Hand Grasp and Wrist Positions: Which Do I Do and When?

June 25, 2018 at 6:25 pm 6 comments


Do you wonder how to manage the choice of hand grasp and position of wrists in Pilates exercises? What is the best for safety and strength? The choice of hand grasp and the position/angle of your wrist make a difference for safety as well as arm and shoulder strength. Choosing the correct one for each exercise does not need to be a mystery…
And, as always with my work, some of what we were taught by our favorite people is not always effective…or could be more effective. I apologize in advance…as always!

Where do we even begin?

Well, let’s start with a little bit of information on hand grip and what that is all about. First and foremost…we have hands to hold onto things. We hold with different types of grips/grasps. And we only have arms so that we can move our hands to go and grip/grasp/hold something!

Well, let’s start with a little bit of information on hand grip and what that is all about.  We as humans have opposable thumbs. That means our thumbs flex into our other fingers for a grasp. Those other fingers are strongest in flexion; bending in for grasping. Yes. Humans are the great graspers! The grippers! We hold onto things! It is part of the development of humans as the hunters of the Earth. Humans started throwing rocks, using clubs and then javelins with such skill that we could hunt our prey without getting killed ourselves! That comes from…you guessed it: Grasping! Gripping!
OK, OK…more than just grasping and gripping! It took being able to be upright, developing patience waiting for and tracking prey, great force from legs and back…then being able to have such an incredibly big range of motion of our shoulder joints so that we could actually throw the way that we do. Oh…and amazing eye-hand coordination!
Additionally, the ability to club and throw…helped in fights between fellow humans! Yes! Men with better gripping abilities won the fights…and then actually procreated more! There are theories that our hands developed with amazing thumbs, smaller and straighter fingers than others because of this mastery of clubbing and throwing that led to procreation of better clubbers and throwers!
Women with better gripping abilities were able to protect their children and get into food storages better.
All in all…progress was being made with the grasp!

There are two primary grasps that got us to where we are: the precision grip and the power grip! Ohhhh they are so good!
The precision grip throws a javelin. The power grip pounds the club.
In our world now:
The precision grip holds your pen, your mascara wand, your knife when you cut your food like a lady or gentleman.
The power grip holds your baggage, a hammer, your water bottle.

Now, that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

How does this apply to Pilates?

What are our reasons for gripping and which types of grips are we looking to use in Pilates. Which ones will help us achieve our objectives.

When we consider what we do with our hands in Pilates, we are generally grasping a bar/handle/strap, a leg. We press down and pull against bars and pedals. Sometimes we are also attempting to make sure we do not pull a bar. No matter which, we are generally concerned with our ability to maintain that hand position and usage. We are concerned with alignment for wrist and shoulder health…and development of strength. How we work our hands and wrists will help us achieve our goals.

Handles: Power Grip
Let’s begin with handles. Handles on the reformer and Cadillac Arm Springs. These are bars. They are designed for the power grip. Now, some people have straps. I recommend bars. Even the cushy padded ones. This way one can achieve a healthy and powerful power grip.

Oh, I know! I know! I was taught to keep long fingers. You were, too. But except for the karate chop or if you have a hand injury, there is no reason to use long fingers. Why were we all taught this? The human hand is made to grasp. It doesn’t make sense to keep long fingers.

Part of strengthening the entire arm is…yes…you guessed it: Hand Grasp/Grip!
Hand strength actually comes from the forearm. Developing your forearms is essential to developing healthy arms and shoulder girdle.

Here…in this photo (below) you can see how the muscles of the fingers and entire hand originate in the forearm. Their tendons pass over the wrist and into the hand. Do you see that. There’s no room in the hand for powerful muscles. Oh, sure, there are little ones that are vital to precision. But our power of our hands comes from our forearms.

It’s amazing, really!

One of the actions that gets lost as we age is the grasp. The grip. In fact, it is the earliest loss of action as it is an early loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) and a predictor of aging and increased disabilities. (Oh, my!) I strongly suggest we work our hand grip over our lives to be able to carry things and keep our strength!

That means during The Hundred, Coordination, The Rowing, Seated Twist, Pull Straps, Backstroke, Teaser, Breaststroke, Horseback, Reverse Horseback,  etc. etc… Full power grip! Be strong!

When we grasp a handle, keeping a strong fist and a neutral alignment of the wrist is essential. Put your thumbs around the bar and use your opposable thumbs. Grasp the bar with a power grip. Keep the middle of your hand in line with the middle of your wrist. This will give you the greatest strength while conserving energy and developing your muscularity well.

Do you see in this well-aligned photo (below) that my hand-wrist-forearm alignment is strong and forward while the handle itself is on an angle. That’s how it goes! That angle is something we will wish for in longer bars and will have to alter our grasp for in other actions (read on…)









And then you can see that in profile (below), the hand is neutral to the forearm. There is no extension or flexion at the wrist.


What do we need to watch out for? Wrist deviations in any plane:
















And not just with the handles, but with all hand placement. We’re seeking neutral wrists in all three planes: coronal/frontal, sagittal and transverse. Unless, of course, it’s a safety issue we must manage.

Foot Bar
So…that means, on the foot bar of the reformer we seek a neutral wrist. Take Long Stretch Series, for instance. Work to keep your wrists straight in all three planes. Well…that’s rather tricky when your weight is on the foot bar. You’ll be able to align the middle of your hand with the middle of your forearm easily if you release your Power Grip and bring your thumbs over to the side of your fingers.
You can see in the photo below that the power grip really deviates the wrist:

And…release your grasp completely because grasping always comes with the intention of pulling and grabbing. However…you do not want to pull or grab the foot bar. Nope. You want to press against and down up it while hugging it with both hands, but not pull on it. Because what brings the carriage in? (Think about it… Think… No…not your abdominals. Not your power house. Nope. Think… Right! THE SPRINGS! And what do you do with springs? RESIST them! So…you wouldn’t ever grab and pull on the foot bar because then you are pulling the carriage in. But that is the job of the springs. You must push springs out (the easy part) and then resist their pull in (the hard part). So…we skip the power grip and go to thumbs with fingers with as much neutral alignment as possible.

Also, on a classical reformer, the foot bar does not lock. So it is most important that you only push a foot bar and never pull on one because the foot bar will fall down…and so will you!

Check out these photos of good foot bar alignment for hands in Long Stretch Series or Knee Stretches or any exercise that requires hands on the foot bar:




So we’re looking for:
As close to neutral wrists in all 3-plans as possible
Grasp handles
Push but do not grasp or pull foot bars

Leather Straps and/or Ropes
When doing Pull Straps or any other exercise that requires you to hold onto the leather straps or ropes, also make a full power grip with neutral wrists in all three planes. I know many of us were taught that it’s more advanced to do Pull Straps holding onto the strap with the thumb and first finger…but that’s really weak. The exercises are about arm, shoulder girdle to torso integration and strength. That requires a grasp all the way to your smallest (pinky) finger! If you wanted to be fancy…you hold on with your two smallest (pinky and ring) fingers while still doing the rest of your arm and shoulder girdle stunningly. Let’s not worry about being fancy. Let’s worry about getting the job done well and effectively! Make a full fist and pull!

But ropes are difficult in this manner. So what I do is fold the straps up so that I have something to really grasp onto!

Push Through Bar
Now, what about the Push Through Bar?
In exercises like Teaser Push Through, The Push Through, The Reverse Push Through and the Kneeling Flexion and Extension exercise (some call it Cat/Cow). We find ourselves with a safety issue where neutral wrists are not nearly as important as the safety of the power grip. In these exercises, please, oh, please use a full power grip. Use your opposable thumbs! In The Teaser Push through, for both safety and appropriately efficient manipulation of the bar, make full fists around the bar. Let the bar roll in your hand. I know of a teacher in Los Angeles that while teaching Teaser Push Through and leaning over her client to give hands-on cues, as we do, her client lost hold of the bar, it smashed into her jaw and broke it. She got a broken jaw because her client didn’t have the appropriate grip and she as a teacher didn’t have her hand on the center of the bar to watch out for that! And…I know of a Pilates Elder who seemed rather proud of herself sharing the story (at a workshop of mine) of how this happened to her 3 times…and she didn’t get hurt. (Personally, I find that a proper abomination.)

These photo (below) is how we grasp the Push Through Bar for those exercises (pardon the weird shot of me!):

Now, what about Mermaid with the Push Through Bar? It’s very much like using a foot bar. There is no safety issue with needing the power grip and we can prioritize neutral wrists once again. Do like we do on the foot bar: thumbs with fingers, long fingers so you don’t consider pulling on the bar. You push it with your body weight and you resist on the way up. See this photo (below)

Roll Back Bar
With the roll back bar we have similar situations to the Push Through Bar. Often we have to choose between power grip for safety (which will cause radial wrist deviation) and releasing the grip in one manner or another to retrieve the neutral position for better strengthening. I suggest that Beginners or anyone with a perception or neurological disorder use the power grip…those opposable thumbs and really wrap around the bar. It’s safe, though there is clear radial wrist deviation.
HOWEVER…you can modify that power grip and direct the pressure toward the small finger side of the hand releasing a bit of the thumb grip. (See photo below)



Or place the thumb beside the fingers while maintaining a neutral wrists. Or, of course, the full alteration with thumbs with fingers and long fingers. I was always taught that this is the ideal way of working with the bar…but I don’t agree any longer. With the knowledge of how important the grasp of the hand is to the development of the hand, arm and shoulder girdle…I resist this position. (See photo below)
What about during pull ups? This would be a good time for the modified power grip: thumbs with fingers while making your full grasp. (See photo below) You can get a solid grip while keeping relatively neutral so that you can get the full strength of the upper limb.

Vertical Poles
Leg Springs is likely the only other set of exercises (next to Long Stretch Series and Advanced Tendon Stretch) that I actually encourage the hands have thumbs with fingers and you press on the heel of your hand. Why? Because you want to push those vertical poles rather than pull on them. If your leg springs are appropriately strong, you need to press against the poles so that you don’t slide back toward the back edge of the Cadillac/Tower tower…or slide off all together. You push on those vertical poles with your hands to “brace” yourself…just like your shoulders end up pressing into the shoulder blocks of the reformer during leg springs. Those shoulder blocks are there so that you don’t slide off the back edge of the carriage! (The original apparatus that the design of the  reformer was taken from had no shoulder blocks.)

The Challenge of Change
I understand it’s difficult to change habits. Especially when someone important told us to do it a certain way. But I’ve got to say…why do you think you would ever want to work with those long fingers all of the time? What’s the purpose? I used to do it and think it was fun…until I learned about how you strengthen an arm and shoulder and body in general. Why, oh, why would we ever neglect the hand? The entire purpose of having an arm is to move your hand where you want it to go…to grasp something! So…let’s get grasping!

I call the long fingers: wearing your Pilates mittens. It’s time we take our mittens off…unless we really need them (on the foot bar or the vertical poles for leg springs).

Enjoy your power grip!

****Please reach out with questions, comments, concerns! The comment section is perfect for that, but if you have something more personal to discuss, always just email me at info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com

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Young RW. Evolution of the human hand: The role of throwing and clubbing.
J. Anat (2003) 202, pp165–174

Lewis WG, Narayan CV. Design and sizing of ergonomic handles for hand tools. Applied Ergonomics 1993, 24 (5), 351-356

Abe T, Thiebaud RS, Loenneke JP, Ogawa M, Mitsukawa N. Association between forearm muscle thickness and age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass, handgrip and knee extension strength and walking performance in old men and women: a pilot study. Ultrasound in medicine & biology. 2014;40(9):2069-2075.

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The Elephant Where do I put my head?!

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. viviana.romanazzi@gmail.com  |  June 25, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    Yay!!! Thanks!! Can’t wait to be alone and quiet in my bed to carefully read this!

    Inviato da Posta per Windows 10

    Da: The Vertical Workshop’s Pilates Teacher Blog Inviato: lunedì 25 giugno 2018 18:26 A: viviana.romanazzi@gmail.com Oggetto: [New post] Hand Grasp and Wrist Positions: Which Do I Do and When?

    theverticalworkshop posted: ” Do you wonder how to manage the choice of hand grasp and position of wrists in Pilates exercises? What is the best for safety and strength? The choice of hand grasp and the position/angle of your wrist make a difference for safety as well as arm and sho”

  • 2. Amanda  |  June 26, 2018 at 12:25 am

    Love this article! I, too, was taught long fingers and have taught it for years. In a recent workshop, my thinking completely changed when I was introduced to what you refer to as the “power grip.” I’ve been re-training my clients and it’s not always easy to get them on board doing something a new way. Your article is so thorough and will help me to better articulate the importance of using different grips to my clients. Thank you!!

  • 3. charlotte's web of wellness  |  June 26, 2018 at 9:03 am

    Great blog, Shari! Thank you for sharing your knowledge..

  • 4. Mike  |  July 1, 2018 at 8:30 am

    Thank you for writing this! It is a regular source of frustration to me to see SO many pictures on Instagram of long fingers, not grasping. My guess is that this is an intrusion from ballet, or at least an idea of aesthetics rather than mechanics. I think we do ourselves and our students a disservice if we forego the upstream feedback that grip sends – so valuable for the shoulder girdle and transferring load from extremity to centre.

  • 5. Elaine  |  February 26, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    Great article thanks Shari! You’ve certainly clarified all grip and hand positions in different planes which is fabulous. Just one query…regarding the Long Stretch Series on the Reformer, the photos show long fingers with a slight extension of the wrist. I also see some clients do this although correct it with the power grip as I’ve been taught, whilst keeping the wrists as neutral as possible. So, should it be long fingers or power grip on the Reformer foot bar? Please explain. Thanks so much in advance!

    • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  April 15, 2019 at 10:57 am

      Pardon my delay in writing back…
      I do believe I wrote about what to do on the foot bar: long fingers because you do not want to be tempted to pull on the foot bar. Both because on some apparatus, the foot bar is not locked and because if you grip, then you will pull yourself in when the action is to resist the springs. The springs pull you in.
      So…long fingers, indeed!
      Thanks, Elaine!
      – Shari


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