Understand Your Hands - Part 2: Building Muscle Fiber

Weekly Newsletter #53

August 11, 2022

If you watch the best guitarists play, whether that’s Paco De Lucia, Steve Vai, Joscho Stephan, or whomever, what you’re watching is the perfection of a technique combined with muscle mass. 

When someone is playing ultra fast, or extremely cleanly it’s because they perfected the correct technique, and then used that proper technique to build the muscle fibers associated with that motion. 

Today’s newsletter will be a continuation of the “Understand Your Hands” series. 

It’s necessary that you have read and understood Part 1 (Newsletter #48), because each of the topics in this series will build upon the previous ones. 

In Part I we discussed the differences in the three types of muscles fibers: 

  • Type I (slow twitch) 
  • Type IIa (intermediate fast twitch) 
  • Type IIb (fast twitch). 

Now, we are going to discuss how to build specific fibers to accomplish certain tasks that rely mainly on that fiber. For example, a swimmer and a football player will have very different workout routines and will target a very different set of muscles. 

Similarly, a guitarist must choose whether to target Type I or Type II muscles in his or her hands. The decision, on which muscle group to focus, is dependent on the motion you are trying to improve. 

Deciding Which Muscle Fiber To Target 

After reading Part I it may be tempting to simply want to target Type IIa fibers because they are the most versatile. However, this would be a large mistake. 

Nearly every song you play will use all three fiber types for different purposes, and so it’s important to build up each one equally. 

Also, it’s important to remember that without proper form you may be employing the completely wrong fiber type for a specific motion. 

This is why technique and efficiency of movement is so important. 

When deciding which muscle fiber to target, in order to build it up through exercises, it is vital that you critically analyze the motion you are looking to improve and decide how fast that motion must be done, the level of force and explosiveness involved, the duration of it and whether it will be dynamic or static in volume. 

For example if you want to increase the speed of your fretting hand legato you would hopefully notice that you need to increase the speed of the attack of each finger. The faster the finger moves toward the string, the sooner that string will sound. However, you must also develop the ability to immediately relax that finger and let it fall away from the string so that the next finger can play. 

This explosive, high velocity attack is more likely to rely on Type IIb muscle fibers because they fire extremely quickly and powerfully, but have a very short duration. 

The Importance Of Proper Technique 

As mentioned, proper technique is essential for building the correct muscle fibers. 

In the previous example of building Type IIb fibers for faster legato playing, if your legato technique is wrong to begin with, then attempting to build larger Type IIb muscles will lead you nowhere. 

Just as in the gym you must have proper form while lifting weights in order to correctly build your biceps or abs, so too should you use correct technique when building the muscles in your hands and forearms. 

If in the previous example you are playing legato by bending and relaxing all the knuckles of each finger instead of just using the big knuckle, then your muscle building exercise will be of no use. 

The correct form for legato is to use the big knuckle only while executing a hammer-on, and using the middle knuckle primarily for the pull-off. 

More can be found about the proper legato technique in Newsletter #12

This is the reason I stress the value of learning the correct technique to all of my students. 

By establishing the correct technique you will ingrain the proper and most efficient motion, which will then allow you to build the muscle fibers to enhance that motion to the maximum capability. 

Exercise Examples 

Below are a couple examples of exercise you can do (with proper technique of course) in order to target specific muscle fibers in certain areas of your hands. 

Type IIb - Large Knuckle Exercise 

The big knuckles control a massive amount of techniques on the guitar, and it is therefore necessary that we not only strengthen them, but also increase the speed with which they expand, contract and relax. By building Type II fibers in the muscles that control finger movement around the knuckles you will make many facets of your playing significantly easier, more powerful and less subject to fatigue. 

  • Start with your hand in a light fist. Use only enough energy to keep your hand from expanding but do not squeeze or tense. 
  • Explode outward with your fingers and thumb as far and as quickly possible. 
  • Immediately relax into a neutral and tension free position, as though your hand was lifeless. 
  • Repeat this process 15-20 times with 1-3 second of recovery in the neutral state between repetitions. 

Watch a VIDEO of this exercise here. 

Type IIa - Fingerpicking Exercise 

To be a proficient finger picker, one must have not only the control and touch to attack the strings at various dynamic levels, but also the quick reflexes that allow your fingers to return to a ready position in order to strike again. 

This elasticity is one of the main results of building Type II muscle fiber, specifically in the large knuckles. These knuckles at the base of the fingers control a lot of the movement of each finger, and can act as a hinge on which the finger pivots. 

When finger picking, it is essential that you strike the string from a rested position (the finger already in place on the string) and not swipe at the string from the air. 

Swiping at the string has several negative outcomes that almost always prohibit players from advancing. 

While rested, it is the large knuckle at the base of the finger that begins to apply pressure before the finger shoots through and plucks the string. The amount of pressure applied before the strike is indicative of the volume and power of the resulting note. 

That pressure comes directly from the Type II muscle fiber that controls the movement of the big knuckle. 

This exercise builds upon the previous exercise but does so in the opposite direction. Rather than expanding our hand, we must contract it, however doing so only one finger at a time. 

  • Begin with your arm and hand in alignment with each other (very slight bend downward at the wrist) and with a completely neutral, relaxed hand. 
  • Using only the big knuckle of your index finger, contract your finger down toward the ground as fast as you can. Try to not move any other fingers, some might move slightly but there should be no large movement in any part of your hand besides the index finger. 
  • The moment your finger reaches the lowest point of the contraction, when it cannot go any further, immediately relax and let your finger spring back into a neutral, relaxed state. 
  • Repeat 5 times per finger, with approximately 1-2 seconds between each repetition. On the final repetition, hold your finger down at the bottom of the contraction for 3-5 seconds before instantly releasing the tension and allowing it to spring back into its neutral state. 
  • For added difficulty and an improvement in alternation between two fingers, repeat the exercise by alternating one finger and then the other. For example, index finger, then middle, back to index etc. Make sure to include all various combinations of fingers. This will greatly improve your ability to finger pick quickly using alternating fingers. 

Watch a VIDEO of this exercise here. 

Without a doubt, it is incredibly beneficial to your playing to do as many of these muscle fiber exercises as possible throughout the day. By making these a part of your daily routine you will be steadily reinforcing the movements that build the type of muscle fibers necessary to not only play better, but to improve faster. 

Creating Your Own Exercises 

Whether you want to increase your ability to stretch across multiple frets, or play more consistent bar chords or develop your tremolo finger picking, there is a way to develop an exercise that builds that specific muscle fiber. 

The process starts with a careful analysis of the technique in question. You must critically look at the motion of the hand and what it currently is doing when you attempt the technique, and what it should be doing. 

Ask yourself, “Is this the most efficient and effective way to move in order to execute this technique?” If you suspect there is a better way, there most likely is. 

After analyzing the technique in question and recognizing the correct motion needed, you must establish whether this motion will likely utilize Type I, IIa or IIb muscle fiber. Based on the intended outcome (endurance, explosiveness, power and duration etc.) you can then determine how to craft the exercise that will develop this fiber. 

For Type I muscle fiber it is far more important to have the motion be very short and small in distance but done exactly the same way for an extended period of time. 

Similarly for Type IIa fiber you must be able to repeat the motion exactly the same way every time. However, you must also add in the acceleration and explosiveness that is the hallmark of this fiber. 

Finally if it is Type IIb fiber that you want to develop, make sure that the motion is done using 85-100% of your available power and strength. 

Take the time and make sure that you use correct form and build the correct fibers for a specific technique. You will improve much faster and will find yourself reaching higher levels of progress in shorter spans of time. 

As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have questions about an exercise or want help creating your own exercises for a specific movement or technique. 

-Max Rich