Outside magazine, June 1994
During my freshman year in college, a popular young biology professor delivered a lecture concerning evolutionary adaptation in vertebrates. He began by holding up his two hands and turning them slowly, gently, and wonderingly.
"You folks have been paying attention to the wrong parts of your dates' bodies on Saturday nights," he told his tittering audience. "These," he said, continuing to turn his hands, "are what's really amazing."
That same message might be delivered with equal profit to a more mature but no wiser group of present-day athletes--that's us--who typically spend hundreds of hours exercising various large-muscle groups and working to improve cardiovascular conditioning but spend little or no time developing their hands. Yet for virtually every sport (with the possible exception of distance running) the hands are crucial.
"Athletes in particular tend to take their hands for granted; it's almost a subconscious thing," says Ken Meadows, a physical therapist who specializes in hands in Portland, Oregon. "We concentrate on the power parts of our bodies and assume that our hands are sufficiently strengthened by daily living. In some cases that's correct, but not always. Often hand strength isn't developed enough to enhance performance or prevent injury."
What Meadows means is that operating a keyboard, dialing a phone, or chopping wood for eight hours a day will prepare your hands to do just that--but won't make your hands strong enough for your extracurricular activities. Greater hand strength is obviously central to sports like rock climbing, in which the fingertips often support the weight of the entire body, and kayaking, with its nearly continuous stresses on the gripping muscles. But developing the muscles of the hands, wrists, and forearms is also important in pursuits not readily associated with manual strength or dexterity. Swimmers, for instance, require strong and supple hands to maintain proper stroke mechanics; mountain bikers, who spend hours at a stretch shifting gears and pulling brake levers--while their hands and wrists support their body weight and withstand the shock from the trail--require tremendous hand strength. There's also upkeep to think about: Continued stress on unprepared hands can lead to tendinitis in your fingers. Then performance is moot--it's participation that's at risk.
Until recently, however, coaches and trainers thought that they were satisfactorily addressing such problems by tossing athletes rubber balls and telling them to squeeze. While rubber balls are crudely serviceable--and widely available--for building gross grip strength, they fail to satisfy what are now recognized as basic requirements for so many athletic endeavors: fingers that are individually strong, adept, and capable of a full range of motion.
In large part, such realizations have been made by occupational therapists, who have come to the fore as hand specialists as a result of the recent upsurge in the treatment of modern work-related hand maladies, particularly cumulative stress disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome. But these therapists have also been designing programs for growing numbers of recreational athletes seeking to enhance their capabilities. And some disagreement swirls about how--and whether--this end can be achieved.
First, a little physiology. Your hands carry out their myriad functions through a vast and intricate system of tendons and muscles stretching from the tips of your fingers to your elbows. While the wrists and fingers are controlled by the long, relatively thick muscles running along the inside and outside of your forearms--that's where gross grip strength, or the power we feel during a viselike handshake, comes from--the smaller muscles at the base of your thumb and fingers are responsible for your hand's finer movements, as when you're feeling for a hold. Called the abductor muscles, they stretch laterally across the hand.
If the muscles that control your hands aren't developed well enough to endure the demands of a given activity, the strain will often be passed on to the tendons (there's actually no muscle tissue in your fingers). Strain the tendons continuously and you'll likely suffer from the most common hand-related injury, a type of tendinitis called epicondylitis, which originates in stresses to the hands and fingers but is manifested by pain in the elbow, where many of the muscles operating the hands cross and connect to bone. Practitioners liken this pain to pollution showing up downstream of where it enters a creek.
It is also at the point of preventing such "pollution"--and thus shoring up the athletic capabilities of your hands--that the hand-performance experts fall into two camps. One camp holds that the only way to improve hand functioning for a given sport is through practicing the sport itself; the other maintains that it is possible to simulate the specific demands of a sport by working your hand muscles in the gym or treatment room.
Work with the tools
"I started out by measuring his gross grip strength on the dynamometer," Meadows says, describing a spring-loaded, V-shaped steel device. "He tested out at 88 pounds of pressure, which is in the high-medium range, fine for most daily tasks. But I recommended that before getting out on a rock face, he should have his measurement up over 100."
Meadows explains that a rock climber often has to support all of his weight on the last two joints of the four fingers of one hand. Accordingly, he prescribes exercises that strengthen the upper body in general and the forearm muscles governing the fingertips in particular.
The favored tool is a simple hunk of elasticized clay. "Just good old Silly Putty, basically," Meadows says. "Clay can work every finger independently, instead of just mushing everything together, as with the rubber ball and the old spring V-grip."
Though less portable and convenient, free weights can also build the fingers. Reverse curls strengthen the extensor muscles of the outer forearms, while wrist curls strengthen the flexors of the inner forearms (see "Getting a Grip"). Another alternative is one of the many hand exercisers on the market, which range from pieces of molded plastic foam to the high-tech, ergonomically designed Gripmaster, a gizmo that features individual spring-tension keys that you squeeze with each finger.
"A disadvantage with clay is that it's, well, messy," says Joanne Kassimir, an occupational therapist from Williston Park, New York, who specializes in hands. "Also, people tend to work the flexor muscles that contract the grip very hard, and ignore their abductors. Spring-loaded devices that work each finger stress the whole range of motion and encourage more follow-through." So if the tyro climber works diligently, Meadows concludes, he should soon be able to surpass 100 pounds of pressure with both hands. "It's not too difficult to add 20 or 25 pounds, and that translates to another 50 pounds of total lifting force," he says.
Stick to your sport
Goddard's opinion is seconded by Dr. Mark Robinson, a rock climber and orthopedic surgeon who practices in Ventura, California. "I've found that hand strength and hand functioning are very specific to the demands of the particular sport," he says. "Kayakers develop very strong gross-grip levels, but that strength serves them very little when they try rock climbing. Playing a piano, which can develop extremely strong fingers, won't help you do chin-ups or get up a rock face. The truth is that there's no such thing as a general hand exercise for climbing."
To support his observation, Robinson cites a study, performed in 1984 at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, in which subjects trained their arm and hand muscles while holding their elbows at 90-degree angles--a hypothetical climbing position. The results showed that while the subjects' grip strength improved significantly at 90 degrees, it returned to near-baseline levels when tested at 30- and 60-degree angles. And, speculates Robinson, that's to say nothing of how specific hand workouts may fall short of developing any coordination or technique.
"What I recommend for stronger hands is practicing the sport itself, and beyond that whatever exercises might be simple and easily done," says Robinson. "I suppose that with enough time and ingenuity you could simulate the stresses of bouldering on the hands. But if you're going to go through all that, why not just go bouldering?"
In the end, it's not so important whether you side with expert climbers like Goddard and Robinson or physical therapists like Meadows; what's important is to be conscious of all that you demand of your hands and act accordingly. So the next time someone tosses you a ball, toss it back--you've got better things to squeeze.
John Brant, a contributing editor of Outside, wrote about marathon swimming in the May issue.