Muscle strength vs control and endurance in wrist playing

I went through the Primer and didn’t see this topic mentioned, but perhaps it’s something worth discussing.

I’ve visited my physiotherapist today about knee problems, but took the opportunity to mention guitar playing and ask about the development of muscles in the forearm.

I asked whether strengthening the forearm muscles could make my wrist playing better.
He said – most likely yes.

Strengthening those muscles should in theory have two effects:

  • better endurance. Even when you’re using a small amount of strength; suppose you’re using 20% of your muscles’ strength to perform the wrist motion. You’re still using them and eventually they get tired. Now suppose you make them twice as strong, now when playing, you’re using only 10% of your muscles’ strength – you will be able to play for longer, or activate them more frequently (faster playing) without getting tired.
  • better control. Strength training for the muscles not only develops strength itself, but is also shown to improve proprioception (Proprioception - Wikipedia). In other words, it should improve the control you have over the muscles.

So strength training might help in developing a fast, smooth, consistent wrist motion that you can perform over extended periods of time.

Just look at Troy at these Primer videos, he is ripped. Who knows if it doesn’t contribute to his playing?

I think I also read or heard somewhere that Anton Oparin is teaching his students to do some training like that (something about opening jars?)

Some exercises that my physiotherapist suggested:

  • rest your forearm on your leg when sitting, so that the forearm lays flat and the palm of your hand points upwards or downwards (two variants to develop antagonistic sets of muscles). Hold something like a small dumbell (but not too heavy so you don’t hurt yourself, of course) in the hand. Now move your hand up and down. As if you were training your biceps, except you move only the hand, not the arm.
  • simply carrying something heavy, but don’t grab it as if you were grabbing a shopping bag, but grab it like a “claw” i.e. all your fingers point downwards and you apply pressure to the object (from one side with the thumb, and remaining fingers on the other side) so it doesn’t slip from your hand
  • “powerball” Gyroscopic exercise tool - Wikipedia
  • hanging from a bar

What do you think?

Playing guitar doesn’t require any special strength or endurance. The forces required in playing guitar are much, much smaller than any adult can generate by aligning their muscles to task.

The issue most people have is that they attempt to use small, weak muscles at poor angles to achieve tasks that can be accomplished better by aligning stronger muscles to the task along their natural line of action from origin to insertion. Assuming you’re an adult with healthy hands and wrists, it’s easy or it’s wrong.

Imagine trying to leg press you weight. Now imagine trying to adductor squeeze your weight. That’s the difference.

Strength is never a bad thing. If you want to build grip and forearm strength, I wouldn’t discourage you. It is not going to benefit your guitar playing as much as learning how create mechanical advantage and better align your stronger muscles to task.

And what about the better proprioception?

You can develop that through playing, or literally any other dexterity based activity.

Sure. But if there are multiple sources which may improve proprioception, and one of them is strength training, it may be worth to explore that angle too. From short googling, there seems to be a lot of scientific evidence that strength training improves proprioception (most commonly in the context of rehabilitation after injury). So it could be a valuable addition to dexterity-focused activities.

Like I said, I’m not trying to discourage you from strength training. If you’re sensible with your load and you enjoy doing it, then by all means, train your grip and forearm strength.