Proper Method of Stretching the Forearms

No Gravatar

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.

Frequency:

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.)

10 Responses to “Proper Method of Stretching the Forearms”

  1. liftyourskinnyfistsNo Gravatar says:

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on the 30 minutes between the end of stretching and the start of exercise recommendation. I have heard that stretching a muscle before strongly contracting it will diminish the strength of the contraction. Would you agree with that statement or is it too simplified or wrong.

    Also, if the concern is reduced strength or power would stretching before climbing be ok if one were climbing “warm up routes” or easing back into climbing (i.e., climbing below ones level) for around 30 minutes before climbing something which would require maximum contraction.

    Finally, if you don’t recommend the stretches you outline above (which has been apart of my pre-workout/climbing ritual) right before a climbing workout, could you recommend a pre-workout ritual. Do you do any stretches or do you basically do easy climbing for several minutes to warm up. I’ve also at times done the forearm stretches you outlined above when I’m feeling pumped and I need to “recharge” or maybe push some of that lactic acid or metabolic waste out of my muscles.

  2. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:

    You raise good issues. my “wait thirty minutes between stretching and climbing” recommendation is based on a meta study titled “Contemporary Stretching and Best Practices Guidelines for Therapy, Athletics, and yoga” writen by Craig Berman and Stephen Brown. It has not been published yet but should be out later this year. Anyway, they point out that static stretching has potentially negative effects on performance and so recommend the following:

    Hold stretches for 15 – 30 seconds each and do multiple repetitions rather than holding for a long duration and only doing a few repetitions.

    Add a sport-specific skill-based activity to your warm-up following the static stretch.

    Wait at least 15 minutes, preferably 45 – 60 minutes between intense stretching and maximal exertion.

    So I don’t know if I agree with the idea that a stretch before a strong contraction weakens the contraction, that would seem to go against a basic principle of plyometrics ( a slightly different issue than what you are raising, but related?), but it seems there are some reasons to take some time between intense stretching and heavy activity.

    Your second point seems about right to me, and in line with what Berman and Brown suggest.

    as for your last point, as I understand it, the issue is the amount of time between intense stretching and maximal effort so I think doing a variety of stretches before climbing is fine as long as it is done enough in advance of max effort. As for a pre-workout ritual, that is something that I am currently working on but won’t have a good answer for, for quite some time. regardless, in my mind the important thing is to stretch multiple times per week and not just prior to activity.

  3. stefanoNo Gravatar says:

    Hi and thanks for this last post.
    I was wondering if you could comment on the effect of stretching on joint mobility. For example I remember that in Neil Gresham’s video “Training masterclass” he recommends something like “hyperextend the first finger joint by pressing with your thumb on the second joint (like when crimping)”. Of course this has minimal effect on stretching the flexors and seems to be targeted to prepare the joints (rather than muscles) for the stress of climbing. I was wondering if you could comment on this and if you think there is a place for such “joint stretching”.
    Thanks a lot for your work (the books are really great!).

  4. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:

    Stefano,

    Thanks, you raise an important issue! I looked on the interwebs for some NG stretching video but i didnt find much. But i read your description, and i also found a book on my shelf that recommends a similar sort of thing. I can’t really say what the purpose of doing such “joint stretching” is. Clearly the book i was looking at considers it a good warm-up for climbing but there is no description as to why, or what such stretches are supposed to achieve.

    The one thing we know for sure is that we only want to stretch muscles, we do not want to stretch ligaments, but it looks like that is exactly what the stretches i am looking at in this book are designed to do, and it could be what the NG exercise is going for.

    We don’t want to stretch ligaments because it could have a negative impact on the three functions of ligaments which are to stabilize a joint, to serve as a barrier to movement, and to direct joint motion. Ligaments are not like muscles, in that they are passive structures, so if we stretch them, we risk permanently altering them in a way that makes them worse at the jobs just mentioned.

    Now, if I am misunderstanding what you wrote, or what I read in the book I mentioned, and the actual goal is to stretch the intrinsic muscles of the hand; then that is fine.

  5. stefanoNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks a lot for your answer.
    I thought stretching the ligaments was a good thing but what you say about it makes perfect sense.
    I would like to ask you one more thing: if we think of hip or knee mobility (for example), could the joints be a limiting factor there? And if so, how can we increase their mobility? Or is it that what matters for climbing is only active mobility and therefore we should concentrate only on the muscle’s range of work (this seems to be also what Dave MacLeod suggests in his excellent book)?
    What you wrote is making me think a lot also about the role of Yoga, that a lot of climbers seem to enjoy and incorporate in their training (I enjoy it too, but never thought it would make me a better climber).
    Thank you so much!

  6. Chris DNo Gravatar says:

    When I was in sports (high school), we were always taught that a cold muscle doesn’t stretch well. When I got to college, my coach, (who was a world class athlete), told me to stretch before bed. I’ve found the latter to be physically compelling, almost to the point of not being able to sleep comfortably unless I stretch at that time. Can you comment on new notions/theory of stretching in relation to being warmed up?

    The last few years (as I’ve gotten stronger/older) I’ve developed a routine where I climb at about 10-40% for 20 minutes (including stretching on the wall), then break and do some joint mobility/yoga and leg stretching (the gym owner calls it “having a sloth about”) maybe toss in a couple sets of various pushups (10 each) here and there. Then after some water and chilling for 15 minutes or so, I’ll put my shoes back on and climb at 50-60% for 20 mins, then break again. At this point, I’m feeling warmed up and ready to do whatever workout I have scheduled, or work my project. Do you think that my wall stretching is restrictive or limiting at all? Do you think I would benefit by cutting stretching out completely and just doing it at night?

  7. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:

    Stefano,

    I’m not sure I undertand your question, but you are right that for us climbers active range of motion is more important than flexibility (although increasing flexibility is part of increasing active range of motion). The structure of each joint does limit its mobility, but that is a good thing. Our goal is to maximize active range of motion for each joint without going into ranges of motion that will potentially damage the joints.

  8. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:

    Chris, I think your experience is consistent with the fact that there so many different stretching modalities out there and so many different things that have been advocated over the years. From my limited research into this area i would say that when we stretch might matter less than some think, but that we need to consider the type of stretching we are doing and the intensity of the stretching these variables seem very important. So high intensity static stretching within 5 minutes of intense exercise is not the best idea, but 20 minutes of low intensity dynamic stretching prior to exercise may be very good. (i need to look at a specific study before commenting further on that). On a side note my own experience is similar to yours, in that i used to always stretch prior to activity but then changes to stretching four days per week in the evening with no streching prior to activity. As dor your climbing and stretching method, I can’t really comment on that without understanding the intensity and type of stretching. It may be the case that you are fine either way. I am note really sure the extent to which the scientific literature has set down such specific proscriptions. i want to read up on a cluple things, maybe a cna post more after doing that.

  9. George LukeNo Gravatar says:

    Hi this post is great and this really helps. Stretching the Forearms is an important thing that is to be considered. Thanks for sharing this is so much helpful

  10. Ted FrelkeNo Gravatar says:

    I have always done a similar stretch using my palms pressed against each other like a “Namaste” and adjusting the amount of stretch by raising or lowering my elbows. I then invert my hands and repeat. I’ve always got a very satisfying stretch this way and was wondering if this would solve the bent elbows problem you mentioned. Is this physiologically damaging at all?

    Thanks for the write up and all the work you’ve done to help climbers.

    Cheers.

Leave a Reply