In all grappling arts the one who is able to establish their control has a significant advantage of their opponent. Grappling arts involving a kimono (jiu jitsu, judo, sambo etc..) often involve heavy grip fighting or kumi kata in japanese. Many matches are won based on who is able to achieve their intended grips to allow for the throw, choke or guard pass. Because grips are so important it is not surprising that many grapplers have a history of finger pains and aches.
Anatomy of the finger:
There are three joints of the finger: metacarpophalangeal joint (MCP joint), proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP joint) and distal interphalangeal joint (DIP joint). The joints involved with grip injuries are often the PIP and DIP joints. The volar plate and collateral ligaments help to stabilize the PIP and DIP joints. The volar plate is a ligament on the front of the knuckle to prevent hyperextension and the collateral ligaments are on the sides of the joint to prevent side bending. Most finger injuries begin with damage to these ligaments: sprains which mean the ligaments are stretched or have partial tears. If the ligament ruptures then dislocations can happen.
With repetitive stress, multiple sprains and/or dislocations the joints will begin to develop arthritis. Signs often begin with stiffness, general aches and restrict movement. As the arthritis progresses there will be increased laxity/instability followed by limited mobility. In the later stages you may notice enlarged joints.
Strategies to minimize stress on your fingers
1. Technique: If your fingers are beginning to hurt it is a good opportunity to practice techniques that do not involve grip. No-gi variations are much friendlier on the fingers.
2. Finger taping: Taping the fingers to give additional support may be helpful to reduce stress on your fingers. This is a temporary solution to allow for a practitioner to continue to train through an injury but this is not a viable longer term solution.
3. Finger / grip strengthening: Finger strength is not only important for gripping but also to protect your fingers from injury. Most finger injuries in grappling involves ligament sprains, stretching and microtears of the volar plate or collateral ligament.
Here are 3 exercises to rehab/prehab your fingers for grappling:
1) isometric fingers holds. Isometric contraction of fingers by going pad to pad. This is an early strengthening exercise used to rehab an injured finger.
2) Plate holds. In this exercise the resistance is a plate. As a drill you can alternate which finger holds up the plate.
3) Farmers walk. This variation involves hooking the inside of a plate and walking for a set distance or time. This is an advanced exercise that can be easily progressed by using a heavier plate.
The importance of gripping in jiu jitsu competition
One study found that the forearm and fingers were the two primary muscle groups to fatigue in a jiu jitsu match compared to all other muscle groups (Andreato 2017). The researcher also noticed that by the end of a 10 minute simulation the maximal handgrip strength decreased 89/84% from baseline (dominant, non dominant respectively) (Andreato 2013). The drop in maximal grip strength was noticed by the 4th minute in the match and remained significantly lower than baseline until the end of the match
While grip strength and endurance is not the only attribute (physical or technical) that is necessary for success in kimono grappling competition it is not one that should be overlooked.
1. Andreato, L. V., Esteves, J. V. D. C., Julio, U. F., Panissa, V. L. G., Hardt, F., de Moraes, S. M. F., & Franchini, E. (2017). Physical performance, time-motion, technical-tactical analyses, and perceptual responses in Brazilian jiu-jitsu matches of varied duration. Kinesiology, 49(1).
2. Franchini, E., Artioli, G.G., & Brito, C.J. (2013). Judo combat: Time-motion analysis and physiology. International
Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport , 13 (3), 624-641.
3. Andreato, L.V., Franchini, E., Franzói-Moraes, S.M., Pastório, J.J., Silva, D.F., Esteves, J.V.D.C., Branco, B.H.M.,
Romero, P.V.S., & Machado, F.A. (2013). Physiological and technical-tactical analysis in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
competition. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine , 4 (2), 137-143.