Stretching is an old topic but understanding the utility of stretching, and becoming someone that stretches well takes some effort. In this post I want to get into some of the details of stretching the extensors and flexors of the wrist and fingers. We put tremendous stress on these muscles in climbing and not stretching them well can contribute to elbow and finger pain, as well as reduced range of motion in the wrists and fingers, which can lead to long-term problems.
Here is a link to a 4-minute video demonstrating the stretches. The details behind why these are the best stretches are below.
Some General Points to Keep in Mind About Stretching:
1- Stretching is more than holding a particular position for a certain amount of time, or a dull necessary evil attached to a vague promise of “injury prevention”. I like to think of stretching as a movement technique, and stretching with good technique will provide a better quality stretching experience and help you associate different movements with the muscles responsible for them. It should help you learn some nuances of the structure of the body and individual muscles.
2- In order to stretch properly we need to know the origin, insertion and path of the muscle. The origin is the name give to the proximal attachment, that is, the attachment that is closer to the center of the body. The insertion of a muscle is the distal attachment of the muscle, the attachment that is farther away from the center of the body. It’s important to know the path of a muscle because in order to do a proper stretch we must engage all the joints that a muscle crosses, if we do not engage all the joints then the stretch will be incomplete, but for people who are really tight even a partial stretch may feel intense.
3- We also need to know the action of the muscle. Skeletal muscles act on the joints they cross, and we need to know what action they are responsible for because the action that will stretch a muscle is the opposite of the action the muscle when it contracts. So if the action of a muscle is to flex a joint, then the action to stretch the muscle in question will be extension of the same joint or joints.
The Flexors of the Wrist and Fingers:
The two main flexors of the wrist and fingers are the flexor digitorum superficialis and the flexor digitorum profundus. The flexor digitorum superficialis has its origin on the medial epicondyle of the humerus bone and its insertion is at the base of the middle phalanges of the four fingers. Thus the flexor digitorum superficialis crosses 4 joints: The elbow, the wrist, the metacarpophalangeal joint and the proximal interphalangeal joint.
Figure 1: Flexor Digitorum Superficialis
The profundus muscle is the deeper of the two, its origin is on the ulna bone and it crosses 4 joints, the wrist, the metacarpophalangeal joint, the proximal interphalangeal joint and the distal interphalangeal joint. The insertion of the flexor digitorum profundus is at the base of the distal phalanges of the four fingers.
Fig. 2: Flexor Digitorum Profundus
In order to stretch the main flexors of the wrist and fingers we need to extend the joints that these muscles cross. If any of the joints are not extended the stretch will be sub optimal.
Extensors of the wrist and fingers:
There are several extensors but we are primarily concerned with the extensor digitorum muscle that is found on the dorsal aspect of the forearm.
Fig 3: Extensor Digitorum
The extensor digitorum has its origin at the lateral epicondyle of the humerus bone and has its insertion at the base of the proximal and distal phalanges of the four fingers. This means that the extensor digitorum crosses 5 different joints: the elbow, the wrist, the metacarpophalangeal joint, the proximal interphalangeal joint, and the distal interphalangeal joint of each finger. Since the action of the muscle is to extend the wrist and fingers, to stretch it we need to flex the wrist and fingers.
Kinesiology nerds may notice that in the video I am breaking a rule in the extensor stretch because the video show the stretch being done with the elbow extended. Most authorities list the extensor digitorum as a weak extensor of the elbow, so logic would suggest that this stretch should be done with the elbow flexed. It’s important to note that the extensor digitorum’s action at the elbow is so weak it isn’t really worth mentioning other than for technical accuracy. In addition I find the stretch more difficult to perform with the elbow flexed, as it makes it more difficult to flex the wrist in that position. Thus I think it’s better to perform the stretch with the elbow straight and have an easier time achieving flexion at the wrist, than it is to do the stretch with the elbow bent and get less wrist flexion.
A good deal has been written about when to stretch, how long to hold stretches, how many repetitions of a stretch do to and so on. To keep at least one thing about this post simple, I think that many climbers will reap the benefits of stretching if they do the following:
- Stretch 3 times per week.
- Stretch any time you like, but if you stretch prior to climbing / training, leave about 30 minutes between the end of stretching and the start of exercise.
- Perform each stretch 3 times per stretching session and hold each stretch for 15 – 30 second, with a 30 second rest between each repetition of the same stretch.
The images here are taken from the Manual of Structural Kinesiology which is the best quick reference guide there is for kinesiology do check it out. (this link is for the 2003 edition which is more reasonably priced.)