Better Me

Why and How You Should Be Strengthening Your Hands and Wrists

Have you ever struggled to open a jar of pickles? Is it tough to grip a heavy bag of groceries? Or do your wrists hurt after a long day at the computer, typing and using a mouse?

When your hands and wrists are weak, it can impact your everyday life since you use your grip for so many tasks, like turning doorknobs, writing and using scissors. “We often don’t realize the importance of grip strength until we lose that strength and we struggle with the activities of daily living,” said Samantha Zaykoski, an occupational therapist with Banner Health.

Strong wrists help you position your hands properly for activity. They help you bear weight, grip and stabilize your hand so you can hold things. Without strong hands and wrists, it’s hard to do everyday tasks like getting dressed, preparing food and turning on faucets. 

You also need strong hands and wrists if you want to:

  • Prevent injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and wrist sprains.
  • Improve your performance in sports and activities like golf, tennis and weightlifting.
  • Stay independent as you get older. 

Grip strength is a marker of overall health 

Grip strength is a key sign of how healthy you are in general. “Hand and grip strength is actually an important biomarker. It’s an indicator of overall health, risk for injury, immune health and mental health,” Zaykoski said. “If you are losing strength in your hands, you are likely losing it all over your body.”

One study found that people with weaker grip strength were more likely to die from any cause than people with stronger grip. It didn’t matter how old they were or what other health conditions they had. Another study found that people with weaker grips were more likely to develop chronic (long-term) diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  

What can make your grip weak?

Your hands and wrists can become weak due to:

  • Age: Grip strength naturally declines as you get older.
  • Disuse: If you don’t use your hands and wrists regularly, your grip strength will decrease.
  • Overuse: Repeated actions with your hands and wrists can lead to inflammation, pain and weakness. 
  • Medical conditions like cubital or carpal tunnel syndrome, hand arthritis, diabetes, stroke, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), tendonitis or injuries. 
  • Medications with side effects that weaken the hands and wrists. 

How to strengthen your hands and wrists

These exercises can help you build grip strength. If you have any questions about performing them, contact your health care provider for advice. 

It’s a good idea to exercise your hands and wrists two to three times per week, with at least one rest day between workouts. 

When you’re starting, go slow. Over time, you can make your sessions longer and more intense. That way, you’re less likely to hurt yourself. “Hand and wrist strengthening should be tailored to your level of strength,” Zaykoski said. 

To reduce your risk of injury:

  • Keep your wrists in a neutral position throughout the exercise. 
  • Don’t overextend your wrists. 
  • When you’re using weights, control them throughout the entire movement. 

If you feel any pain, stop exercising and talk to a health care provider.

Stress ball squeeze

Squeezing a stress ball is a simple way to strengthen your grip. It can also help relieve stress and anxiety.

  1. Hold a stress ball in one hand. 
  2. Squeeze the stress ball as hard as you can for five seconds. 
  3. Release the stress ball and relax your hand for five seconds. 
  4. Repeat 10 to 15 times. 
  5. Switch hands and repeat. 
Wrist curls 

Wrist curls strengthen the muscles in the wrists and forearms and improve your wrist stability and range of motion. Choose a challenging dumbbell weight that allows you to maintain good form. 

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. 
  2. Rest your forearms on a bench or table, with your palms facing up. 
  3. Using your wrists, curl the dumbbells up towards your shoulders. 
  4. Pause for a second at the top of the movement. 
  5. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat 10 to 15 times. 
Finger exercises 

Strengthening the muscles in your fingers can improve your finger dexterity and make it easier to play musical instruments, type and write. 

  1. Place a rubber band around the tips of your fingers. 
  2. Spread your fingers apart as wide as you can. 
  3. Hold for ten seconds. 
  4. Relax your fingers. 
  5. Repeat 10 to 15 times. 
Range of motion exercises 

Improving flexibility in your hands and wrists can help reduce pain and stiffness. This can make it easier for you to manage everyday tasks. 

  1. Extend your arms in front of you with your palms facing down. 
  2. Make small circles with your wrists in one direction. 
  3. After ten to 15 circles, reverse direction. 
  4. Repeat ten to 15 times with each hand. 

You should notice improvements in the strength of your wrists, hands and fingers after several weeks of regular exercise. If your goal is to improve pain and stiffness, you can track your symptoms to see if they are getting better. Record the date, time and location of the pain or stiffness and how severe it is on a scale of 1 to 10. 

You might want to set achievable goals such as:

  • Reducing your pain and stiffness levels by 20% in one month. 
  • Being able to play guitar for 30 minutes without any pain or stiffness. 

When to talk to a health care provider

If you have hand or wrist pain or if you’re worried about your grip strength after injury or surgery, talk to your health care provider. They can help you with a recovery plan and timeline.

You should also see a health care provider if:

  • Your pain is severe and does not improve with rest and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication. 
  • Your hands or fingers are numb, tingling or weak. 
  • It’s hard for you to do everyday tasks. 
  • You notice a decrease in the muscles of your hand.
  • You have a joint deformity.
  • You have a fever or chills.
  • Your hands or wrists look red or feel hot.

It’s also important to pay attention to any injuries to your pinky finger. “Most of our grip strength comes from the pinky side of our hand — pinky injuries should not be ignored!” Zaykoski said. “Without the small finger, you could lose up to 50% of your grip strength. It’s ‘just a finger’ until it causes problems later in life.” 

The bottom line

Your grip strength is an important part of your overall health. When your wrists, hands and fingers aren’t strong, doing lots of day-to-day activities becomes difficult. A regular exercise routine can keep your grip strong and make it easier for you to do things like write, type and play a musical instrument. 

If you would like more advice on improving your grip strength safely, talk to your health care provider or reach out to an expert at Banner Health

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