Do you ever think about how your hands interact with the ground? Or when you go through your push ups/planks/crawling patterns, are they just a body part that responds, along for the ride, but not really a fully integrated part of the process?
When the hands are on the ground, they provide proprioceptive feedback to the brain, letting the brain know where the arm and the hand are located in space.1 This feedback informs the nervous system what options are available to perform a specific action. The hands are sensory rich; their ability to perform fine motor skills requires a careful discussion between the nerves of the hand and the brain.2
How the hands integrate fully with the rest of the arm when your weight is on them is the starting place for how force is dealt with in the upper extremities.
Yet, the hands and wrists are often ignored during training. We expect them to work and are a bit miffed when they don’t. Unlike the hips, shoulders, ankles, and spine, little thought is given to how the mobility of the wrist determines the position of the elbow and shoulder, which is unfortunate, because the wrists and hands have the potential to unlock a wide range of movement possibilities in the upper extremities.
The Problem with Unused Hands and Wrists
If you were to not use your feet for 10 years, instead using a motorized chair to get around, and then one day you woke up and decided to ditch your chair and walk instead, how do you think your feet would feel? Stiff, weak, uncoordinated, and perhaps mildly irritated they were suddenly getting called to action after a decade of dormancy.
I think we can all agree the solution to this wouldn’t be to try and walk for an hour. That would certainly be a recipe for injury. Instead, you would walk a couple of minutes, see how you tolerated it, and then maybe you would walk a couple of minutes more. You would ease the feet back into function, not expecting them to support your weight for long periods of time until they became stronger.
It would stand to reason that the same principles should be applied to the hands and wrists. If you haven’t put weight on your wrists for years because your life hasn’t required you to get down on the floor, your wrists and hands won’t be used to bearing weight. They will likely be uncoordinated, stiff, and weak, just like the feet and ankles would be in the example above. If, one day, you decide to begin a fitness program that involves a lot of time in a hands and knees or plank position without paying much attention to how the wrists feel, you may notice soreness in your wrists, elbows, or shoulders.
How the Wrists and Hands Work
Your wrist can flex, extend, move the hand in, and move the hand out.3 Wrist mobility changes when the fingers are closed in a fist versus when the fingers are open and the hand is flat and, like all body parts, mobility is dependent upon how the area is regularly used. You adapt to the positions you are regularly in, and if you aren’t regularly in positions that demand much movement in your wrist, you won’t have much mobility in your wrist.
When you think about the hand during closed chain movements (movements when the hand is fixed, like during a pull up or push up), the amount of wrist mobility you need is dependent upon the angle of the body. For instance, if you do downdog, your weight is moving back, away from your hands. You don’t need as much mobility in your wrists to support that position as you do a straight arm push up position, which doesn’t require as much mobility as an arm balance where your weight is shifted forward. You get the idea.
Hand and Wrist Interactions
What’s interesting about this (at least to me), is researchers estimate that for most of our regular activities of daily life, we are only required to flex our wrist 10-15 degrees yet the wrist is capable to flexing 70-90 degrees in most adults.4 For wrist extension, our daily life only requires us to use about 35 percent of our available range of motion. This means we have a joint that is designed to move in a much fuller way than most people use it. This is actually a good argument for including weight bearing on the hands into your regular fitness routine.
The fingers orient the direction of the wrist, which depends how the elbow points. This is largely determined by the how you support yourself through your shoulder. If your fingers lack mobility, that will affect how the fingers spread; changing the base of support size for your body impacting how force can be distributed up the arm. The joints are designed to absorb load, while the bones transmit the forces from one joint to the next.5 If you want to maximize how strong you are in a push up position, hand and finger mobility matter.
One thing you will notice with the hands is, like the feet, they may look like they are supinating or pronating when in contact with the floor. What I mean by that is the fleshy part of the hand between the thumb and index finger may look like it’s strongly lifting away from the floor (supinating), dumping all of the weight into the pinkie finger side of the hand. It can also look like that same fleshy part is collapsing into the floor, almost like it’s pronating.
Think about what this means when it comes to dealing with load. If all of the load is being absorbed by the pinkie finger side of the hand or by the thumb side of the hand, how efficient is that? Not very, and when you consider how the load travels from the hand up to the elbow and from the elbow up to the shoulder, I think we can all agree there are probably more efficient ways to deal with gravity than loading one side of a supporting structure.
By focusing on how the hand interacts with the ground and developing active wrist mobility, you will change your relationship to gravity. Your ability to deal with the force up the arm will be more efficient and you will have more options for overall movement while on your hands.
Hand and Wrist Mobility
Let’s look at ways to improve your wrist and hand mobility. First, we’ll work on improving the overall sense of the hand with a simple mobility exercise.
- Turn your right hand up, so the palm faces the ceiling. Allow your hand to be relaxed.
- Touch your left thumb on the pad below the right pinkie finger (bear with me. I promise, you will like this).
- Gently press your left thumb into the pad and keep the gentle squeezing sensation as you move the thumb along the pinkie finger out to the tip.
- Do this three times and move on to the fourth finger. Repeat the gentle squeezing sensation on all of the fingers (the thumb is a touch awkward. You have to angle the left hand a little bit to get to the right thumb pad).
- Once you have finished, let your hands comfortably rest by your sides. Does your right hand feel different than your left?
Touch improves the map of a body area in our brain.6 It makes the area feel more alive and makes an area feel more pliable.
Do the left hand as well. Once you have done both hands, come into a hands and knees position. Can you spread the fingers evenly against the floor? Can you set yourself up so you are distributing the weight evenly across the fingers?
How to Increase Your Mobility
Now that you have increased your overall awareness of your hands, let’s look at ways to increase the mobility in the wrist. Please note that some of you might have a lot of wrist mobility and you actually need to learn how to find a sense of balanced stability in the wrist. That is a conversation for a different post.
The wrist should have the ability to flex and extend. Check your active mobility right now:
- Reach your arm out in front of you, as though you were going to place the hand on the wall directly ahead of you.
- Spread your fingers and point them up towards the ceiling, reaching the center of the palm towards the wall.
- Do your fingers go straight up towards the ceiling? Or do they barely raise above the level of the horizon?
- What happens if you rotate the hand so the fingers point towards the floor?
- Is that easier or harder?
If you don’t have the ability to flex the wrist near a ninety degree angle, what do you think happens when you place a large portion of your bodyweight into the hand to do a push up? Is your wrist dealing with the gravitation load of your body in an efficient way? How is that going to affect your brain’s sense of where you are located in space? And what do you think this means for support from the shoulder?
Fortunately, improving wrist mobility is less complicated than you might think. Below are a few warm up drills that address the needs of the wrist and how it interacts with the shoulder. Like the hand drills above, the standing mobility drills are a great way to break up your work day improve active range of motion in an area that is often used, but ignored.
The short videos below include a few easy hand drills that can be done to improve mobility. If you struggle with these, take breaks periodically throughout your day to practice (this is a great way to break up computer work). You will notice rapid improvements in coordination and mobility.
Assess Further: The Hand/Shoulder Relationship
Let’s assume you have worked out the wrist mobility and you can bear load evenly through the center of the palm and across the knuckles of the fingers. What role does the hand play on the shoulders?
- If you are in a hands and knees position and you looked at your arm from the side, what would you see? The wrist, elbow, and shoulder would be in a fairly straight line. (If it’s not in a fairly straight line, see the mobility drills in the above section). Now, for the purposes of today, let’s consider the arm starts at the shoulder blade. What does this mean?
- If you reach your hand into the floor, the elbow, shoulder, and shoulder blade are going to move towards the floor. If your hand gets lighter on the floor, the elbow, shoulder, and shoulder move away from the floor.
- Now, keeping your hands exactly where they are, imagine you are trying to move your hands together. Don’t move them, just pretend like they are pulling the floor together. There will be a sense of the arms moving together and work will happen in the chest (because that’s one of the things the chest muscles do). Now, pretend like you are pulling your hands away from each other. The opposite happens and you will feel work through the outsides of your shoulders.
- Finally, pull your hands towards your feet. Your shoulder blades move down (remember, they are part of the arm), you feel your mid back and maybe your abs.
Everything Is Connected
If you struggle with your shoulders during exercises where your hand is fixed, redirect your attention to your hands. Improve your wrist mobility, begin feeling the connection between the hands and the shoulder blades, and enhance your awareness of the fingers. In order for the arm move efficiently, integrity is required throughout the structure. A movement is only as good as the sum of the mobility and integration of its parts.
1. Goble, D.J., & Anguera, J.A., (2010). Plastic changes in hand proprioception following force field motor learning. Journal of Neurophysiology, 104(3), 1213-1215.
2. Balasubramanian, R., & Santos, V.J., (2014). The Human Hand as an Inspiration for Robot Hand Development. Springer: New York.
3. Informed Health Online [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006. How does the hand work? 2010 Aug 31 [Updated 2016 Dec 23].
4. Hamill, J., & Knutzen, K.M., (2006). Biomechanical Basis of Human Movement. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore.
5. Abernathy, B., Hanrahan, S., & Kippers, V., Pandy, M., McManus, A., & Mackinnon, L., (2013). Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, 3rd Edition. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.
6. Gardner, E. P. 2010. Touch. eLS.