your hands facing away from your body, in neutral (hands facing each other) and with hands facing your body. 3-5 times
- Finger bends- Bend each finger down to the heel of your hand, from pointer to pinkie and back.
- Finger curls- Bend each finger to the bottom of the finger
- One-hand claps- slap all your finger against your palm and extend them back up straight.
- Thumb circles- make wide circles with your thumb in both directions
- Jazz hands- make a fist then pop your fingers out as wide as possible
This takes just a few minutes and it really helped me to feel less stiff as I started playing. It is simple enough to do basically anywhere.
Breaking up my warm-up exercises on the guitar was also extremely helpful. I did one minute on and thirty seconds off while running my finger exercises and I felt much better. I am planning on build these up my doing one day a week on the acoustic for the next two weeks and by slowly adding time in fifteen second intervals. With my hands feeling better and my focus on maintaining a lighter touch, I was able to improve my speed on these exercises as well, so that was a great bonus.
Now that my hands are feeling better, I am trying to decide on what to learn next. I have been playing exclusively fingerstyle arrangements for the past few weeks and I am coming close to having locked in on the songs I am working on. For my next song, I am looking for a different kind of challenge but I have not decided what that should be just yet.
This should have been a good week of practice. I am close to locking down one of the fingerstyle songs I have been learning and I made significant progress on the other song that has been my primary focus for the last three weeks. But as thrilled as I am with that progress, there is a shadow that has hung over all my playing this week. That shadow is pain. Specifically, pain in the fingers in my left (fretboard) hand. My fingers are aching, they are sore, they feel weak- it’s awful.
Some years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a concert pianist. He is an extremely talented musician with unreal skill on his instrument. I remember asking him what he practiced every day because I was curious what someone who is at that high a level of skill works on day-to-day, with playing and practicing as their sole professional responsibility. He explained that his current performance was roughly an hour worth of music, so if he were just to go through that music four to five times, that would be four or five hours of practice on its own. Then explained that he spent an hour or so stretching, warming-up and keeping his hands in shaped because if he injured his hands, he would be out of work. That conversation has been on mind ever since it dawned on me that I was wearing out my left hand by playing guitar.
It is probably not all playing guitar though. My other main hobby is fitness and my regular workouts certainly have their effect in beating down my hands as well (I am looking at you pull-ups and hangs). Of course, when it comes to exercise, I am hyper-aware of needing to build up capacities, warm-up, rest and strength weaknesses. Naturally, I feel like a fool for not realizing sooner that if I was going to really make a leap in my playing, I would need to at least consider the same things when it comes to my hands. I have even had conversations with friends who are into bouldering and rock-climbing about how finger strength is one of the most difficult areas to train because the hands are largely ligaments and tendons which take much longer to strength than muscles. Like the Beatles say, I should have known better.
I am fairly confident that I do not have a serious injury in my hand, just the normal fatigue that comes with careless overuse piled on top of poor conditioning. Fortunately, I have a lifetime full of sports training-related screw-ups that I can apply to this problem. Musical problems are beyond me, but a physical one? Yeah, I got this. I am going to apply the following protocol to my hand issues and see where I am in a week.
- Rest: I didn’t count on 30 minutes-a-day blowing up my hand this much, but it has so now I need to consider rest days. I won’t play two days this week to completely rest my hand since it is actually hurting.
- Active recovery: Thanks to this video from the great sage of soreness Kelley Starett at The Ready State, I have already started foaming rolling for my hands with the markers my kids leave all over the house.
- Strengthening: Weak muscles, tendons and ligaments don’t magically become strong ones, so I need to focus more on actually strengthening these weak areas. Since the main reason I hurt my hand to begin with seems to be the fingering exercises that I was using to strengthen with hand, I can assume that it was too much too soon. If that happened with a lift or some other exercise, I would lower the tension (practice these exercises on the electric guitar instead of the acoustic), and take longer rests between sets (or any rest, in this case, since I was just running finger exercises for five minutes straight and only pausing when it started to hurt) I think one minute on, thirty seconds rest for a six sets should replace the five minute warm-up.
- Better technique: I think it is safe to say that I generally press too hard on the guitar, especially when I am struggling with fingerings, which is absurdly counterproductive since a lighter touch is smoother and quicker. In these exercises, I am now going to focus not just on the fingerings, but on how light I can keep my touch as I go through them. Typically, I start with a lighter touch and grab the strings firmer as I fatigue. That is poor habit to develop and a recipe for hurting my hand again when I try more challenging exercises.
- Better warm-ups and stretching: Before you train, you warm-up. After you train, you stretch. That is a basic tenant that most athletes are familiar with. Warming up means dynamic movements to get blood flowing to muscles and prep them for movement and stretching is using extended positions to expand range of motion. I probably should have done some of this for my hands, right? I know, I am an idiot. What does like for your hands? I am not exactly sure, but I think it will be easy enough to figure out with some experimenting.
So that is plan. I will let everyone know how it goes and hopefully, I can spare you the same pain and figure out how to fix my biggest weakness- weakness itself.