Stretches for guitarists

Following on from last Saturday’s post on neck and shoulder pain associated with guitar playing, I thought I’d share with you some stretches that I’ve reinstated this past week (after being very

What a pain in the neck

naughty and lazy and not doing them! Smack hands!).

These exercises:

(a) work to relieve those feelings and sensations of tightness, sharp pain and dull ache sensations in the back and front or the shoulder, the side of the neck, upper back and even headaches (yes, headaches and even jaw aches you may have been experiencing could well be referred pain from trigger points, or knotted and constricted fibres, in your muscles).

(b) are excellent maintenance exercises to prevent the tightness, pain and dull ache in the shoulder, neck and chest from occurring in the first place.

Just be careful!

I will caveat that this post with the fact that I’m in no way any kind of physical practitioner, yoga teacher or any other kind of biomechanics personage. As ever, and with all my other advice, it is all delivered with the best of intentions.

These exercises are ones that I do and work for me. Hopefully they can work for others, but remember that we are all built and work differently. If you are experiencing a lot of pain, or discomfort or it is recurring, you should head to see your doctor/ physiotherapist/ myotherapist/ Alexander Technique teacher sooner rather than later.

So. On to the stretches!

A few of the stretches are based around some of the stretches and yoga positions that I’ve been working on this week, but I’ve picked out the most accessible and hopefully most relevant ones for us guitarists – those working on opening up the chest and relieving and stretching the neck and shoulders.

As an aside, the yoga I think is really beneficial for “guitarist shoulder”. It’s been working really well for me this week anyway. The first session back after a big hiatus of over a year was a real shock to the system – argh! I’m so weak! – but my old flappy chicken wing of a right shoulder felt really stable and secure and achey only in a good, I’ve-done-a-workout way. The second session felt much easier by comparison, and along with a second myotherapy session, the shoulder is most definitely on the improve. Get on it people!

So anyways, yes, we were getting on with those stretches weren’t we?

Stretch 1 – Neck nods (or as I call it “sniff ya pits”!)

You may have guessed that this delightfully descriptive moniker is not the proper yoga term for the stretch, but it gives you a very good indication of the action you need to perform.

How to perform the stretch

Gently turn your head to the left, and nod your head down as if looking to inspect your armpit – noice. You should feel a nice stretching sensation along the right side of your neck. If you want to increase the stretch place your left hand on the crown of your head and pull your head down slightly, doing so very gently.

Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the left side and in the centre too, looking down to your chest. Repeat that sequence once more.

You can do this one seated or standing up.

What does this stretch help with?

This stretches out those muscles at the side of your neck (such as the sternocleidomastoid and the levator scapulae), reducing the stress on them, and relieving feelings of tension in the neck and potentially some headache symptoms.

Stretch 2 – Side stretches

How to perform the stretch

This one is best carried out standing up (which you should be doing every 30 minutes or so anyway whilst practicing), but you can do it seated if you really want. 

Raise your arms up above your head, parallel with one another (I always find that action in itself feels really nice after having practiced for a little while), lean very slightly and gently forwards (only a couple of degrees) and slowly bend to the left as far as you’re able.

Hold the stretch for around 30 seconds if you can. Repeat to the right side.

What does this stretch help with?

This stretch helps with postural alignment and stretching out the spine and back muscles. It also gives a little work to the shoulders and upper arms muscles, getting them to work in a different way to playing the guitar (or sitting at a desk and typing like I am now!)

Stretch 3 Standing one arm row (as in boat, not as in having an argument with someone….)

How to perform the stretch 

Right. You know the score by now of standing versus sitting to do these stretches. Raise your right arm to about shoulder height, with your palm open and facing the ground. Then gradually squeeze your shoulder-blade back, and gradually return to the starting point.

Ensure you don’t move your left shoulder or shoulder-blade whilst carrying it this motion. Repeat this movement around 6-10 times. Repeat to the left side.

What does this stretch help with? 

Similarly to the previous stretch, this one gives a little work to the shoulders and upper arms muscles, getting them to work in a different way to playing the guitar. It also works the upper and middle back, helping your trapezius and latissimus dorsi to fire properly.

Muscles connecting the upper extremity to the ...
Latissimus dorsi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stretch 4 – Shoulder circles

How to perform the stretch 

Sit or stand tall move your shoulders in a circle, moving forwards. Repeat this action 5 times and then repeat 5 times circling backwards. The movement, as always, a gentle, slow movement.

What does this stretch help with? 

Stretch 5 – Torso twists

How to perform the stretch 

OK, this one you do need to be seated for. Sit tall and place your hands behind your head. Inhale deeply and twist your whole torso, arms and head as far to the right as you can. Hold that for 5-10 seconds and release slowly to the centre. Repeat to the left side. Repeat the sequence again another 2 or 3 times.

What does this stretch help with? 

This last one helps to relieve and maintain the muscles in our back which are responsible for spinal rotation. Sitting in the one position puts stresses on these back muscles and the twisting exercise can help relieve those.

All of these stretches can be done:

  • prior to commencing practice (to warm yourself up a bit and get blood flowing to the area)
  • part way through a practice session (to break it up a bit, and move the muscles in a different way)
  • and most desirably after a practice session (to allow the muscles, again, to work in a different way, to have them stretch where they were contracting during playing and vice versa, to re-centre them, strengthen and relax them, and to get blood flowing through the area to flush out any waste products such as lactic acid.

These stretches are primarily focussed on neck, shoulders and torso. There are a whole bunch of other stretches that can be done for other parts of the body playing our instrument impacts on, such as arms, hands, fingers, hips and lower back which we can also look at another time if you’re interested?


5 thoughts on “Stretches for guitarists

  1. Your posts are very helpful! I’m a massage therapist and guitar player. I’m experiencing anterior shoulder pain, and you give very good suggestions! I might alternatively suggest the Mattes Method of stretching. It involves breathing. Instead of holding a stretch for 30 seconds hold the stretch for 1 or 2 seconds while exhaling. Inhale on the release, going back to the neutral position, and perform each stretch 8 times. What this does is 1.) Oxygenates the muscles, 2.) Aids in relaxation, and 3.) The Stretch Reflex is not triggered. The stretch reflex gets triggered if we hold a stretch too long for a muscle that’s not ready to stretch, i.e., very tight muscles, weak muscles, cold muscles. The stretch reflex reacts by tightening the muscle, keeping it from stretching further and therefore getting injured. When we ignore this pain/reflex we end up with sore muscles. I’m 57 years old and I have to be extra careful of my aging, less flexible muscles. Give it a try and see how good your stretch gets, and perhaps with much less pain.

    1. Hi Regina,

      thanks very much for your comment. Thankfully in the last two and a half years since I wrote that post I’m playing pain free these days. Thanks very much for your tips though – I’ll be sure to give them a try!


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