“You just need to stretch.”
“You just need to rest.”
“Just push through till the end of the gig…”
As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 21 – Fall 2022
Recently I was in a guitar Facebook group, and someone asked the question: “How do I strengthen the muscles in my fretting hand?”
My first question was, “Why do you need to strengthen the muscles in your hand?” Here’s where anatomy comes into play and why it’s helpful for musicians to understand their own anatomy. Yes, you have muscles in your hand, of course. But if you look at the muscles in your forearm, when you wiggle your fingers, those muscles also move your fingers. So if your hand is curled around the neck of the guitar, especially for barre chords, yes, you do need to strengthen there. But you also need to strengthen the muscles in your forearm, your flexors, and your extensors. If your hand feels weak or you have pain in your wrist, look to your forearm as the issue.
Getting back to the question, there was someone in the comments who said, “When I play, my forearms cramp a lot; I just have to rest. But it happens every time. And I just wanted to know what to do.”
Well, if it happens every time, resting is not necessarily the solution because if it were, the problem wouldn’t come back. Resting is what we do out of ignorance because we don’t know what to do. And we’ve been told by our well-meaning teachers and our peers that we just need to rest or that we have to push through. Too often, musicians ignore pain, and pain is a sign that something’s wrong and is trying to catch your attention. So understand that pain is not a signal of weakness or that you’re any less of a musician; it’s a sign that, hey, something’s wrong. So let’s take that sign as a clue and find out what it is. Remember, the site of pain is not always the source of pain. So if you’ve got cramping in the wrist or hand, that might be the problem, but it could also be farther up into the shoulder or a nerve entrapment — it could be a whole lot of different things. So don’t push through the pain.
And don’t think that rest will solve your problem because it won’t; rest does not solve the underlying issue. So stop telling each other, you’ve just got to push through, you just got to make it through the gig, because there will always be another gig until you can’t push through anymore, and then there won’t be any more gigs. And I don’t want you to get there. I’m not trying to scare you, but I am trying to scare you. Because I know too many musicians in that situation where they pushed through, and they pushed and pushed, and then something broke. And now they have to turn down gigs because they have to go to the doctor. Now they have to have surgery, now they have to go to physical therapy, etc. If you don’t make time for your fitness now, you’ll have to make time when you can’t work later, and no one wants to get to that point.
So first and foremost, instead of telling someone to “just make it through the gig,” let’s tell each other, “Hey, let’s go get that looked at,” or “I know a person who can help you with that. Have you talked to so and so? Have you talked to a physical therapist?” Give them a resource. (Side note, if you don’t know who to tell them to see, you’re not alone. We cover that in my Job Security for Musicians course if you want to learn what to tell people and how to help them) But PLEASE, don’t tell each other “just rest.”
What if you have an ache or a pain that keeps coming back or lingers? Maybe it doesn’t start until after you play, but then it continues… and then it’s all the time, and now you’re getting shooting pains. Now it’s migrating to other areas, etc. Unfortunately, it will only get worse with rest because you keep returning to the activity that causes the pain. This is the definition of an overuse injury.
Yes, rest will stop acute pain from getting worse at the moment. So a reminder, stop saying, “You just gotta rest, and you just gotta stretch.” If you are hurt at the moment, you want to stop doing what hurts, right? But if playing your instrument hurts you, you can’t just stop, right? This is what doctors tell us. We have to be smarter about our bodies. Let’s get to the underlying cause of what’s causing that ache, pain, or issue.
Here’s the deal. You don’t want to stretch blindly. You have to know what the issue is because if you stretch what feels tight, you might worsen the problem. After all, the problem is that the muscles are overstretched and weak; that’s why they hurt. Tight muscles seldom hurt. So if you stretch muscles that feel tight but are overstretched and need strength, the pain may lessen for a moment but not go away. Strengthening the muscle is what you need to do, not stretch.
It would be best to find out what you need to stretch. Often, the site of pain is not the source of pain. So point in case people say, “My hamstrings are tight,” but really, your hip flexors are tight, causing your pelvis to tilt forward, which causes your hamstrings to be overstretched, tight, and weak. You must stretch the hip flexors (which don’t hurt) and strengthen the abdominals and glutes. This brings the pelvis back to neutral, and suddenly your hamstrings don’t feel tight. But if you just go stretching your hamstrings, which feel tight, you can cause an injury you didn’t have — the same thing with your forearms and the same thing with your upper back.
Now, if your problem is that you’ve got a cramp, yes, you might need to stretch it. Right now, I’m dealing with some nerve entrapment. So certain movements make the area feel weak and crampy. Stretching really helps, but that’s not really the issue. I’ve got to get the muscle to calm down, but then I also have to strengthen it because it’s weak. It’s exactly the opposite of what I feel my body wants to do. You CAN have a muscle that is tight AND weak. So don’t guess at what you need to do. If you’ve got a muscle that feels tight or you’ve got an ache, pain, injury, or something wrong, please don’t guess at it and just blindly start stretching,
To reiterate, please don’t tell each other to ignore the pain and “just push through.” Instead, give better advice and tell each other who to see. Secondly, don’t tell people to “just rest and stretch.” Instead, look to what’s on the opposite side of that muscle to see if it could be tight and not hurting (try stretching it instead) or ask yourself when the last time you actively strengthened the muscle that hurts was. Have you been using it a lot? Strength could be your answer.
If you’ve got pain that you don’t want to get worse but don’t know what you need to stretch or strengthen, then contact me. Consultations are free, and I am happy to set up a quick call with you, give you a free assessment and see what you might need from there. It could be something really simple.
1) Don’t say this anymore: “You just need to rest and stretch.” Instead, let’s say, “Hey, let’s go get that fixed. Let’s find out what the problem actually is, and see if you need to stretch or strengthen it. Here’s who you should go see.”
2) Don’t tell people to push through the pain. Instead, let’s say, “Hey, I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. I felt that same way. Don’t push through it.” Instead, say, “Why don’t you go get that checked out? It’s a sign that something’s not right” and then point them in the direction of someone who CAN help.
Check out my video, where I discuss this topic.