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Forearm Function: The Power Behind The Hand

Popeye The Sailor Man was a regular part of my Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday morning comic strips when I was growing up. For those of you who have no idea who Popeye is, you might recognize him by his rusty dialect, bad eye, Gilligan style hat, and permanently affixed pipe in his mouth. But he is probably best remembered for his exaggerated forearm girth and strength. As a kid, I gathered that his shenanigans were fueled by his handy access to endless amounts of canned spinach. As an adult, and a massage therapist, his forearms raise all sorts of questions.

What’s with the hyper-toned flexors and extensors, Popeye? A typical body builder, or any strangely strong human, will most likely have broad shoulders, six pack abs and bulging biceps. Not Popeye. His forearm size, relative to the rest of his body, makes me wonder how he gets his shirt on in the morning. This, as I have come to deduce (also I might have read about it online) is because the strength required to handle the tensioned ropes of a ship is largely about the hands. And the hands do not act on their own.

While the hands themselves have a lot of cool little muscles that are great at cool little movements, they are just that: Little. Which means that when more demanding tasks are asked of them, like hoisting the sails, they call in the reinforcements. Enter: the forearms - the house of the strength behind a hand’s ability. The more intrinsic muscles in the hand are great for positioning our fingers to grip. And the extrinsic muscles that live in the forearm batten down the hatches. Popeye’s forearms suddenly make a lot of sense.

But it doesn’t always work out this way. We don’t find ourselves with overblown forearms, even with our extensive hand use. There are, as you have most likely experienced, many instances where the function of a muscle is overused or underused or simply misused. The instances of this happening in the forearm are more common than we probably like to admit. The hand’s ability to grip and grab is a collaboration of about 30 muscles. That’s a lot of room for error.

Anyone who has had tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, or carpal tunnel syndrome can attest to this. These dysfunctions don’t necessarily indicate that you play tennis or golf or go tunneling for carpals every weekend. They just mean that some combination of the 30 movers and shakers in this region are malfunctioning. It would be lovely if we just got stronger. But I have a feeling that if Popeye existed in the real world, his forearms would be riddled with sprains, strains and all of the -itises. 

Really good, detailed work in the forearm requires understanding this premise. Figuring out what is over firing or under firing or stuck in a misfiring pattern is often the first step in helping a client through their issue. And one of the best ways to do this is not necessarily about memorizing all 30 muscles that live here. Although that would be a helpful tool. Until you’ve got these down, though, slow down your work, be methodical, and ask the right questions.

With your client supine on the table, have them rest their hands at their sides, palms down. This slight internally rotated position helps neutralize the shoulder and keeps any shoulder issues out of the spotlight. Place a small bolster (a rolled up hand towel will do) under their wrist if there any any residual discomforts. Bolstering is good like that. And start off with a steady forearm (yours) steamroll up the forearm (theirs). Moving from wrist to elbow, sink in with the anterior aspect of your forearm into the posterior aspect of theirs and, as you do this, have them begin to wiggle their fingers and thumb around just enough to create a little engagement.

Once things are warmed up, begin the specific the work. Position yourself so that you are standing near your client’s shoulder, facing their hand, and gently grab the upper forearm. With your fingers supporting your work between their arm and the table, place a thumb into the bundle of extensors near the elbow. Support your thumb with your other thumb, because thumbs need a lot of help, and begin to sink in. As you do this, you can ask your client to wiggle their fingers again and this will give you a good bit of information. But, if both you and your client are ready, you can take it one step further.

The forearm powerhouses are exactly that. They engage more when you ask them to do more. Sinking in again, have your client squeeze their hand into a fist. This extra request for energy pulls those larger muscles out of the shadows and offers a whole lot more perspective on how things are operating under the skin. Repeat this technique in various positions throughout the forearm and have your client report in to you about what they feel. From here, follow the pattern of contraction, listen to the lines of communication, and ease the dysfunction back into function. 


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