Is Hand Health Holding You Back?

Is Hand Health Holding You Back?

My name is Adam Glass. I am 30 years old and I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. If you have heard of me before, it was probably not for BJJ. I am a white belt at Greg Nelsons Academy. BJJ is one of my favorite sports but that is not what I love most. I am a grip strength athlete and strongman. Many would make the argument I have pound for pound some of the strongest hands on the planet. My grip training roughly consumes 14-18 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.  I tell you all of that to drill home one point – I know a lot about hand pain and how to resolve hand pain. I am going to share with you some of the best methods for improving your hand health and a few simple movements that will be high pay off for not only your BJJ but all areas of your life.

Many people who read this currently do not have hand pain and that is a good thing. Rather than pass this article over, I would like you to consider adding these movements to your training now. It is much easier to do these things and never get serious pain rather than develop pain and try to get yourself out.


BJJ can be a tough sport on the body depending on the game you play. The wonderful thing about the sport is that a game can be built to overcome most limitations – look at the number of amputees for example who are out there doing great things in their gyms and in competition.  Long arms, short arms, highly flexible, very rigid, big frame, small boned – all of these can be worked around.

I do not think pain is something we should accept and simply work around. I say that because many instances of pain can be resolved provided you are willing to take new action. Don’t worry, I am not going to suggest you pop pills and stay off the mats.

First allow me to define what I call “Hand Health” and why it matters.

Hand Health is possessing as many pain free ranges of movement throughout the fingers, thumb, palm, wrist, and elbow as possible. In application, healthy hands means you are not limited by pain, aches, persistent soreness, numbness, or other negative sensations while moving or resting.  You maybe pain free, but can you articulate your joints throughout the lower arm without limitation? If the answer is “no,” then pain may be a limitation later.

Allow me to quickly explain the motions of the hands, as you read along please try all of these motions.

  • The Fingers: Flex and extend (curl and straighten) and can adduct and abduct (spread and close).
  • The Thumb: Flex and Extend, Abduct an Adduct, Opposes and Reposes (allows you to touch your fingers, pinch, monkey grip, support and crush grip)
  • The Palm: (metacarpals) have mobility which facilitate movements through the fingers and thumb. If you have ever slapped the floor too hard or too often in practice you understand how limiting it can be to have sore palms.
  • The Wrist: Flexes (moves the palm down if the arm was held level), extends (moves the fingers towards the ceiling if arm held level), radial deviates (moves the thumb side of the hand towards the elbow) and ulnar deviates (moves the pinkie side towards the elbow).
  • The Elbow: Flexes (bends elbow), extends (straightens elbow), supinates (turns the palm up with arm held level), and pronates (turns palm towards floor with arm held level).

One could find various amounts of movement described by different medical authorities, for now let’s just leave it at a simple question:

“How much movement can you use without pain or discomfort?” or “It hurts when I do that.”
Most of the time hand pain in BJJ is contextual to particular grips or positions. A way to understand how to resolve this quicker is to view it in terms of use. Specifically to BJJ there is under use or disuse of the thumb. Another way to say that is overuse of the monkey grip and the holding grips used on gi’s. Overuse is not a very functional concept – being able to monkey grip and hold on to a gi is part of the sport. I am not going to ask you to stop doing that.

The lynchpin – thumbs.

Training the thumb is the key for many people to resolving hand pain. Not for all hand pain, but specific to BJJ it is often a powerful lever. The thumb is very rarely used. It is the weak part of the hand, it has the least leverage. It is very easy to break out of a grip which uses a thumb.  In some ways, the thumb is not important to BJJ at all. The problem is that the thumb is incredibly important to the human hand.

If you do BJJ for any period of time I would suspect you have above average grip strength with the false or monkey grip and with that I would guess average or below average thumb strength. Don’t stress, everyone who lifts normal barbells and dumbbells have a similar problem.

Restoring Hand Health:
I am going to share my four favorite movements with you. These require minimal equipment and time to do. I am including a very simple test for you to use to instantly determine which to use and for how long to do it.

Shot Rotation
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For this you will need two small balls of some sort. It works to have several weights but golf balls actually are a pretty solid starting point. From golf balls move to those little metal balls you see in Chinese restaurants at the counter. You know, they typically have little bells in them. From there, it can be progressed to heavier and larger. I own steel ball bearings up to 7 lbs a piece and rotating those is incredibly taxing.

Have a seat and place your forearm on your leg or lap. Place the shots in your palm, and rotate them in a circle using your thumb and fingers. You will note that going in one direction at first is much easier than the other. Other time you will easily rotate them clockwise or counter clockwise as your manual dexterity improves.

There are many other things you can do and you will figure them out. For now this is an exercise which trains flexion/extension, abduction/adduction, and reposition/ opposition. Shot rotation also massages the palm, increases circulation (wait until you feel the pump with heavier shots) and improves digital endurance.

Contrast Bath Piano
Heat and cold affect our vascular circulation. This is a reason to use ice and heat packs for injury. Particular to the hand we can use this for great advantage.

You will need two pots or buckets of water. In one fill about halfway with ice then add water until it is mostly full. In the other add hot water. Please make sure the water is not so hot it can burn or scald you. Absolutely do not use boiling water.

Next you will stick your hands in to the pot (doesn’t seem to matter which you start with) and move your fingers and thumb around. I currently use a very fast opening/closing of the hand, but all motions can be used. After 20-30 seconds stick them in the other pot. Repeat this back and forth. The heat increases circulation to the skin, the cold restricts it. It seems this practice is very beneficial for both acute and chronic pain and soreness.

The Sand Bucket
For this you will need a 5 gallon bucket and a single bag of play sand or beach sand. Please carefully inspect the sand before using it for foreign objects particularly if you get it from a public place.

You will insert your hand in to the sand and work closing and opening the hand, as well as spreading and joining the fingers. Circle and bend your thumb. You can add in wrist motions too. The sand provides resistance in all directions. It is gentle enough for most pain and injury and at the same time useful even to someone like me with a world class grip. It is an extremely productive investment of your time.

Bottle Levering
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You will need three sizes of plastic bottle. A 20 oz, a liter, and a 2 liter. It works even better to set up 6 bottles, 2 of each. File one of each size with water. File the other with sand. You now have 6 improvised weights.

Grasp the bottle at the neck and move your wrist and elbow. You can train all of the aspects of the elbow and wrist this way along with the fingers and thumb. The weight of the bottle is not as important as the motions used.

From there you can progress to clubs, hammers, and maces. I imagine most of you are more interested in choking and arm barring people rather than more lifting and these 6 bottles will serve you well.  Levering a 2 liter bottle of sand for 2-3 minute sets can be a very taxing exercise.

Programming Grip Training
“If it hurts, don’t do it” should be the guiding principle for all trainees but it rarely is.  Use it.  But pain isn’t the only guide for your training.  On your off days from BJJ I would like you to set aside 15 minutes and try out these four drills. If you can’t do that then do one of the four. Do 3 to 5 sets of reps. Do these quickly without excessive effort, and stop when you see your are slowing down. You may like to super set them to get a tremendous pump in the hands and forearm which seems to be of therapeutic benefit.

Post practice the contrast baths and shot rotation will be particularly beneficial and will provide massage benefits. In a future article I will cover additional tools to help you get stronger hands. Doing these 4 movements over time will make a big difference in both how your hands feel and how well they help you win matches.

Wrapping it up
I could speak volumes about the hands but this is enough to get you going.  My goal is to keep you rolling pain free. These movements will make you stronger and improve your endurance in your fingers, thumb, and wrist. I have already seen the positive effect of this information in some of our fighters and in my BJJ team members. Shoot me a message and let me know how they’ve helped you.

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