The unfortunate reality for most of us is that we don't even think about the state our hands are in until they start to hurt.
It's 2016 now, meaning a lot of us spend a crazy amount of time typing at a computer. If we're not doing that, we might be at the gym suspending 100's of pounds of weight by our fingers and hands. Then perhaps we settle down on with our guitar or synthesizer for some practice time.
By the end of the day, our hands, fingers, and wrists have had it!
If you're reading this and you're thinking "My hands don't hurt though," congratulations! Keep it that way by incorporating some of these exercises into your routine, so you're not an old fogey like me with knotted up hands moaning every time it gets cold outside.
While there are a "handful" (HA!) of things you can do, like warming up your hands before stressing them, practicing proper hand positioning and technique, and using ergonomic equipment, there are less expensive maintenance-style stretches and exercises you can perform to dodge all of the incoming troubles entirely.
Like any exercise, you need to start at the beginning to avoid further damage. This typically means stretching to help limber up the muscles, tendons, and ligaments you're prepping for strengthening.
Let's discuss how these stretches are done.
You know the Hollywood Walk of Fame where all of the famous people's hands are pressed into the stones? That's what this resembles. Open your hand all the way up with your fingers spread until you begin to feel a tension along your palm, thumb muscles, and insides of your fingers. This stretches everything in the opposite direction that it normally is ever used, since our hands and fingers only bend one way. Don't force this with your other hand and don't over strain. Just a light stretch is all you need. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat until satisfied.
This is the same concept as above but you're isolating your thumb in order to increase the range of movement and stretching. Let your thumb stretch itself out. As one set of muscles engages, the opposing side will relax and stretch. Reach your thumb down towards your wrist, palm, and backside of your hand.
This will feel like the Walk of Fame, but one finger at a time. Place your hand on a flat surface and lift each finger individually. Certain fingers, like your ring finger, may not initially be able to lift very high. This will stretch the inner portions of your fingers slightly but is your first muscle building exercise for the backsides of your fingers. You'll feel it on the top of your forearm.
Simply curl all of your fingers together, leaving out your main knuckles, and squeeze lightly until you feel stretching. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Don't attempt a kung-fu death grip. Just a light squeeze is enough. This will expand your knuckles and increase blood flow.
From the Walk of Fame position, move your thumb across your palm and reach out for the other side of your hand. This will engage your main thumb muscles in the lower portion of your hand and stretch the sides and back of your thumb. As always, don't force your thumb further than it can reach by it's own strength and flexibility. You're looking for agility, not dislocation!
We've all done this out of pure boredom before. Using your fingertips, touch each pad to your thumb. Once successful, move to the next finger all the way from your index to your pinky, then reverse the order. Do this with both hands to work on speed, coordination, and thumb stretching.
Give yourself a week at least of using the beginner exercises. It may sound silly, seeing as we use our hands all day every day, but give your hands and fingers time to adjust to these very specific exercises. Then, once comfortable, proceed to the muscle toning (not strength building!) exercises below.
Start with the soft ball that gives you the least resistance and work your way up to the medium ball and finally the strong ball. I'd recommend sticking with one ball for a month's time before trying to graduate up. Your time may vary.
The only difference between these exercises is that you perform the Ball Grip with your wrist facing upwards and the Inverse Grip with your wrist facing down. This stretches the forearm muscles and engages different portions. Simply squeeze the ball, hold for 5 seconds, and relax. Repeat 10 times on each exercise for each hand. As always, don't over squeeze. Our hands are very delicate pieces of machinery. The Finger Bend reduces the squeezing of your grip down from your forearm to just your fingers excluding your thumb. You won't be able to squeeze nearly as hard in this way.
The Opposition movement uses your thumb plus one other finger at a time, rotating through them all. Hold the ball in the palm of your hand so that your thumb is pushing it towards your pinky, for example, and your pinky is squeezing it back towards your thumb. This will strengthen the inside muscles of your fingers, further supporting all other movements. The Side Squeeze is the exact same, except you don't use your thumb. You squeeze between each of your fingers as pictured.
Place the ball on a flat surface with your finger tips (all four if you can) on the top of the ball. Roll it outwards from yourself on the surface so that the ball rolls down from the tips of your fingers to your palm. Place a downward pressure on the ball using your fingers as you roll along. This will strengthen your muscles all along the insides of your fingers, from tips to bottom knuckles.
For the Pinch move, simply hold the ball between your thumb and fingers as shown and squeeze. Unlike the Ball Grip, this will keep the tension on your hand and fingers as opposed to shifting it to your forearms. The Thumb Roll differs only that you're using the side of your thumb and slowly rolling the ball back and forth comfortably to strengthen the entire range of movement for your thumb.
Take your time before jumping into using the following tools. Starting these exercises before your hands, wrists, and forearms are ready can stress them too much in addition to your normal hand usage, leading to an injury. But when you're ready, you can strengthen everything so that normal usage will have no negative effect on you!
These tools will take you into the realm of full on strength building for all of the muscles in and that support your hands.
There are various types of these, from the Supreme Squeeze style to some that look like a garden hose attachment. They all exist to help you do the Ball Grip exercise with a lot more resistance. You're getting your hand and the bottom of your forearms involved here. This is an essential exercise for strengthening your forearms for real world activities.
The Gripmaster continues along the path of the Finger Bend movement, which keeps the tension on your fingers instead of shifting it into your forearms. This is great for keyboard typists, piano players, and guitarists. There are various strength levels available, but as always I suggest starting at the bottom and building your way up.
These balls are awesome. Heads up, some do have a bell inside that will make a slight chime or gong sound as you roll them around in your palm. I prefer those for the meditative aspect but also because they tend to make it so the weight is off center in the ball. This randomizes where the extra effort is needed in your hands as the balls rotate, keeping you on your toes. The idea is that the balls are slightly oversized, just out of your comfort range, forcing your to enhance your agility and strength to manage them.
If you really want to stick it to your forearms, there's no better way than with a wrist roller. Just make sure, if you buy one, to pay attention to how you attach weights to it. Some are made to use round weights with the barbell holes in the center, and some can wrap around anything, such as a dumbbell or milk jug full of rocks. The advantage to this is that you can roll it slowly up and down using the bottom of your forearm and the top. The top rarely gets used, looks awesome when it's strengthened, and will support your wrists during awkward movements. I recommend one of these to anyone and everyone.
Starting at the beginner level and working your way through the intermediate hand ball level and on to the expert strength training will take time. You could order the hand therapy balls and start the beginner stretches (which you should never cease doing) and be ready to use the balls in the week it would take for them to arrive.
But the jump to the expert strength training should be much slower. Spend at least a month of the soft ball, and then a month on the medium and firm balls each, before deciding if your'e ready to jump up or if you even need to. Athletes, gym-goers, and manual laborers should definitely consider it. Those concerned about musician hand health or for typing won't need a lot of extra strength beyond the intermediate level, but most definitely will have a protective advantage against injury if they choose to go for it.
Here's to Happy Hands!