Wrist and arm tension

I’ve been noticing that almost every time I hit the gas, both my arm and my wrist tend to tense up and it feels like it’s slowing me down rather than speeding up.

Under Chapter 28-Cliff Cascade, the riff “Cliffs Blues” Troy looks to mainly be using wrist motion. When I’m attempting this, anything after 70% speed, I can’t seem to speed up without adding some upper arm muscle to help (feels like my tricep kicks in).

My question being, is this holding back my speed, should I be focusing more on staying loose and keeping it in the wrist? Or is this natural and I just have to keep developing the muscles needed and work up to speed?

Any help here would probably help me solve a good chunk of my speed problems.


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Focus on staying loose…less fatigue when performing. In moving away from ‘bad’ habits I have made progress on this by stopping when I tense up, relax and keep moving. It seems to me like a ‘train your brain’ type of thing.

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Awesome, thanks! Training the brain for this is a lot easier said than done. Lol. One step at a time I guess!

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Yea, it seems to be a ‘two steps forward one step back’ pattern in my experience. I’ve learned to trust the process.

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You have to learn how to manage tension. It’s always there, creeping around the corner, even with correct technique.

Motor mechanics in the human body dictate that muscles “misfire” when a new activity is being learned. Meaning that as your body learns a movement, you will unnecessarily engage muscles in various parts of your body, mostly excess tension in antagonist muscles that should be relaxing in opposition to agonist muscles to produce the movement you need. This is so that the body and brain understands the bare minimum that is required to produce an effective movement (as well as what isn’t required). Antagonist muscles are responsible for everything from control of dynamics to slowing down. The human brain’s default stage for any pattern is “as fast as possible”, since the cerebellum is non-judgmental and assumes any pattern given to it needs to be reproduced as fast as possible. Ironically, playing slowly takes more control if you’ve already learned a pattern and trained it to be blazing fast.

This occurs for everything dexterity related. Whether you’re driving a car or brushing your teeth, there are motor pathways involved and the body needs to learn them. How often do you think about opening the fridge or brushing your teeth? Did you use a metronome for either activities? I hope not.

Think of a dam in a river. The dam can be seen as tension, the water can be seen as the output of notes. The more you clamp the dam down (increase tension), the less water flows through (fewer notes). Or brakes on a car. Either analogy works.

You can also consciously tense up muscles while learning a movement; since the brain is non-judgmental it doesn’t know what it needs to really do beyond you instructing it. So your job is to remain as relaxed and ensure that you have a proper input (of pickstrokes, fretting fingers, etc.). If you don’t have a proper input, the body lets you know in the form of tension and compromised form. This biofeedback is the only way your body can tell you - objectively - that you’re doing something wrong. Playing guitar should always feel easy if you’re doing the technique in question the right way. Building guitar technique then becomes a task of knowing what crappy movements feel like, and what quality movements feel like. As you get better and faster, your radar will get sharper. I like Troy’s analogy of a crossword puzzle; the more you get sooner on the higher your momentum will be, versus the guy who spends 10, 20, 30 years doing the same shitty exercises and getting NOWHERE. Don’t cheat yourself out of easy wins.

So ultimately, it’s not so much developing muscles as it is firing them effectively. Tension management is the key, and relaxation is an action, not something that will always be there, no matter how good you get.

Here’s one more thing for you to read:

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the science of human movement, lmk if you need more help.


That is all great information, man! It all makes perfect sense. That’s one of the reasons I love playing guitar so much. The minute you think you have a grasp on something about it, is about the same time you realize you’ve only scratched the surface.

I spent too many years practicing wrong, so any nudge in the right direction to keep me moving forward is greatly appreciated. Thanks for all the input!

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Great stuff @guitarenthusiast, and thanks also the other post you linked. A couple of months ago I discovered how much of a difference it makes when you really actively minimize tension, and since then I’ve been kinda hooked on the subject.

I recently tried some legato-only stuff with this in mind. I had a big improvement in precision and speed by using lighter fretting strength and actively relaxing as many muscles as I could from my fretting hand. Same result, much less effort. It was pretty amazing to discover how much easier it can feel, by just not tensing up.

I’m trying to apply the same ideas to the picking hand now, and I think I’ve got a lot to learn there.

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