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By David Horne

This article was featured in Iron Grip magazine Vol 2 # 1, Jan 2002, and is now updated.

The ligament is a strong band of collagen that connects two bones at a joint; it helps to restrict movement to that provided for by the shape of the joint, preventing dislocation. Ligaments are tough, practically non-elastic and do not readily yield under the most severely applied force; it serves well as a connecting medium between bones. Here is an example of how ligaments keep bones in their correct position. In the phalangeal joints of the fingers, the only movements permitted are flexion and extension (these movements are more extensive between the first two phalanges). The movement of flexion is very considerable, but the extension is limited by the anterior and lateral ligaments. The tendon consists almost entirely of parallel collagen fibres. The fibres of the tendon (or aponeurosis) are plaited or braided with one another, so that tension in any part of the muscle is usually distributed more or less equally to all parts of the attachment to the bone. The thickness and strength of the tendon will vary greatly, depending upon the location of the muscle. It is usually greater if the muscle is situated near the distal end of a limb. Tendons and sheets of fascia cross most joints. Although their function is usually considered to be the transference of muscle tension, so as to cause movement, the fact that they hold bones together should never be overlooked. Because most muscles insert at very small angles, a large component of muscular force is usually directed along the bone toward the joint, tending to reinforce the joint by pulling the bones together. As a rule the tendon is stronger than the muscle, and does not rupture when a limb is subjected to severe strain. Loads great enough to produce lesions usually pull the tendon insertion away, rupture the muscle belly, separate the muscle-tendinous junction, cause the muscle origin to pull out, or fracture the bones!

An example of how strong a tendon is: even after a chicken leg has been boiled, and the meat will fall off the bone just by touching it, the tendon is still intact and very tough to break. The tensile strength of adult tendons is about 4169 PSI. The tensile strength of compact bone is 230 times greater than that for muscle of a similar cross-section (1). The strength of tendons in resisting pulls is said to be ‘equal to at least half that of the bones' (2). The strength of the tendons and ligaments was strikingly illustrated in the case of a sixteenth century Frenchman named John Poltrot, who in 1563 attempted to assassinate the Duke de Guise. For this act, Poltrot was sentenced to be ‘quartered’ by four horses, pulling in as many directions. But the condemned man’s joints and ligaments were so strong that the quartering could not be accomplished; even though three fresh teams of horses in succession were harnessed to his arms and legs. Finally, he was hacked to pieces by swords. This public execution was so revolting that the King of France ordered the practice of quartering to be henceforth discontinued (3).

There are two main types of muscle structure: the longitudinal or fusiform, and the penniform (unipennate, bipennate, multipennate). The longitudinal is the simpler of the two; its fibres run parallel down the length of the muscle. A muscle which is long and slender is weaker than a short and broad one, but can shorten through a relatively large distance. Muscle strength is best gained when an exercise is so heavy that only 1 – 12 consecutive repetitions are possible. Even a single daily contraction that is greater than that to which the muscle is accustomed will simulate a significant strength increase. The tendons and ligaments of most individuals are already far stronger than the contraction and movement of their muscle bellies. So to strengthen these areas specifically, you have to train with heavy weights and low repetitions. Your muscles will fatigue first; but you can still continue the set by doing partials, which will strengthen your tendons and ligaments. But be careful and don’t go too heavy to start with. Work up to these: start off by doing 4 – 10 full range movements, then 4 – 10 partials, and do this for a good few months. Don’t run before you can walk; injuries can happen when training on partial lifts. Use a power rack, or good reliable spotters for this type of training.

A few years ago I suffered from an overstretched and torn ligament, which resulted in the dislocation of my thumb. After visiting the hospital, I had my arm and hand put into plaster for two weeks. Upon returning to the hospital to have the plaster removed, I was told that it had done no good and I would have to depend upon time and my body’s natural healing ability to repair it. I was also told that I would never regain the strength in my thumb or joint that I had previously had. However, I was determined that my hand should come back up to strength: with a new career in armwrestling on the horizon, a national title to defend and a back injury to overcome, I was not prepared to happily relinquish one of my greatest strength assets.
To begin with, I was unsure which direction I should take. Any heavy training was obviously too painful, and I struggled with basic exercises like bench pressing because I couldn’t take the pressure on my thumb. I was unable to think of any lower resistance exercises initially, because all of the grippers and hand exercisers I own were geared towards finger strengthening and neglect the thumb. Eventually I came across an Eagle Catcher, a gripper designed for martial artists, which offered very minimal resistance training for each of the digits individually. Although the stress this applied through the fingers was negligible, I found that it taxed my thumb enough to feel that I was working it without further injury. We found that after the injury a certain amount of scar tissue developed, which had to be removed through massage. This, combined with much stretching (usually executed by someone else so that the thumb was stretched further), eventually resulted in a build up of muscular tissue which acted as a substitute for the missing ligament. Although my thumb would now be much weaker if it were to suffer a jerk or sudden impact, it is equally as effective as before in terms of static strength, such as crushing or pinching strength.

In recovering from injuries, and in general hand, skin and wrist care, massage is incredibly important. Use massage or baby oil to massage your hands and wrists and massage towards your heart, as shown in the diagram. It’s also useful to massage your wrist and forearms with a wringing action, turning back and forth (see diagram). Also massage the back of your hands and wrists towards your heart.

Skin maintenance is important in preventing the sudden departure of callouses which can leave painful gaping holes. Pick all dead skin off your hands when they have been soaked in hot water, as this is when it comes off most easily; ideally when you’re having a bath or doing the washing-up!

For skin care, use a cream that will be absorbed into the skin. E45 is a very good dermatological cream for dry skin. It is essential to keep the skin on your hands supple and stretchy. Sudocrem is a good antiseptic healing cream, useful in cases of skin loss. Hands that are supple and porous are especially good for grip training and particularly pinch lifting: despite appearances, rough ‘gauntlet’ hands are a disaster waiting to happen; they do not allow the same contact with the weights or allow for any movement in the skin.

1. Kinesiology and Applied Anatomy, 1971, Rasch & Burke
2. Amar, 1920
3. The Super Athletes, Willoughby

Copyright David Horne 2006