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Another wording for this question would be "what muscles can I work on to improve guitar playing?"

A few months ago I started boxing, and I found that my guitar technique improved as my arms got stronger. I know for a fact that many top-level guitarists are also big health nuts. Surely it would be beneficial to both practice and performance to spend some time when you're not at the guitar working on the physical muscles involved.

So the question that must be asked is, what muscles are involved in guitar playing?

Bonus points if you can split it into Left hand, right-hand, both, and some extra categories for posture and such.

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Yeah, well, your technique will quickly degrade as a result of the blows to your head. But in all seriousness, overall good musculature will help you maintain proper posture and positioning, and that's the most important way to reduce fatigue. –  Carl Witthoft Oct 21 '13 at 11:37

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I would say this depends a lot upon what style you're talking about, and I feel that flexibility and speed trump strength almost always. So personally, I would work more on stretching these muscles and finger independence rather than strengthening. But here's my stab at some of these groupings, and my factors for choosing them:

Rhythm guitar (rock):

  • left hand: inner hand (metacarpals - don't know muscle names, so I'm naming the bones), forearm strength (for extended holding of bar chords); finger (phalanges) flexibility and speed (for complex forms/quick changes between chords)
  • right hand: wrist strength, speed (for even picking rhythm)

Lead guitar (rock):

  • left hand: finger speed, precision and flexibility (for swift, precise playing of scales, arpeggios, sweeps, etc.) - I believe strength works against you here.
  • right hand: finger speed, precision (for swift, precise picking)

Classical guitar:

  • left hand: inner hand, forearm strength; finger flexibility and speed (again, for complex bar chords/forms)
  • right hand: finger independence (for complex fingerpicking patterns)

Not sure if this is what you're looking for, but in summary, I would not recommend focusing on strength when it comes to fine motor skills in general. You develop adequate strength from playing, and peripheral exercises are more likely to make things worse than make them better.

I would, however, strongly recommend exercises/activities that increase dexterity. So I'd sooner tell you to learn to drive a stick shift (and do it daily) than to go lift certain weights.

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There is no speed without strength. But strength can be wasted in ways that do not generate speed. –  Kaz Oct 21 '13 at 20:33
    
You're right. By "strength" I'm referring to straight bulk/muscle mass, but the distinction is more subtle than that, as you point out. –  rotarydial Oct 21 '13 at 20:49
    
+1 for this answer. Avoid strength and just work on speed, flexibility and independence –  Dr Mayhem Oct 21 '13 at 20:55
    
youtube.com/watch?v=2sll09uDfYE would be a pretty awesome target. On the topic of finger speed, there's a trilling exercise employed by vai and petrucci that leaves your forearm feeling warm afterwards, but over time it does improve left hand finger speed. I understand that just training strength is useless on its own, but, I'd like to experiment with the effects of building the muscle groups away from the guitar, on the guitar. I've not voted up yet just on the basis that the specific muscles involved aren't stated. –  Alexander Troup Oct 22 '13 at 10:05
    
@DrMayhem My aim is to build strength to improve speed, flexibility and independence :D –  Alexander Troup Oct 22 '13 at 10:07

I applaud the previous answers, especially about Finger Independence. They are helpful. I've played guitar for 42 years, and have not always been consistent in my playing. In the last three or four years, I have become not only consistent, but obsessive about playing. Being very sore in my left hand made me review the anatomy and biomechanics I studied many years ago. I developed some exercises based on the anatomy and function of the hand muscles for therapeutic rehab of them as well as to increase dexterity.

Back when I was a student doctor, I spent an entire year in anatomy lab (three trimesters) with cadavers, and took many hours of various class room hours of anatomy, bio-mechanics and other related courses too numerous to list. I remember wondering how much of all that I was taught would be used by me in practice. I'm going to give you a slightly complex answer to your question and then a couple of very simple exercises to improve your finger function for guitar. You can do even them when you can't play your guitar. They are specific for your fretting hand.

I'm referencing "The Extremities" 4th Edition by John H Warfel http://books.google.com/books/about/The_extremities.html?id=hchqAAAAMAAJ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opponens_pollicis_muscle

Lateral means away from the midline of the body. Medial means toward the midline of the body.

Lateral Hand Muscles

Opponins Policis

Adductor Policis

Adductor Policis Tranversus

The Muscles listed ABOVE WORK TOGETHER with the Muscles Listed Immediately Below of the Medial Hand Muscles. (We will look at them as flexors. They are not really called flexors, but it helps to get the concepts I'm going to explain for you to see them as flexors for now. BTW they are called Adductors)

EXAMPLE of HOW the Muscles above and the muscles immediately below Work Together: Bringing the Thumb and 5th-4th-3rd-2nd-1st Digits TOGETHER

Opponins Quinti Digiti

Flexor Digiti Brevis

Flexor Digiti - Interossei, Lumbricales, Profundus, Superficialis

  • The NEXT set of muscles are not so much related to the Lateral Hand Muscles as they are to the Medial Hand Muscles for they are EXTENSORS

Notice the Next Set of Medial Hand Muscles are Muscles that TURN ON the moment that Medial hand muscles listed Immediately above Turn OFF.

The EXTENSOR Medial Hand Muscles are listed below

Extensor Digiti Minimi Extensor Digiti proprius Extensor Digitorum Communis

EXAMPLE of HOW the EXTENSOR Muscles Work APART from the flexors: Bringing the Thumb and 5th-4th-3rd-2nd-1st Digits APART

The EXERCISES.........

Exercise ONE

Bring the Thumb and the pinkie finger Together then Apart slightly

Bring the Thumb and the ring finger Together then Apart slightly

Bring the Thumb and the birdie finger Together then Apart slightly

Bring the Thumb and the index finger Together then Apart slightly

REPEAT for a period of time....And Repeat often

Do the exercise with both palms up and down and at the sides of your body as you walk.

Create your own sequences of finger to to thumb movements to practice. Once you are comfortable with them work at building speed. REMEMBER to extend as well as bring them together.

NOTE- If doing this causes your Medial Hand Muscles to even mildly cramp or hurt, then it is time to take a few days break from playing and work on stretching and healing the hand.

Exercise TWO

Hold the hands out palms facing up for referencing the "anatomical position" ...

Slightly adduct the thumb in (flex it slighty to approximate how the thumb works the neck of the guitar)

turn the hand palms down to do the exercise

EXTEND the pinkie finger slightly then flex it. Repeat for a period of time

EXTEND the ring finger slightly then flex it. Repeat for a period of time

EXTEND the birdie finger slightly then flex it. Repeat for a period of time

EXTEND the index finger slightly then flex it. Repeat for a period of time

After this becomes easy then make up your own repeating patterns and drill them.

Once you begin to get fatigued with the hands turn facing down, then turn the hands facing up and repeat the exercises.

Enjoy

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For me, back and shoulder strength and endurance, not to mention good posture, are keys. I've always been able to play for longer than anyone has been willing to listen, in terms of hand and arm strength, but after a long practice session or show, I would get pain between the shoulder blades. I've been trying to get some strength in those areas, and that is helping.

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