Warm Up Routines - Why They Matter

This forum features content and weekly newsletters from our friend and colleague Max Rich. Max has done a bunch of lessons for us over the years, and was the main force behind Totally Electric Guitars a few years ago. Everyone is invited to add their thoughts, suggestions and general input as well.
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Fri Jul 07, 2023 1:46 pm

When you sit down to practice (not just play) do you dive right into the song or exercise you’re working on?

If so, you’re probably not getting the most out of your practice session.

Way too many players ignore the value of warming up before a practice session, and end up leaving that session making less progress than they could have.

Playing guitar is a physical act; it uses muscles, tendons, coordination and timing just like any other physical activity.

You wouldn’t start lifting weights or jump right into a competitive basketball game without stretching or doing a warm up right?

So why would you ignore that crucial step when practicing guitar?

What Does A Warm Up Actually Do?

It’s not like you’re lifting 200lbs when playing guitar, so you’re not exactly putting your body under intense physical strain are you?

So what’s the point in warming up?

Well as I’m sure you all recognize, when you start playing for the first time today you’ll be less synchronized and less accurate than at the end of your playing session yesterday.

It’s normal to feel “cold” when starting to play for the day.

But if you’re trying to sit down and actually improve at guitar, and you’re doing so “cold” then you’re actually just wasting the first 20-30 minutes of your practice session.

You likely notice that the song isn’t as easy to play as it was yesterday when you finished and you think you’ve gone backwards.

In order to avoid this, and the mistake of practicing incorrectly, it’s important to spend the first 20 minutes or so making sure that your hands, fingers and technique all function at their optimal level.

This way when you actually practice your piece of music you can improve upon where you left off, not simply try to catch up to where you were yesterday.

Jumping in to practice without a warm up can lead to running reps that have technical flaws in them…and running flawed reps just teaches your brain to ingrain a bad habit. We want to avoid that at all cost!

Instead, it’s really valuable to make sure you cover three things when warming up…

Left Hand, right hand and timing.

Good Warm Up Routines

The exact routine you use will depend on what you’re planning to practice, but it should always include those three elements.

Examples of good warm up strategies might be:

Left Hand

Chromatic Scales - Either cross-string or on a single string up/down the neck

Stretching Exercises - Simple stretching, such as reaching across two frets with a finger

Hammer On/Pull Off Exercises - Slow, easy slurs. Focusing on crisp sound and accuracy on the finger tip

Right Hand

Open String Arpeggios - Whether flat or fingerpicking, open string arpeggios can warm up your accuracy and spatial orientation

Dotted Rhythm Picking - Works on quick fast-twitch motions that force you to play a long note, followed by two quick notes back-to-back. Think a shuffle or swing beat.

Alternate Picking - Either fingerstyle or with a pick, making sure the attack is consistent in both strokes (up/down or between each finger). Keep the follow through after the string to a minimum.

Timing (always w/ metronome)

Speed Bursts - Using a scale or set of notes alternate between 2 measure of quarter notes and one measure of eighth notes. Focus on hitting the center of the metronome click…not early or late

Increasing Subdivisions - Take an even number of notes and go slowly through the following subdivisions: quarter, eighth, triplet, sixteenth. Then go backward through the same subdivisions, starting with sixteenth.

2 & 4 - Instead of keeping the metronome on every beat, try to play a scale with the metronome clicking only on 2 & 4. If you have it set to click on every beat at 100BPM, cut that in half to 50BPM and now each click will be beat 2 and then beat 4…this one is really hard!

These are just examples of things to use when warming up.

Remember, the warm up isn’t a practice session.

It should be very easy to do and the goal isn’t to “practice” these things, but to simply get your body to the point where practicing your music will not be hindered by stiff fingers or slow reaction time.

Make sure that you try to work on each hand separately.

That means don’t use your right hand at all when warming up the left hand and vice versa.

For timing, you’ll obviously need both hands.

As I said, your warm up should get your ready for whatever you’re going to practice…so if you’re going to play a classical guitar piece, you should probably warm up finger picking and not flat picking.

Similarly, if you’re going to be practicing a Santana solo, you should probably warm up your left hand using a rock guitar position and not a classical guitar position.

It’s up to you how you warm up, but whatever you choose to do, make sure you don’t fall into the rabbit hole of making that your practice session in itself.

Keep it as a warm up.

-Max Rich

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Thu Aug 17, 2023 12:18 pm

This was really helpful.

I have a fingerpicking exercise Neil recommended for training the thumb from getting tucked under the fingers. It involves only the right hand and using thumb, first second a third fingers. For each string pluck the open string with the thumb followed by each finger and descend from 6th string to first string. Then ascend from first string to sixth string but reverse the finger order. Start with the third finger and end each string with the thumb..

Since this is only using the right hand I have added it to my warm ups, After I am warmed up my first exercise when I practice is to combine the thumb exercise to playing chromatic scales.


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Sun Aug 20, 2023 12:06 pm

I found it helpful too. After 60 years of playing purely on the basis of "learning songs" - which has served me well enough until I realized that I could improve - I'm just beginning to do anything resembling exercises and a formal practice routine. And what I've learned in just a couple of weeks is that the results are striking. And humbling. Understanding how little I know, and how much learning will improve things, was the first step.

The good news is that there is some stuff I want to learn that overlaps beautifully with the need to warm up and practice useful techniques. So I'm doing very basic things right now. Literally just learning scales. And after a couple of weeks (other than the major scale,) I'm starting to "hear" and soo I'll remember them. As I expand the time I spend on this I know it will move faster.

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