Judo & BJJ finger health tips for the recreational competitor
If you start to practice Judo or BJJ more than a few times a week your fingers can start to take a beating. For me, 17 years of gi grappling, competition and many hours a week split between Judo and BJJ is starting to stack up against my fingers. I've had to really pay more attention to how I care for them and here are some of the things I have learned.
1. Develop grip strength and use it at the right times, relax the grips when not needed actively. Avoid the middle ground.
The most common finger injuries are due to fingers being quickly extended under strain. This happens often when grips are broken or when attempting a throw and the fingers are pulled off the gi due to various forces. It's this force on the fingers pulling them rapidly open that can damage the extensor and flexor tendons of the fingers. To avoid this, we need to train to have strong grips so that we can rely on the muscles in our hands instead of the tendons. This will help protect the vulnerable parts of your fingers while also making your Judo better. It's important to make sure your grips are either relaxed or tight enough to not be breakable; the middle ground is where most injuries can happen. For beginners, who might not know when to switch between the two, just stick to keeping you grips relaxed until you need to throw.
Here is a great video outlining some grip strength training methods:
Also, make sure you work on strengthening finger extension muscles as well. There are various hand exercise products you can use to workout your hand extension muscles like the 5Billion brand below:
2. Use grips with less chance of finger injury
The beatings our fingers take is directly proportional to what grips we use and how much strain they can cause. No-gi grapplers have a lower rate of finger pain because they often use the entire hand and less of the individual fingers. For gi grapplers, we don't have such a luxury. However, we can follow suit in some ways by changing up our gripping game.
Sleeve grips, particularly end of the sleeve grips are often targeted to break. Our opponent can raise their elbow and with a quick backward jerking motion, create a lot of force to rip off the grip.
Lapel grips are also commonly breakable, but with the new Judo rules forbidding two on one hand grip breaks, this is less common to cause injury, though still an issue in BJJ. If you are nursing a finger injury or are consistently getting your fingers injured you may want to consider playing with some different grips.
Double lapel grips eliminate the sleeve grips and provide two strong grips that are harder to break.
Over-the-back/Georgian/two-on-one-side grips are also much harder to break.
If you like the end of the sleeve grip but are having trouble with finger pain, consider gripping your opponent's wrist directly instead
3. Choose your battles when grip fighting.
For many, this goes without saying; but if you are consistently getting your grips broken you are going to deteriorate your gripping ability quickly, especially in competition. Practice transitions from one grip to another when your opponent is breaking your grips instead of fighting them. This can be a powerful tool and can be used to your advantage as well.
For instance, if you are playing right v. right and your opponent is consistently breaking your left hand sleeve grip, plan on releasing the grip and posting your left hand on their right shoulder. This prevents them from entering for many right sided throws and also provides some very nice setups for your right sided throws from a left lapel grip such as Seoi-Nage, Hari-Goshi, O-Goshi etc.
4. Take care of you fingers.
Rest: When your fingers are taking damage make sure to give them adequate rest. Use different grips for a week or so until they heal or even work throws that are less grip intensive like foot sweeps and sacrifice throws like Sumi-Geishi, Tomoe-Nage and Yoko-Guruma etc.
Ice: Briefly submerging your fingers in an ice bath or using ice packs to decrease inflammation can provide relief and decrease recovery time. Talk to a specialist: If your finger pain starts to become chronic or severe you should get to see an orthopedic doctor that specializes in fingers. They can diagnose the specific problems and may suggest anti-inflamitories or specific exercises.
5. Tape your fingers when needed.
Taping correctly has been a lifesaver for many very active Judoka. Taping helps two fold: It provides compression that can help decrease swelling, and it stabilizes the joint taking strain off the tendons and in some cases even aligning the tendons back into their correct positions (If inflammation has pushed them out of place).
It should be noted though that taping all the time may weaken the joints and your hands will start to rely on the tape, so make sure to only tape when your fingers really need it, when you are competing, or having an especially tough workout. Additionally, not all taping methods are created equal. I have experimented with a number over the years and found the one that works best is a criss-cross pattern around the joints. This allows the pressure on the joints to relax when the hands are open, and tightens up as the hands close providing a lot of mobility and avoiding keeping pressure on the fingers at all times. Below I have outlined two procedures I use: First a "Quick tape" before practice if my fingers are not hurting too badly, but provides some compression. Then what I use when I am competing and need extra compression.
"Quick tape" Version
Rip off a length of tape a little longer than your arms length and about a quarter inch wide. (You can alternatively keep the tape on the roll but I find it cumbersome)
Wrap it twice just below the knuckle at the tip of your finger
Cross the tape inside the finger and down over the middle knuckle
Wrap the tape around just below the first knuckle several times
Cross the tape back up over the inside of the middle knuckle to form an "X"
Repeat steps moving the "X" above and below the first "X" until you have used up the entire length of tape.
Procedure 2: If I have more time I will use a much smaller width of tape (and much longer) and criss cross them even more which simply provides more support around the fingers. Depending on how injured my fingers are, I might repeat this twice and also buddy tape my fingers together.
Here is a great video from Keenan Cornelius outlining a similar procedure which I use when I have more time to tape:
Update: The writing of this article inspired a three part series from our friends at Decatur Judo Club on grips for safe judo. Check it out here: http://decaturjudo.com/safe-judo-gripping/