28 March 2017

Perry Gil S. Mallari's picture
Posted by Perry Gil S. Mallari on February 05, 2014

Grip strength and FMA training

Hand anatomy drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Being a weapons-based system, the importance of grip strength cannot be over emphasized in the practice of arnis, escrima and kali collectively known as Filipino martial arts (FMA). 

An exceptionally strong grip is an attribute common among oldschool escrimadors. One of my escrima mentors Manong Ignacio Mabait whom I met in 2002 when he was 86 years old, repeatedly, in a nonchalant manner, crushed my hand in a grip contest. The following is an anecdote on the hand strength of the legendary Floro Villabrille: “One time he took a rusty nail – it had no point; nothing – and he smashed it right into solid wood,” recalls Frank Mamalias, one of Villabrille’s former training partners.  “He told the audience:  ‘I have $100 for anyone who can pull that nail out.’  None succeeded, so he held it, took his hand, and pulled it out with no hesitation.  It sounded like a .38 going off!” (The Legend of Floro Villabrille Kali’s Master of the Death Match By Jim Coleman, Black Belt Magazine 1990)

The need for a powerful grip is imperative in weapons fighting where the hand is required to maintain its hold on a weapon during violent impact and extreme pressure. When striking, you need to maximally tense your grip to be able to deliver a powerful blow without losing your weapon. If your grip is weak, your hand could very well slide into the blade when thrusting knives or swords without guards. You will also rely on your grip in weapon retention scenarios when someone is trying to take your weapon away. 

I believe that grip strength should not precede the development of general strength. Remember that the body functions as a unit hence the futility of training the hands in isolation while neglecting the development of other parts of the body. Sports science expert Thomas Kurz warns athletes on the pitfalls of early specialization, “If sport-specific exercises are introduced too early in an athlete’s career, at the expense of general exercises, initially the sport-specific skills are developed at a high pace. Later, though, the athlete hits a plateau because the skills were developed without a foundation of general development. Improving performance at the stage of specialization (when the athlete does mostly sport-specific exercises) by resorting to general exercises is difficult if not useless. The neuromuscular patterns of the techniques (timing, amount of force, velocity, and the angles of movement) are already formed and the general exercises can’t alter them. Start your long-term training program with general strength exercises and progress to sport-specific strength exercises.”

Provided the practitioner already possessed general strength, there are several methods of strengthening the grip. One will quickly notice that these exercises work the fingers, the wrists and the forearms. 

Specialized FMA grip exercises
Training with weapons like sticks, knives, swords, staffs and spears by itself will develop grip strength. Some stick fighters would even use heavy hardwood sticks in stroking exercises to purposely develop grip strength and striking power. A popular wrist and grip exercise among Philippine stick fighters involves grabbing the center of a baston’s shaft then rotating the stick repeatedly clockwise and counter-clockwise. In remote provinces where people still use a big wooden lusong (mortar) at pambayo (pestle) to dehull rice, escrimadors would use the heavy wooden pestle to perform this exercise.

To me, the best way to develop the grip for FMA fighting is to strengthen the hand in unison with the whole body. The rationale for this is simple, the hands are not functioning in isolation but in coordination with the whole body during combat. For this purpose, I believe that specialized FMA pushups with the baston are excellent choices. The pushup is among the best overall exercises you can do because it treats the body as a unit and not as separate parts. While the most visible actions are seen in the arms, performance of this exercise requires contraction of almost all the muscles in the body (yes, it also works the abdominal muscles). The pushup strengthens the link between the upper body and the lower body. The unbent position of the spine during pushup allows maximal transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the muscles. Anything that improves the brain-muscle connection will improve performance. The pushup also encourages deep breathing hence it also improves cardiovascular capability. 

In specialized FMA pushups, the practitioner grabs one or two sticks and use the punyo or butt of the baston to press him self away from the floor instead of using his hands. Because of the smaller base (the butt of the stick), greater degree of muscular contraction is required to maintain balance during the pressing movement. The grip is the key to maintaining balance in this routine because if it’s not strong enough, the whole structure will collapse.

Fingertips pushups are excellent for strengthening each and every finger and must be performed periodically. But if the goal is maximal contraction in an unstable position, stick pushup is a better choice. 

Generic grip training exercises
Besides the aforementioned, there are generic ways of building grip strength. Squeezing a hard rubber ball is a cheap and effective method of building hand strength. Since the resistance is always constant, this is more of an isometric type of exercise. If you want varying resistance, use grippers like Captains of Crush, Ivanko Supergripper and Vulcan. 

Training with free weights also develops grip strength. Dumbbells and barbells exercises like wrist curls, deadlifts and bent rows suit the purpose well because they put direct strain on the hands. Another popular method of building hand strength using free weights is by pinch lifting heavy barbell plates.

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