By Lisa Ziegel
I consider myself to be pretty strong and can lift a significant amount of weight, which most women shy away from. I truly enjoy possessing this power, but alas, it doesn’t help me when it comes to opening jars. As much as I struggle and strain, lids refuse to budge for me. I have to rely on those rubber grip jar-opening aids, but even with a sticky utility that allows me to at least hold onto a slippery glass container, those recalcitrant closures still mock my attempts. I have resorted to asking anyone who is nearby and willing to give it a go and am usually embarrassed when the top slips off smoothly for them and makes it look as if I had not even been trying. This was disturbing enough, but recently after an evening of intense food prep in my kitchen (chopping, cutting, etc.), I woke up the next day with an intense pain between the thumb and the palm of my right hand. I have just learned that this was due to “Thenar Eminence” pain, or overuse of the muscles in the hand that act on the thumb, causing excessive strain in the base of the thumb joint. In other words, my “pinch grip” was out of whack.
My grip weakness and ensuing thumb pain led me to think about all of the people I work with as a fitness professional who complain about thumb/hand/wrist pain, are subsequently unable to perform many exercises in classes I teach, and are sometimes unable to perform their jobs efficiently (especially those who are at their computers constantly). This issue affects many other people who use their hands in repetitive, fine movements, such as cooking, sewing, gardening, work with machinery and tools, “mousing” or “gaming” or texting on phones, or who play sports like golf, bowling, baseball, etc. In other words, a great many activities of daily living. We forget what important tools our thumbs are until we are unable to grip objects or hang from a bar (grip strength being a key component in performing many exercises) or support our own body weight on our hands. Luckily, new research has spawned tools and methods for improving hand, wrist and grip strength, which will result in improvement in overall fitness and performance of daily activities.
There are three main types of grips that are of major concern: the “crush” grip, which is also known as the “handshake” grip, the “pinch” grip, using fingers and the opposing thumb, and the “support” grip, using fingers with or without the thumb (such as holding the handle of a bucket). According to fitness educator Naomi Aaronson1, norms have been established for the amount of grip strength in the “crush” mode for optimal efficacy in performing daily tasks; in general, 20 pounds of force is necessary. For pinch strength, it is seven pounds. A Canadian study conducted from 2007 to 2009 found that most females in the 50-59 year age group were just at this minimum, but I would suspect that women in this age group today are scoring even lower. Fortunately, innovative products and techniques have been developed to address this issue, along with tried-and-true methods to maintain hand/wrist/forearm strength and efficacy, which will in-turn lead to increased overall body strength and fitness and benefit performance of daily activities.
Exercises to build forearm and wrist strength have been around for a long time. Wrist flexion and wrist extensions can be done using light dumbbells or barbells. Squeezing a sand or gel-filled ball in your fist is another simple method. But there are limitations to the amount of resistance that can be used, and they only work a few select muscle groups. New tools allow for isolating these muscles, but also the entire body can work with them, creating a more integrated workout that better translates to daily activities and sports applications. An example is the “Sandbell,” which is a disk made of a durable neoprene fabric that can be filled with sand in increments of weight from 4-50 pounds. These disks are brilliant because they work the hand and forearm muscles using a variety of grips, all while performing exercises that work other muscle groups, making everything work harder. For instance, lunges or squats are a whole new challenge when done while holding a sand bell at each side using a pinch grip (between the thumb and fingers only). Not only are the hips and thighs working hard, but the forearms, hands, and eventually shoulders and upper back will feel it too! Bent-over rows can be performed with a sandbell in each hand in a crush grip, demanding added focus on stabilization as well as working the back and arm muscles, and, of course, forearms and hands.
Another item that is catching on now has actually been around for a time in low-tech form. Bodybuilders have been known to wrap towels and tape them around dumbbell and barbell handles to engage the forearms while performing bicep curls, etc. This is not ideal since there could be safety issues if the tape was to tear and the towel slipped off at mid-lift, and using taped-on foam sleeves can be risky if the foam slips, plus the material becomes compressed after continuous use. So an enterprising company created “Fatgripz”, sleeves made out of a more durable compound and designed to lock onto the bar and will not become misshapen. Working with these is an excellent way to challenge any muscle group in the body as well as strengthen the lower arm musculature, and they are even reported to be easier on the joints.
Other techniques requiring no equipment include simply hanging from something – “monkey” or gymnastic bars, or tree limbs (make sure the object is secure first). Timing your hanging endurance is a good way to see improvement over time when you practice. Grasping and turning things with the non-dominant hand can actually stimulate strength gains in both arms, and practicing holding and carrying objects in non-traditional ways (i.e. carrying a bag of groceries using a crush grip instead of a support grip) is something you can practice every time you go shopping- – but use a sturdy bag, a canvas-reusable one being the ideal. And if you are like me, avoid shying away from those jar-opening challenges. I’m actually getting better at it since I am now concentrating on mastering the task.
Finally, if you are stuck working at a computer or doing repetitive, fine hand work, take the time to rest and stretch your hands out. You can open your hands wide and just stretch the fingers open, or place your palms close together and push your fingers toward each other. Stretch and move your wrists and forearms, as well as your chest and front shoulders and the sides of your neck too, since tightness in these spots can travel down through your arms all the way to your hands.
Now that you know you can overcome wrist, hand and thumb pain and build strength and muscle in your entire body at the same time, you can enjoy better overall fitness, “hands-down”.