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Get a Grip

By ,

Photo by Kelly Sikkema 

Published in the Humboldt Independent on July 14, 2020 

Do you think you could hang from a chin-up bar for 30 seconds without your hand grip failing? How far could you walk if you were carrying a bucket full of several gallons of water before your grip failed? How many dinner plates could you grab when setting the Thanksgiving table without your grip giving out?

These may not be the burning questions of your sheltering in place time, and if you are an essential worker, you may not have time to ponder such anatomical queries. Still, the overall health predicted by your hand grip strength may be worth paying more attention to as we sidle toward whatever the brave new world has in store for us.

The human hand

The human hand is most known for its amazing dexterity giving it a broad range of intricate abilities. Fully 25% of the brain governing the body’s movement is specifically dedicated to the movement of the hands. We do countless things with our hands every day, relying on their dexterity, whether accomplishing mundane tasks like scooping up tumbleweeds of dog hair or delicate ones like playing Chopin on the piano. Our intellectual lives and practical existence have been enhanced by the opposable thumb as well as the shape and length of the fingers to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine civilization without the contribution of the human hand.

However, it may be the less delicate abilities of the hand that relate most to overall health as well as predict continued independence for elders.

Is it a lot harder to open that jar of pickles than it used to be? You may be a candidate for grip strength training.

Fingers are a complex system of tendons acting as pulleys and are directed by muscles located in the forearm.

Human fingers do not actually have any muscle tissue crossing the three phalanges or finger bones. Instead, a complex system of tendons acting as pulleys, as well as cruciate and ring-shaped ligaments keeping the pulleys in place, are directed by muscles located way up in the forearm. If you make a light grip around your right forearm with your left hand, and then open and close the right hand without moving its wrist, your left hand will be able to feel all the muscular activity in the right forearm that is directing the motion of the fingers.

Tendons are non-elastic, poorly innervated, and have minimal blood supply. It generally takes much more force to bring tendon to failure than muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is very elastic and well supplied with blood and nerves and responds to the demands placed on it. As we age or become less active, or if we seldom do any heavy work with our hands, our grip strength suffers, and studies are showing that poor grip strength correlates to all kinds of serious health issues. Maintaining good grip strength is also a strong predictor of prolonged independence for elders.

Building a healthy grip

There are three types of grip, and they can all be trained. Five to ten minutes a day, 3-5 times per week, will go a long way toward building healthy grip strength. You may already be doing many of these things if you are an active gardener, you lift weights, or your job involves manual labor.

  1. Crush grip. This is when you squeeze something within your palm. A strong handshake is an example of a crush grip. You can strengthen this grip by squeezing items that provide a variety of resistance levels like silly putty, a tennis ball, or your partner’s hand when they’re about to say something embarrassing about you in a zoom meeting. The palm should feel fairly full of whatever you are squeezing. Use your imagination and remember that both the brain and the muscle tissue love variety.
  2. Support grip. This is the type of grip you use when carrying a bucket of water, or doing a pull-up (come on, I know you bust those out every day). At the gym, the farmer’s carry (replacing the bucket of water with a kettlebell or dumbbell) and rowing machines can be very helpful for improving this grip. Around the house, use a suitcase (yes, that wheeled device you used to take to airports when you used to be able to travel probably has a thing called a handle on it somewhere that you can use to improve your support grip strength).
  3. Pinch grip. This is the grip you most use that famous opposable thumb for. Pinching an object between the thumb and fingertips without using the palm is how this type of grip works. Grabbing that perfect small piece of firewood off the pile, or pulling a big fat book off the shelf are examples of this grip. In a gym, you could grab weight plates with this grip and rotate the palm up and down to challenge the forearm at various angles. Around the house, use books or dinner plates instead.

Muscle engagement and stretching

Make slow circles with your wrists, pausing to stretch with hands extended back as well as flexed forward.

After training these specific grips, it’s good to give the forearm muscles some less specific attention as well as some opposing muscle engagement and stretching. Try plunging your hands deep into one of those many sacks of beans you have recently stockpiled and move your hands and wrists around randomly against the multi-directional resistance, especially into extension, or bending the fingers back toward the forearm.

Make slow circles with your wrists, pausing to stretch with hands extended back as well as flexed forward. From hands and knees position, flatten your palms into the floor and imagine gripping the floor with finger pads, press the roots of the fingers down, and then, keeping your arms straight, lean your shoulders forward and back, right and left, etc. to stretch and strengthen hands, wrists, and forearms. (If you can’t do hands and knees, you can simulate these actions at a wall).

Work your way up to a fingertip plank (push-up starting position but on tips of fingers rather than palms) from the knees or the toes, and if you are truly a glutton for punishment, try a greased fingertip plank, placing a slippery lotion or oil between your fingertips and the floor (please send video if you manage this feat).

Wringing actions are very good, too, which you may have learned back in the days when you could travel and you washed out your laundry in the hotel sink.

If you have arthritis in your hands or thumbs, this may all sound like torture. However, in most cases, the work tends to alleviate arthritic discomfort by decreasing inflammation and may well restore confidence in skills that have been lost.

That way, the next time you want to get into that jar of pickles for a nosh during your next Netflix binge, you’ll be able to pop it open with ease to the envy of all the pets around you.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.