Ahh, a topic I finally have some experience in! This will be a long one!
TL;DR - Improving grip strength won’t result in faster playing, but developing it will support your hands, wrists and forearms to remain injury and tension free as you increase speed and proficiency. Also, see an occupational/hand therapist. They’re among the best teachers you’ll ever have.
I’ve been obsessively focusing on picking technique for the last 8 or so years, and I’m one of those players where the slightest presence of tension or ineffective technique manifests in pain and having to go back to the drawing board. It’s happened a lot, albeit less so since coming across this community, but still present. Currently I’m playing 8 shows a week minimum in music theatre on mandolin and guitar, in addition to regular practice, so I have to be highly attuned to anything that’s not working as soon as I shows signs of discomfort. The worst I ever got was not being able to push myself off a bed without feeling I had nails being forced in to my wrist. It’s been a long journey since then, but I’m finally getting somewhere.
To fix this, I frequently see a hand therapist in Melbourne specialising in musician’s injuries. The takeaways I’ve got are:
- Picking should be completely free of tension in the wrist and forearm (along with shoulders, back etc);
- Hand and forearm strength will benefit your longevity of playing and help to remain injury free, despite aiming for complete lightness. Strength isn’t just about force - it’s also about support.
Each return visit with newly discovered injuries and tension, I’ve been prescribed a series of stretching exercises, and strengthening exercises. The reasoning as I far as I understand (not an expert) is firstly to release the tension built up from gripping too hard while using mechanics that shouldn’t, and to deal with any inflamation that occurs from overuse; followed by strengthening the muscles in the fingers, hands, wrist and forearm that facilitate picking motion. Each visit, currently fortnightly or so, we take grip and pinch tests to monitor strength in these muscles. This doesn’t result in faster playing, but supports the muscle groups to facilitate the excessive use. I’m not including my measurements - your personal results will vary, and there isn’t a magic number. It depends on all factors of your body shape and size, health, overall fitness, playing style, etc etc etc.
The major takeaway here is hand, finger, grip, wrist and forearm strength all aid in avoiding injury in the small motions that we employ during picking. Often, we don’t notice pain in playing - it’s small and low exertion. But when it does manifest, in my case all the time, it’s the result of a lot of slightly higher-than-needed tension, and lower-than-required strength.
I would not panic about building strength, particularly if injury isn’t an issue for you. But I can attest to developing strength in these minor muscles to aid in your ongoing playing and progress.
Some of the exercises I practice include (and I’m not including specifics as I’m not an expert beyond my own practice development, and I’d highly recommend seeing an occupational therapist or better a dedicated hand therapist to discuss your best plan):
Early strengthening (it’s amazing how little we strengthen the small muscles in our hands and thumbs, so you don’t want to jump to the equivalent of benching a small car with your thumb)
- Use of Therabands (elastic strips with resistance) for low resistance strength building in forearms and shoulders
- Gentle resistance with thumb and fingers using elastic bands
- Maintaining thumb joint and muscle in an O shape, graduating to gentle held positions using a tennis ball or similar.
Higher level strengthening
- Use of Theraputty (like high tension Play-Do) to build resistance in key muscles.
- Higher resistance Therabands
- Scapula (shoulder blade) strengthening, modified pushups and back work.
And that’s as far as I’ve got, which is working really well. Logic (and my osteopath) tells me that next steps would include more physical weights work on larger muscles in the shoulders, arms and back. Naturally, weights will increase grip strength also. That said, I’m glad I didn’t jump straight to there, as I would have no doubt caused the opposite effect on my hands.
Some stray thoughts:
- Don’t use Gripmasters. You’ll overdo it and wear your tendons out.
- The goal should be pain free, supported by strong muscle groups to sustain your playing.
- Speed won’t come directly from strength. But strength will avoid pain, and injury, which will support more frequent playing and practice, which coupled with Masters in Mechanics will immediately boost your speed.
- Don’t start any exercise program, particularly those focused on micro muscles, without seeing a physician. I know this is the disclaimer on everything we all ignore it, but seriously I wish I immediately sought assistance as soon as any pain started.
Hope this helps shine a light based on what I’ve experienced!