Hands stretching next to piano keys

Stretches for Pianists to Keep Your Playing Loose

Stretching is so important for pianists, like it is for anyone who uses their body for anything. Any use of your muscles will increase the tendency to tense up, which if unchecked can lead to injury. Here are some basic stretches for pianists I recommend.

Note: The exercises listed below are merely suggestions. They are what I’ve found works for me and other pianists I know.

However, I am not a doctor and do not claim to be an expert. You are the best expert of your own body. Pay close attention to how every movement feels and if anything doesn’t feel right, don’t do it!

Hands and Fingers

The hands and fingers are what most people probably think of when considering stretches for pianists. In reality these smaller muscles are less often the problem, and if you’re not careful you can actually injure yourself.

As I repeat constantly in my article about cross-training for pianists, it’s extremely important to be aware of what you’re doing so you don’t hurt yourself. I’ll also offer advice for any red flags to pay attention to.

Hands and Fingers Spread

Hand stretch for piano

Stretch the fingers of both hands as far apart as they will go, creating as much space as possible. Do not use anything to “help” this stretch, as this could potentially strain your hands and fingers. Just do what you can with the strength of your own hands.

You should feel a stretch in between each finger and down into the bones in your hands. By moving the fingers around subtly you can focus the stretch in different places. It can also feel good to move them around not-so-subtly, almost like you’re playing the piano with straight fingers.

Backward Finger Stretch

Finger stretch for piano

Place the ends of your fingers against a surface or the opposite hand . Then push them backward gently toward the back of the hand while simultaneously reach the thumb downward toward the wrist.

You should feel a stretch in the palm of the hand as well as the base of the fingers. You can change the focus of this stretch by focusing at one side of the fingers, such as the pinky side, but never stretch just one finger at a time as this can lead to a strain.

Backward Thumb Stretch

Thumb stretch for piano

Similar to the finger stretch above, place your thumb against a surface or the opposite hand.. Then push the thumb backward toward the back of the hand.

You should feel a stretch in the meaty heal of the hand, as well as through the base of the thumb. You can change the focus of the stretch by slightly changing the angle of the thumb from reaching upward toward the fingers to downward toward the wrist.

Forearms and Wrists

The forearms and wrists are some of the most important parts for a pianist to stretch. This is because they are the most likely to become tired or tense from practice.

I typically do all of these stretches periodically throughout the day, especially right before, during, and after piano practice.

Straight Arm, Wrist Bent Backward

Wrist stretch for piano

With a straight arm, bend your hand back as if to make a “stop” sign. You can do this against a wall, or for increased stretch use your other hand to bend the wrist even more than 90 degrees.

You should feel this stretch in your forearm and and wrist. For more wrist and hand focus, you can bend the elbow so that the fingers point toward your shoulder.

Straight Arm, Wrist Bent Forward

Wrist stretch for piano

This is similar to the above stretch but this time the hand is bent the other way, so that if you were using a wall the back of your hand would be against it.

This time the stretch will be felt in the other side of your forearm and wrist. Again you can focus the stretch on your wrist by bending the elbow.

Forearm Twist

Forearm stretch for piano

Grab the flesh of your forearm with the opposite hand and twist it around the bone so you can feel the muscles stretching.

This can be done all the way up and down the forearm, as well as twisting in either direction to really loosen up those forearm muscles.

Wrist Circles

Without the help of anything except your own muscles, circle your hands around between the two above positions.

You should feel a stretch, as well as a loosening, in your wrists and forearms. This can be tricky and will entail a combination of twisting and hand flipping. Just do your best; What’s important is that it feels good!

Balancing a Pie

An example of three stages during the "balancing a pie" movement to stretch hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders for piano playing.

This is a slightly advanced version of the wrist circles exercise. Put one hand (or both if you want an added challenge) out in front of you, facing upward like they’re holding a pie. Now move your hands in a big figure 8 pattern, trying to keep the imaginary pie facing upward and not dropping it the whole time as you twist your hands all the way around.

Most people will end up dropping the imaginary pie when twisting the hand under the arm. It’s ok if that happens to you as well! You will still get a stretch even if you can’t do this movement perfectly.

Like the wrist circles, this will stretch, as well as loosen, the wrists and forearms, as well as the upper arms and shoulders. Start slowly as this one can be difficult at first. You can and should go in both directions, either starting inward toward your body with the hand looping under the elbow, or outward with the hand looping over the shoulder.

Fun fact: This is a similar, though much more difficult, movement to the figure 8 hand dance (if you haven’t heard of it, there are tons of youtube videos teaching you how to do it). So if you can do the version mentioned above, you can definitely do the dance!

Stretches for the Rest of the Body

Many think that a pianist only needs to stretch the fingers, hands, and wrists. This is not at all true! Playing the piano is a full body experience and the more relaxed and toned the entire body is, the better you will play the piano.

The rest of this article has stretches that are by no means specific to pianists. I have still included them, however, so that you have full awareness of what to do to get your body in the best shape for piano playing.

Because these are such great stretches in general, they will probably be familiar to you because they are used in many different situations. I have not included pictures of the rest of the stretches in this article for this reason, but if you have any questions about any of them feel free to ask me in the comments and I’ll make sure to clarify!

Arms and Shoulders

The arms and shoulders can also get very tense when practicing, especially because this tends to be a place where we carry tension from general stress in our lives.

Therefore, stretching these areas will not only help with your playing, it will probably help with everything you do! Most of these stretches will also stretch nearby areas such as the neck, chest, and upper back.

Here’s a short video I found on Youtube that incorporates some of the stretches discussed below. There are plenty of others you can find on your own to fit the length and specific exercises that you prefer.

Head to the Side

Gently lean the head to one side, keeping shoulders down and relaxed. For an added stretch, gently place a hand on the head for a little more weight.

You should feel a stretch in the side of the neck, but also where the neck attaches to the shoulder. Hold this for as long as feels comfortable, and be sure to do both sides!

Head Roll

Start from the position of the above exercise and roll the head either forward or backward to reach the other side. If it’s comfortable, roll the head all the way around in either direction.

For an added stretch, place one or both hands gently on the head for a little more weight, but be careful not to strain your neck.

Like the above exercise, you should feel a stretch in the neck but where the base of the neck attaches to the shoulders, upper back, and chest. Be sure to try it in both directions.

Stretch Arms Behind the Back

Move one or both arms backward, keeping the shoulders down. If you can, clasp the hands behind the back and pull against them, pushing the chest forward, for an increased stretch. You should feel a stretch in the shoulders, upper arms, and chest.

There are a few variations for this stretch: One is going to a corner in your home and putting your arms out against each wall. Another is going against the wall with just one arm at a time, turning your body away from the wall to increase the stretch.

Arms Reach Upward

Reach both arms upward while keeping the shoulders down and clasp the hands together, pulling each other up even farther to increase the stretch.

You should feel a stretch in the shoulders and possibly the arm pits and upper back. It can also feel good to then lean your upper body to one side and then the other, increasing the stretch down the side of your torso.

Upper Arm Stretch

Bring one arm up, then bend the elbow and pull it toward the head with the opposite hand. You can increase the stretch by trying to reach the hand farther down the back.

Similar to the above exercise, you should feel a stretch in the upper arm, shoulder, and arm pit area. For an advanced variation, stretch the opposite arm down and bend the elbow so the hand reaches up behind the back. If possible, clasp the hands together for an intense shoulder stretch.

Arms Straight Forward Stretch

Straighten both arms forward in front of you, clasping the hands together and pulling them for an increased stretch.

You should feel a stretch in your shoulders and upper back. For more upper back stretch, gently lean your upper body to one side, then the other.

Self-Hug Stretch

Wrap your arms around yourself, giving yourself a big hug for a job well done! For an added stretch, move the lower hand toward the upper elbow and use it to press the upper arm farther around yourself.

Like the above exercise, you should feel this stretch in the shoulders and upper back, but also the upper arms. Also like the above exercise, you can increase and vary the stretch by gently leaning your upper body from side to side.

Lower Back and Legs

Most people don’t consider their lower back and legs when thinking about stretches for piano, but they are super important. Whenever we spend a lot of time sitting, we risk losing mobility in the legs, which in turn often causes or increases pain in the lower back.

There are a lot of good leg and back stretching exercises, but here are just a few I recommend specifically for pianists.

Back Twist

Sitting on a chair or your piano bench, twist your upper body to one side, then the other, using your hands to pull gently. You can increase the stretch by crossing one leg over the other, then twisting in the direction of the upper leg.

You should feel a stretch in your spine and also possibly your hip. For even more of a stretch, bring your leg up and hug your knee before twisting in the direction of that leg.

Folding Forward

Sitting on a chair or piano bench, bend forward at the waste and allow your arms and head to hang toward the ground. If the hands reach the floor, it may feel good to gently walk them from one side to the other to get more side stretch.

You should feel a stretch in your back and possibly your hips. For an advanced extension to this stretch, you can place your hands on the floor and try to lift your bottom off of the seat, adding an intense stretch in the legs.

Quad Stretches

This is an extremely common stretch that I’m sure you’ve done before. Standing near something to balance yourself if needed, bend one knee and grab the foot behind you.

You should feel a stretch in the quads, which will be greatly needed if you’re keeping your weight in your feet as you play piano.

Ankles and Feet

Yes, even your ankles and feet could use some stretching, especially if you frequently use the pedals!

Calf Stretch

Place the ball of the foot on a raised surface, either an exercise block, the bottom step of a stairway, or even a wall. Then stretch the heel downward.

You should feel a stretch in the back of the calf. You can vary the part of the calf that’s stretched by altering the angle of your foot slightly from one side to the other.

Shin and Ankle Stretch

Sitting or standing, stretch one or both feet up onto the balls of the feet. The higher you bring the heels off the ground, the better the stretch.

You should feel a stretch in your shins, ankles, and perhaps even feet and toes. This is especially helpful if you find your feet and legs getting tired from pedaling, though if that happens you should also take a closer look at your pedaling technique!

Foot Stretch

Sitting or standing, bring one foot behind you so the top of the toes press gently into the floor. You can change the placement and intensity of the stretch by varying the amount and direction of weight you use.

You should feel a stretch in the top of the foot, ankle, and possibly the shins. Like the above exercise, this can help with tired feet from pedaling.

I hope you’ve found this article interesting and helpful! Let me know in the comments what helped you the most!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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