Finger, Wrist, and Elbow Self-Care for Grip Fighters and Keyboard Warriors
They tell me jiu-jitsu is the gentle art, but the jiu-jiteiros I talk to are always complaining about something hurting. Perhaps the most common problems are grip-related issues, like jammed fingers, pinchy wrists, and tweaked elbows. Today, we’re going to learn what we can do to counteract that.
This is not a grip training guide and I will not be giving finger taping tips. Instead, we’re going to learn to take care of our fingers, wrists, and elbows using stretches and mobility exercises.
We can also consider this an extension to my ongoing series of articles on Functional Range Conditioning. We will be assuming you are familiar with FRC and some of its terms from previous articles. (You can read parts one, two, three, and four if you want to get caught up.) This is the first time we’re getting into practices called PAILs and RAILS.
Below are CARs (which you should be family with from my previous article on it) and PAIL/RAILs for the fingers, wrists, and elbows. We'll explain what PAIL/RAILs is below.
You may be focused on finger pain, but you need to consider the whole chain up the arm if you want to cover all your bases. Problems in the elbow can cause problems down at the wrist, or vice versa. If we had time, we could even get into shoulders, but we’ll save that for another day.
Let’s start with CARs at the fingers, then the wrist and finally, the elbow. These first two are so simply I don't think they need a visual guide.
- Place your hand palm down on a surface like your desk.
- Starting with your index finger, draw a circle in the air with it, making the motion as big as you can, especially when you raise it away from the surface.
- Repeat the motion several times clockwise and counterclockwise, going very slowly and making it effortful.
- Repeat for each finger on both hands.
Finger flexion-extension CARs
- Open your hands as much as you possibly can, to the point it feels like your palm is stretched taut.
- Starting with the joints closest to your fingertips, curl you fingers, joint by joint, until you make a closed fist.
- Open your fist slowly, starting with your big knuckles and working out to your fingertips, until you are back when you started.
- Repeat, going slowly and with high tension.
You can modify this by doing it with the wrist in flexion or extension, or by flexing and extending the wrist as part of the motion.
Two FRC mobility specialists, Samantha Faulhaber and Ian Markow, will be helping us out with their many excellent tutorial videos for the rest of the guide.
Ian demonstrating wrist CARs:
Sam shows how to use the floor to keep your wrist CARs strict:
Sam's showing high tension wrist CARs:
Ian runs us through elbow CARs:
Sam shows how to use a tennis ball to add tension:
Sam with an elbow CARs hack:
Sam demonstrating elbow supination on floor:
Now we get into PAILs and RAILs. They are FRC protocols from combining stretching and isometric efforts, and they are usually done together. The acronyms stand for Progressive or Regressive Angular Isometric Loading. That’s quite a mouthful, but I’ll break it down:
The progressive angle is the side of joint that’s being stretched, where the angle is bigger. The regressive angle is the other side where the angle is smaller and the tissues are unstretched.
Isometric loading is contracting muscles without creating movement, changing the angle of the joints, or changing the lengths of the tissues, such as pressing against an immovable object like the floor or wall, or matching an opposing force like pressing your hands together, or flexing muscles on both sides of a joint like Bruce Lee after he punches a goon.
The goal of PAIL/RAILs is to give your body enough time under tension--both from passively stretching and actively flexing--to trigger the biological processes that repair stressed tissues to heal and strengthen them. The isometric effort also makes your nervous system “learn” to fire the muscles in end ranges that you do not normally use, but it does not trigger the inflammatory response like non-isometric exercises tend to.
Regardless of the joint being worked on, the PAIL/RAILs method goes like this:
PAIL/RAILs Training Protocol:
- Get into a stretch and hold it for 2 minutes. As you stretch, you’ll find you can go a little deeper as you relax into it and breath deeply.
- Now get ready to start PAILs. Gradually ramp up tension on the stretched side of the joint and flex the stretched muscles. Your effort would push you out of the stretch if you were not set up to do isometrics. Take 10 seconds to gradually build up to your max effort.
- Sustain your max effort PAILs for 10 seconds, then relax.
- Ramp up effort on the “unstretched” side of the joint over 10 seconds. Think of what muscles need to contract to increase the stretch. Pull yourself deeper with effort.
- Maintain your max effort RAILs for 10 seconds.
- Without bailing on the stretch position, relax and begin passive stretching again. Stretch for another 2 minutes or until your body feels calm again and ready for another round of PAIL/RAILs.
- Repeat that process 2 or more times.
- Stretch and relax one last time before leaving the position, feeling if your range of motion is any greater, getting used to the position, then gently work your way out.
TIPS: The stretch should be non-painful, but not necessarily pleasant, especially if it’s a very tight or overworked body part. Start at a point that is not too intense, but see if you can go a little further each time. By “max effort”, we mean the max you can safely do without pain or cramping to the point of needing to stop. Some discomfort and cramping is normal when you first start working on an issue, but you do not want to train your nervous system to fear the range of motion you are trying to gain by freaking it out too much.
Let’s apply PAIL/RAILs to our grip care:
- Using your thumb and forefinger, bend a finger back at a knuckle.
- Following the PAIL/RAIL protocol, hold this stretch for 2 minutes.
- PAIL: Fight to curl your finger, but don’t let it succeed. Just make the effort against the other hand. Ramp up over 10 seconds, then maintain that max effort for 10 more seconds.
- RAIL: Fight to extend your finger. If you’re at your end range, this will feel very hard to do, but that’s the point, so just make the effort even if nothing moves.
- Repeat 1-2 more times, then move on to the next finger.
- Place your palms together and push one finger backwards with its partner from the opposite hand. (Do you feel like Naruto about to do clone-jitsu?)
- Follow the PAIL/RAIL protocol for the stretch (though I won’t blame you for shortening the stretch time, since that’s a lot of fingers to work through).
Ian showing wrist flexion PAIL/RAIL:
Sam gives her take on it:
You can do wrist PAIL/RAILs anywhere using your own body by doing a goose neck wristlock on yourself or doing a "modified Helio photo op pose" with your hand bent back against your opposite biceps:
Sam shares a way she trains elbow pronation:
General hand care advice for BJJ athletes:
- Do not play grip-dependent games. Spider and lasso guard are the major offenders.
- No death grips. Find the sweet spot where your grips are good enough to get the job done (most of the time) but not so tight that your fingers are mangled when your grips are broken. Be OK letting go when a powerful grip break is coming.
- Train no-gi. While you can still jam your fingers by accident in no-gi, you are not going to put the same strain on them from gripping fabric all the time.
- Tape it up. You can tape your fingers to protect them after injury or to help prevent injuries.
- Look to other grip-dependent sports. Rock climbers, weightlifters, and other sports where hands get mangled can offer insights into staying healthy. Activities that demand dexterity like playing piano or guitar also have hand warm-ups and stretches that can help.
You’re now armed with the knowledge to take care of your grips using CARs and PAIL/RAILs. Sam has contributed her own mobility guides to the Inverted Gear Blog, and we also have yogi Shawna Rogers lending her knowledge. We recently updated the website and you can now find all Fitness and Mobility content in one place.