Historically, athletes, musicians and workers have ignored the importance of strengthening the muscles that open the hand (finger / thumb extensor and abductor muscles) concurrently with strength grip during hand exercise. Everything we know and apply to the rest of the body relating to muscle balance and exercise is mysteriously laid to rest when it comes to the hand muscles. This oversight not only limits performance, it can cause RSI health problems. Let's examine why it is so important to strengthen these finger / thumb extensor & abductor muscles when choosing our hand exerciser.
1. Performance Enhancement
a. Extension- Direct Benefit
Many athletic activities directly demand finger and thumb extension and abduction. Some examples are the act of opening a baseball or hockey goalie glove, the loading action in shooting a basketball, opening the hand to catch a football and setting a volleyball. If an athlete can improve the action (speed and strength) of opening the hand even minute, there is an immediate improvement in performance potential. If we do not train finger / thumb extension and abduction in hand exercise, we directly limit that potential. It makes no sense to omit these exercises from the hand training routine of any athlete, musician or worker; yet, most often, we do. The proper hand exerciser not only saves time, but strengthens the grip and opening muscles equally.
b. All Actions- Indirect Benefit (cooperative contracting)
When many muscles in the body contract, there occurs a simultaneous cooperation or relaxation of the opposing muscle group (s), where present. The most common example is the triceps muscle relaxing when the biceps muscle is contracted. This neuromuscular process is called “reciprocal inhibition”. But the hand muscles are different. In our sports environments, and in society in general, when the finger / thumb flexor and adductor muscles (gripping muscles) are repetitively contracted, the opposing finger / thumb extensor and abductor muscles repetitively contract as well. We are constantly grasping with our hands, yet rarely opening them. The extensor and abductor muscle groups are, in essence, continuously being traced by the brain (via reciprocal inhibition) to be static – in other words by contracting in one position in support of the gripping muscles.
Hand opening muscle groups need to be strengthened evenly in order for this cooperative contraction to work most efficiently. If domineering finger / thumb flexor and adductor muscles are present (which is almost always the case), all hand actions are handicapped. The hard fact is that if you are not strengthening finger / thumb extensor and abductor muscles with your hand exerciser, you are creating imbalance and limiting performance potential for all actions of the hand, wrist, forearm and elbow. In order for the hand opening muscles to stay strong and healthy, they must be specifically exercised regularly through their full ROM (range of motion) – both opened and closed. Static muscles tend to scar (due to chronic microtearing), adhese and loose elasticity. This is why chronic repetitive gripping events leads to imbalances and chronic conditions such as tennis elbow, golfer's elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Equalizing this imbalance by strengthening finger & thumb extensor and abductor muscles, does not, incidentally, reduce grip strength, hand speed and / or wrist flexion strength. Instead, it creates better cooperative muscle contracting, leading to better maximum health & performance. To have strength and balance in all hand muscles improves the athlete's ability to perform all actions faster, stronger and through wider ranges of motion.
2. Injury Prevention
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) and DeQuervain's Syndrome are four of many repetitive stress injuries (RSI's) that are rampant in sports, music and in the workplace today. All have direct routs in accumulated muscle imbalance. The potential for their presence is in direct proportion to the presence of shortened finger / thumb flexor and adductor muscles dominating over the cooperating extensor and abductor muscles.
It is commonplace to see gripping activities in sports (golf, tennis, baseball, motor sports, rock-climbing, bowling, hockey, etc.), music (guitar, piano, wind instruments, etc.) and in the workplace (computers, cashiers, production line workers, trades people, etc.). Repetitive flexion and adduction leads to imbalance. The more we participate in these activities (without proper regular hand exercise to offset the inherent hand muscle imbalance), the greater the imbalance becomes.
It is important for the athlete to offset this imbalance by evenly strengthening finger / thumb flexion and adduction AND finger / thumb extension and abduction when using a hand exerciser. Athletes may even choose to FAVOR the extension and abduction component in an attempt to rectify the imbalance. If we begin to strengthen finger / thumb extensor and abductor muscles in athletes, musicians and workers, we can, over time, eliminate this commonly overlooked imbalance. As we eliminate this imbalance, we will see a direct reduction in carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis), golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis), DeQuervain's Syndrome and other RSI cases.
3. Injury Rehabilitation (The Final Stage of the Treatment Protocol)
The first stage in addressing any hand, wrist and forearm problem is to consult an appropriate health care professional (physician, physiotherapist, chiropractor, hand therapist, occupational therapist, athletic trainer, naturopath or massage therapist). They will be able to diagnose the given condition and begin treatment, or recommend an appropriate course of action.
The first stages of treatment protocol will involve reducing symptomatology, re-establishing joint and tissue function and breaking adhesions, if present. The final stage of treatment protocol must involve re-establishing normal balance and blood flow to the injured area. Strengthening finger / thumb extensor and abductor muscles is an important part of this final stage.
a. Balance, Balance, Balance
For optimal rehabilitation, the athlete or patient must strengthen the muscles that open the hand and spread the fingers. The finger / thumb extensor and abductor muscles have attachments at the elbow, forearm, wrist, hand, fingers and thumb, as do the gripping muscles. Their actions, and therefore their balance, affect the mechanisms of all of these areas. If we ignore reciprocal muscle group principles in the hand during rehabilitation efforts, recovery from hand, wrist forearm and elbow injury will be incomplete – and re-injury will be more likely. We are asking for trouble.
b. Form Follows Function (Stimulating Blood Flow)
The body establishes optimal nerve and blood supply to areas that are “being used regularly” (“use it or lose it”). We must ensure that rehabilitative hand exercises are through full natural flexion, adduction, extension and abduction in order to stimulate optimum blood flow to the injured area. Optimum blood flow means optimum oxygen and nutrients supplies to injured tissues. If we are incomplete in our choice of rehabilitation hand exercises, we do not stimulate optimum blood flow and risk very significantly the formation of adhesions and scar tissue. Rehabilitate through full, balanced ranges of motion using a complete hand exerciser and ensure an optimum healing response from the body.
Whether enhancing performance, preventing or treating injury, the therapist, trainer, athlete, musician and worker must respect reciprocal or cooperative muscle group principles the same in the hand as in any other area in the body.