The martial arts style I’ve trained in the most is karate. This is the one I’ve studied all my life, and its lessons have carried me far in life. Even to this day, I train consistently and have often joined my local karate schools so that I can enjoy the training dynamic that one can only find by working out within a dojo. But Karate Do (or Karate, as it’s known in the western world) translates as “way of the empty hand” because the art primarily uses empty-hand techniques. This means that a significant amount of conditioning needs to go into the hands.
When people work out, they tend to focus on the major muscle groups that show the best results, like biceps, triceps, chest and shoulders. There’s been a running joke for decades about how people tend to skip leg days, and with good reason. People like to focus on what shows, which is why many professional weightlifters look like they have chicken legs. All of this is a pretty broad generalization, but the truth of the matter is that one of the most overlooked aspects of working out happens to be grip strength.
Grip strength is exceptionally important in all martial arts, regardless of style. You can have ripped arms and legs but if you have no strength in your grip, your fighting skills will be greatly lacking. Think about it; if you study Judo or other grappling styles, you need your grip to, well… grapple! Having the grip strength to grab on to your opponent’s gi, clothing, flesh, whatever, in order to flip and/or throw them is critical. In normal striking arts, grip strength is critical for the proper execution of pressure points and grabbing/holding your opponent in order to execute techniques. Grip strength is even important for weapons styles, since it’s kind of important to have enough grip strength to hold your baton, staff or sword.
There are plenty of ways to increase your grip strength, including grip strengtheners you can buy at your local retail or fitness location, to rubber expander rings that you can squeeze and stretch. I used to keep one of the former at my desk at work and flex whichever hand was free as I’d work. Even those so-called “stress balls” can be handy, although the amount of resistance they provide is pretty limited.
You can also use a more traditional training tool called Okinawan Gripping Jars. This involves clay jars that have a thick lip at the opening. The jar could be filled with water or sand and gripped at the lip and carried in order to strengthen the hands. Beginners would usually start by carrying them while empty and work their way up from there. If you happen NOT to live in Okinawa and have no skill with a potter’s wheel or a kiln, you can make your own “do it yourself” gripping jars by taking large, glass mason jars and filling them with stones or water. Once the lid is properly secured, the jar is narrow enough to grip at the top.
Hand strength in general is an important aspect of martial arts, and there are many ways to increase that strength. Knuckle push-ups are one of my favourite, as they toughen up the knuckles and strengthen the wrists. Installing a makiwara board in your backyard is also ideal, since it allows you to work on wrist strength and finger strength by working your knife hands, finger thrusts and punches.
Speaking of finger strength, did you know that your fingers are part of your hands? And you should strengthen THOSE as well? No? Well, step right on over for some education. There is supplemental strength training for the hands in the martial arts, known as jari bako. This involves filling a bowl or a bucket with sand, gravel or small stones. The exercise involves thrusting one’s fingers into the bowl or bucket, which results in the strengthening of the fingers and fingertips.
The receptacle would occasionally be filled with hot water as well, especially if you were a naughty student who acted out in class and required some additional motivation to behave. Not that I’m speaking from experience, of course. But the science behind this technique is that the trauma caused to the musculature causes an increase in finger strength, much like any other physical exercise.
As usual, extra care and starting slowly is required when working the hands and fingers as they contain small bones that can be easily injured. This is one of those times when I tend to disagree with the Okinawan masters of old, in that it isn’t necessary to traumatize and disfigure your knuckles or hands in order to increase your striking and grip strength.
My two foreknuckles on both hands are slightly increased in size but aren’t disfigured. That should be the extent of the damage. Anything more is unnecessary and may cause long term problems without necessarily increasing strength. If in doubt, seek instruction from someone experienced teacher or instructor who’s been there and done that! ☯