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My left hand keeps getting tired and cramped up when playing guitar. Especially when playing a lot of barre chords. It's very frustrating because I always have to stop mid song because it hurts too much.

Is there a way or exercises to increase my left hand strength and stamina?

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  • Looks like a tension problem to me. If you relax those hands and stop being a nervous wreck then the pain in the hand would probably improve.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 22, 2021 at 9:55
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    You may need to lower the action or use lighter gauge strings, or you could tune down a half step to ease some string tension. Stretching a bit before playing wouldn't hurt, though.
    – John Bode
    Feb 22, 2021 at 16:17
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    What type of guitar? What type of strings? What type of music? How long have you been playing? How big are your hands roughly? Feb 22, 2021 at 17:39
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    One tip I have heard when playing is a bluegrass jam aswell as from a cellist I know is that first of one should relax the hand as much as possible and secondly "hang" (don't know how to describe it properly) on the neck, i.e not just clamping using the fingers but use your whole upper body position.
    – Najonathan
    Feb 22, 2021 at 19:10
  • Either non-guitarist exercises or diet… salt in water - lots of salt - for instance, is great for many forms of cramp Feb 22, 2021 at 23:24

4 Answers 4

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Most of us press too hard, especially when playing barre chords.

It may be that the action on your guitar is too high, and/or the strings are very tight, due to being a heavy gauge, that necessitates you pressing harder than you would ordinarily need to. That needs checking and putting right first.

Press the fretted strings as close to the fretwire as possible. The thumb is there more as a guide (Middle of the back of the neck) rather than a clamping mechanism. You should be able to play barre chords with your thumb off the neck completely. Not recommending that, but just to show how little the thumb should add to the successful playing of barre chords.

So not so much increasing strength and stamina, more of adjusting your hand so it doesn't need so much strength and stamina!

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  • If it's in budget, sometimes a full re-fret with bigger frets can be worth it (or a new guitar with bigger frets, if it's a trainer not worth putting money into). Lots of guitars come with small or medium frets and some people find that larger, particularly taller, frets are easier to play on and require less hand effort. Taken to extremes, some will also scallop the fretboard, but I think that's perhaps a more esoteric preference.
    – J...
    Feb 22, 2021 at 18:06
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    @J... - really think that's over the top. There are many, many guitars that will do for OP without the dubious re-fretting. A good action will generally make a better difference than jumbo frets.
    – Tim
    Feb 22, 2021 at 18:52
  • Sure, of course - but there are some guitars that are perhaps not well suited for a beginner or for someone with a light playing style. A bigger fret will also go sharp if you press too hard, so it can also be a good guide to the ear that you're pressing too hard (and can be a reminder to relax). Obviously it's not make-or-break, but I wouldn't discount the impact of frets on playability. They can have a big impact on the feel of the instrument. It's definitely something OP should try out first - I wouldn't suggest a refret without playing on a bigger fret first.
    – J...
    Feb 22, 2021 at 20:15
  • Learning to play with minimal pressure isn't only better for your hand–it's also better for preventing mistakes. We tend to get more tense when performing, and since mistakes increase with tension, practice as ultra-relaxed as possible so the tension increase during performance doesn't put you over the top.
    – jschmitter
    Feb 23, 2021 at 18:18
  • @jschmitter - which is absolutely fine once one uses a guitar with a good action.
    – Tim
    Feb 23, 2021 at 18:42
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You could really help us help you by posting some pics of your left hand while playing. As Tim said, many people squeeze too hard. This is generally due to having very poor posture and incorrect hand position. Your question is very brief and doesn't provide a lot of background.

  1. Are you taking lessons?

  2. Are you playing electric, acoustic steel string, or classical?

  3. How long is a long time, many hours, 20 min?

  4. How many years have you been playing?

I would say right off the bat NO! There are no exercises for stamina. If someone tries to sell you a spring loaded grip builder save your money and run for the Hills (Iron Maiden reference). They key is correct technique and posture. Clearly one will build stamina over time and no beginner could play for hours without fatigue. But cramping means you're playing incorrectly and if you fix it you should be able to play for al least a song and not get a cramp.

Everyone needs breaks, even professionals don't play continuously without a break. I might practice 4-6 hours in a row, but have a 5min break every 1/2 hour. You need too and that has nothing to do with technique. But I would not suggest a special exercise other than playing with correct form to build stamina. If your form is not correct you will create fatigue and other orthopedic problems down the road.

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Make sure your posture is correct. This means having your guitar at around a 45° angle, back straight, head above your heart, heart above your hips. Try to keep your head as upright and forward facing as possible, too. You shouldn't need to look directly at the fretboard at all, instead finding the strings by muscle memory and proprioception. Obviously this can be kinda difficult, so find or invest in a mirror in front of which to practice. When you need to look down for a long jump, try to move only the topmost vertebrae to preserve your posture.

You may need an accessory to raise the guitar to the right angle, but I find crossing my right ankle over my left knee, and resting the side of the guitar on my right thigh works very well. It takes a bit of experimentation to find a position where your leg doesn't fall asleep, but when you find it, it works nicely.

Finally, the secret trick is to not have to use your left thumb. Your right arm should press the bottom end of the guitar past the edge of your body, levering the neck forwards. You can then use your fingers on the strings to hold the guitar back, and prevent the guitar shooting onto the floor from you gripping it with your elbow. Of course, release the pressure with your right arm when you don't need to hold any strings down. You can rest your left thumb against the back of the neck if you like, and doing so while having it pointing straight towards the head can help with wrist posture, but it could tempt you to use it for pressure.

What the other answers say is also correct.

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I have had the same problem in the past - both with legs cramping at night and hands cramping intermittently during the day. The problem began when I had my right kidney removed for a large tumor - possibly cancerous. Don't worry, that is most likely not an issue with you. A few months after the surgery I began getting severe leg cramps at night and hand cramps after going out to eat. I checked various medical websites on the internet, but got the same answer: "Cause unknown. Consult your local physician." I talked with several doctors, but got no definitive answer. I then searched the blogs for people who had had the problem or were related to someone who had. Two problems kept surfacing - dehydration and too much sugar. I treated patients in the Navy as a Corpsman, and I always considered dehydration as what the doctor told you when he/she could not figure out the problem, and too much sugar as the opinion of some people who consider anything that tastes good to be bad for you.

Then one night after working outside in the back yard in July, I got the severe cramps again, and it occurred to me that there might be something to the dehydration issue after all. So I got up, drank a coke, and went back to bed. The cramps got worse. Bummer. I was working outside every day, so the next night I drank several glasses of water right before going to bed. I still got the cramps. Just having one kidney, I figured it probably took a while for the water to do its work, so the next night I drank several glasses of water 2 hours before going to bed. NO CRAMPS! ZERO! So for the next few weeks I alternated no water, water, and various types of sweetened drinks before going to bed. With 1 or 2 glasses of water 1-2 hours before going to bed I consistently had no cramps, but with drinking no water or drinking sweetened drinks I consistently got cramps. The worst drinks beginning with the worst were orange juice, apple juice and sodas (cokes, etc). I once got the cramps after drinking diet coke, but drinking diet drinks afterwards did not result in cramps except sometimes while eating out. In those cases the cramps were always in my hands, and I think the waiters just gave me the real thing by mistake. This was a solid solution for me - no ifs, buts, or maybes.

Your problem is likely not nearly as bad as mine as long as you have no kidney problems. Also elderly people can suffer different degrees of kidney malfunction just from age, resulting in intermittent cramps. But the solution is easy. Young people in perfect health can still get dehydrated and/or drink too much sugar. I was on the wrestling team in high school, and we had to weigh in before a match, and if we weighed too much, we would not be able to compete. So on instructions from the coach we could go into the shower room, turn on the hot water, run in the shower so we would sweat off some weight (please excuse me for not having a video), weigh in again, then drink some orange juice for energy. One night after doing that, I was in a match and on the way to an easy win, when suddenly I had extreme, paralyzing cramps so that I could not even move, and I lost the match. Dehydration plus orange juice -- BAAAD!

I think that for you if you make sure you don't drink any sweetened drinks for a while before playing the guitar you should be ok. If not, drinking at least a half glass or more of water 30-60 minutes before playing should help.

Here is my medical reasoning based on what I learned in the 5th grade and in the Navy. (I was a slow learner, and I never went to kindergarten, so I had to wait until the 5th grade to learn everything I needed to know in life.) (1) A person can live 3 weeks without food and 3 days without water, but only 3 minutes without air. (2) When a person goes to sleep, the body focuses primarily on digestion and internal needs. So it reduces the circulation to the extremities (arms, hands, fingers - including guitar fingers, leg - especially lower legs, feet and toes). Where I work in the computer industry we do nightly backups on our processors while most users are off the system so the response will be faster, though anyone who works at night may see a much slower response.

So since the volume of blood in your body is extremely critical, when that volume gets lower than desired, the body has to make a decision. Oxygen transfer is the most critical function and requires virtually no loss of fluids, whereas picking up waste products from the cells requires running the blood through the kidneys and excreting the waste products using lots of water for urine. That's a No-NO during dehydration, so the body reduces the blood flow through the kidneys, leaving substantial waste products in the blood, resulting in body cramps - sometimes severe, but you still remain alive and oxygenated. Adding to this misery is the fact that if you are lying down, the blood flow through your extremeties is reduced, adding to the cramps. I also noticed that the body seems to detect vertical/horizontal position of the extremities independently of each other. So I don't get lower leg cramps when sitting down (while dehydrated) because my lower legs are vertical, but I often get cramps in my hands and fingers while sitting at the table or driving in my car because my arms are horizontal. I usually always drink water when eating out, so my hands don't cramp.

Note: I don't have an MD after my name, but this solution works for me - every time. I have tested all of this over and over and can produce or resolve the cramps at will. I still drink orange juice and other drinks as long as it is not just before bed and I drink water afterwards. Of course Half-Price shake night at Sonic is hard to resist and requires me to stay up a little later to wait for the water I drink afterward to do its thing. If this helps anyone, please let others know so they can benefit also.

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