When I was growing up taking private violin and piano lessons, most of my teachers taught me some form of warm up to do before playing. At that time, it mostly consisted of static wrist stretches and finger etude-style warm ups. Some of it had merit, but some warrants further consideration. Fifteen or so years, a bachelor’s degree in music, and a doctorate in physical therapy later, I have some pertinent thoughts and observations on the topic. Musicians should include dynamic upper body and spinal mobility in their warm ups to prepare both the arms and the torso for the demands of playing and maintaining sustained postures.
This post is about the physiology behind warm ups. I will provide video examples that will benefit all musicians below. The purpose of warming up from a PT perspective is to reduce risk of performance-related musculoskeletal disorders and help increase dexterity, speed, and reaction time needed for playing by preparing the body for the demands of practice and performance. Here is some background on what we know about warm up types. Most of this information is gleaned from sports literature, but has carryover to musicians.
Static versus dynamic warm-ups
This has been a hot topic in the physio and athletic world for nearly 40 years. There has been a great deal of research done on the topic and the results are highly variable depending on the study, but tend to lean toward dynamic warm ups to improve performance. Let’s review the difference between static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is long statically held stretches. Dynamic stretching involves actively moving through the full available range of motion across specific joints and muscle groups. The general purpose of a pre-exercise warm up is to increase muscle and tendon suppleness, to stimulate blood flow to the periphery, to increase muscle temperature, and to enhance free, coordinated movement. (1) It is thought that dynamic warm ups may be better at increasing tissue temperature and blood flow than static stretching.
Clinically, I see a widely held dogma that dynamic warm ups are the way to go to reduce injury and enhance performance within the athletic population. These are now commonly prescribed by physical therapists and athletic trainers alike. In my scan of the literature, there may be some evidence to show improved athletic performance, increased reaction time, and power with dynamic warm ups compared to static stretching. (2) (3) (4)
I am going to go out on a limb and transfer some of this knowledge of dynamic warm ups in the athletic population to musicians. If dynamic warm ups improve athletic performance in terms of speed, power, and reaction time in athletes, they may function similarly for musicians. This may be helpful especially when preparing for technically challenging playing–increasing the agility and coordination needed by our fingers and arms to play an instrument. Because of this, a player will likely spend less time early in practice or performance feeling incoordination or sluggishness of the fingers and arms. Additionally, increasing blood flow should help to improve mental performance and focus, as shown in many studies regarding the positive effects of exercise on memory, learning, attention, and academic performance.5 So in addition to preparing the physical body for playing by dynamically warming up, we are also warming up the mind.
There is a lack of evidence regarding upper body dynamic warm ups which would be most relevant to musicians, but no detrimental effects of dynamic warm ups have been found with regard to injury or performance in the athletic population.(6) In other words, there is no downside to performing a dynamic warm up before playing.
For musicians, a dynamic warm up should target the specific joints and muscles used during playing. For most of us, this includes fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders. If you are a violinist or violist, you may also consider incorporating neck exercises as well to offset the asymmetrical posture you assume during playing such as gentle head turns left and right. Additionally, a spinal warm up should be included to prepare the body for long periods of time spent sitting or standing. Instrument-specific finger agility exercises will be beneficial to further warm up the tendons of the fingers as well as facilitating finger independence, which improves coordination and finger responsiveness while performing. In the violin world Schradieck passages are a great example.
So, now that we’ve gotten the why out of the way, let’s give some examples.
Finger Tendon Glides
This allows the tendons of our fingers to glide smoothly through their sheaths and begins to increase the tissue temperature of our intrinsic hand musculature. Perform each hand shape between 10-20 repetitions.
Choir Conductors for the Wrist and Elbow
This exercise moves the wrist and elbows through their full range of motion. The elbow is moved through flexion, extension, pronation, and supination, and the wrist moves through flexion, extension, radial deviation, and ulnar deviation. This actively stretches the muscles of the forearm. Perform this exercise between 10-15 repetitions moving the arms close to and further away from the body.
Radial and Medial Nerve Glides
This improves the mobility of our nerves as they glide through our arms from neck to fingertips. Nerves are highly sensitive structures which can become easily sensitized or irritated by compression or stretch. Extra care should be used when performing this movement to ensure the nerves are not aggravated. Any feelings of sharpness, electric, shock-like pains are reasons to limit the full available range of motion (in other words, stay in the pain-free range) and perhaps discontinue the head turning as well. Very little stretch or tension should be perceived during these movements. In addition, this movement begins to warm up the shoulder joint and the forearm musculature. Only perform about 10 arm alternations for this exercise so as to not overly sensitize nervous tissues.
Push Up Plus to Finger Lumbrical Stretch
This is an active warm up of the serratus anterior muscle and it mobilizes the scapula through retraction and protraction. Additionally, the roll up onto your fingers will help actively stretch your lumbricals and intrinsic hand musculature, which can often get very tight in musicians that play instruments with use of their fingers. Perform between 10-20 repetitions of this exercise.
Thoracic Spine Foam Rolling
My favorite warm up of all time. Foam rolling of the thoracic spine helps to offset hours of time spent in slumped postures. It increases each thoracic vertebral segments’ ability to extend while simultaneously relaxing the paraspinals muscles of the back. Perform this exercise for 1-2 minutes.
Before practice or performance, perform a dynamic warm up which targets all muscles and joints utilized while playing your instrument. This warm up should not take more than 5 or so minutes. It is part of your practice. All of these activities are designed with the intent to help improve your playing, not waste your time. By performing these, you should feel a reduction in the initial awkwardness of the first 10-20 minutes of practice that occurs without warm up.
Smith CA. The warm-up procedure: to stretch or not to stretch. A brief review. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1994;19(1):12-17. doi:10.2519/jospt.19220.127.116.11
Fradkin AJ, Zazryn TR, Smoliga JM. Effects of Warming-up on Physical Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010;24(1):140-148. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c643a0
Freund DT, Liccardo AM, Rooney AM, et al. The effects of static versus dynamic stretching on average power in the young-adult athletic population. MOJ Yoga Physical Ther. 2016;1(1):25-30. DOI: 10.15406/mojypt.2016.01.00006
Magner A, Chatham K, Spradley B, Wiriyapinit S, Price W, Akins T. Static stretching versus dynamic warm up: the effect on choice reaction time as measured by the makoto area II. Sport Journal. 2012; 21: 1-1.
Mandolesi L, Polverino A, Montuori S, et al. Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Front Psychol. 2018;9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509
McCrary JM, Ackermann BJ, Halaki M. A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. Br J Sports Med. 2015;49(14):935. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-094228
About the Author/Specialist
Hope Hampton PT, DPT
Certified Manual Physical Therapist
Musician Rehabilitation Specialist
Hope is a Doctor of Physical Therapy with advanced training in orthopedics and manual therapy as well as a classically trained musician with more than 25 years of playing experience. Her primary instruments include violin, piano, and guitar. She utilizes her training and experience as a musician to develop specialized rehabilitation programs for injured musicians.