Over the past few months, it’s occurred to me that at my ripe old age of 30, I’ve lost some dexterity in my hands. I used to be able to hold my iced coffee and phone securely in my hand, but these days, my mitts are limited to one function at a time—and I don’t like what that says about my mortality, frankly. Luckily, there are ways to improve dexterity, so let’s all ignore the creeping passage of time and our impending old age and focus instead on helping our hands be the best they can be.
What is dexterity?
To start with the basics, dexterity is the skill of performing tasks, particularly with your hands. “You need it for everyday tasks and reacting to anything that occurs throughout your day,” said Sam Vascones, a New York-based personal trainer.
When you think of how much you do with your hands all day, from making yourself scrambled eggs in the morning to folding laundry in the evening (and everything in between), it becomes clear how vital dexterity is to daily life. Kendra Vander Wal, an occupational therapist in Colorado, also noted that in addition to the necessary activities of your daily life, dexterity helps you have fun, too. You need it to play sports, for example, or use a remote or a video game controller.
Loss of dexterity can be the result of a lot of things, according Stephanie Weyrauch, a physical therapist and vice president of the American Physical Therapy Association of Connecticut. Those causes could include osteoarthritis, stroke, or trauma, but it can also be attributed to simply not promoting it correctly. As an example, she pointed to someone who plays musical instruments in high school—if they stop playing later on, they could struggle to play as well after picking it back up in adulthood.
“This means that our brain has some effect on dexterity as well,” she said. “Practice makes progress. The more we use our hands to perform a task, the easier it becomes.”
Vascones noted that a lack of flexibility, lack of mobility, or lack of strength can impact dexterity, too.
How can you improve dexterity?
For some specific tips on improving dexterity, we turned to Weyrauch and personal trainer Abdias Rojas. “Shit,” Rojas said (very excitedly), “there are so many movements you can do to actually improve not just the strength of your hands but also flexibility in your hands.” Here are the ones they recommended:
- Put rubber bands on your fingers, then expand and contract them. Rojas said this will contribute to myofascial release “and getting your hands to feel more comfortable.” This video demonstrates how the rubber band technique is done.
- Do seated finger DIP PROM movements by gently pinching the end of your finger at the last knuckle and slowly bending your finger using your other hand. Per Weyrauch, this can be done every day, 10 times per finger, and for 10 seconds each dip.
- Seated finger PIP PROM movements, which are done with the same frequency and duration as the ones above, involve gently pinching your finger at the middle knuckle, then using your other hand to bend each finger there.
- A seated multiple digit intrinsic stretch starts with you sitting upright with your elbow resting on a table. Curl the fingers of one hand and hold the middle and top joints of all the fingers with the other hand. Gently squeeze your fingers until you feel a stretch. Do this 10 times, for 10 seconds each, every day.
- Try wrist tendon gliding by resting your elbow on a table, keeping your fingers straight, then bending your fingers at your bottom knuckles so your fingers create a “tabletop” appearance. Straighten them, then bend your bottom and middle knuckles, straighten your hand, make a claw fist, straighten again, and make a half fist before straightening once more. Do this daily in sets of two, with 10 reps each.
- To get a better sense of how much pressure you should apply when touching things, do hand drills in sand. “It sounds weird,” Rojas cautioned, but “when you do hand drills inside of a sandbox, put your hands in a box of sand, you can literally learn to squeeze the sand and understand which joint or which finger is giving more pressure or less pressure.” Try pinching a ball of putty with your thumb, index, and middle fingers, too, while keeping your wrist straight.
- Do some opposition, which means you touch your thumb to each individual finger on that same hand, working at different speeds. (This one came from Rojas and Weyrauch, so you know it’s a winner.)
- To strengthen your sensation of touch, avoid working out with gloves.
- For better grip strength, Rojas suggested heavy isolated holds “where you’re standing in place with a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell. See if you can use your grip to hold onto it.”
- Rojas said another option for grip strength is forearm workouts “because a lot of the muscles in your hand are actually contracted with muscles that are in your forearms.”
- To strengthen your wrists, do wrist mobility drills: “Practice leaning into them with your palm down on the floor. Then, practice leaning into them with the backs of your hands on the floor, rolling on them, like putting weight on and taking weight off [the wrist],” Rojas said.
- Finally, try seated eccentric wrist extension. Sit upright with an arm on a table, holding a dumbbell with your hand hanging off the edge and your palm facing down. Use your other hand to curl your wrist up, lower it, and repeat. Do this in sets of two with 20 reps each, every day.
Beyond exercise, Rojas suggested hand massages and even acupuncture. Vascones also suggested that someone who has a hard time managing multiple items in their hand, for instance, should work with vice grips and not skimp on their forearm workouts, but “if it’s a mobility issue, you may need to stretch the hand and forearm or work on supination and pronation of your hand.” Per Vander Wal, you can even make this fun: “Leisure activities such as working with clay and putty, spraying water bottles, or cutting with scissors can also work on building dexterity.”
Don’t overlook the value of overall body health when it comes to improving dexterity, either. Weyrauch pointed out that “without the optimal gross (which require larger movements and more muscle groups) and fine motor (which require more precision) skills, which make up the dexterity of our hands, we would be unable to perform” daily tasks.
If you’re struggling with your dexterity to a detrimental degree or exercises on your own aren’t helping, consider seeing a medical professional or physical therapist. Vander Wal noted there are a few different assessments a trained pro can perform, like using the O’Connor finger dexterity test. Identifying the cause and severity of the issue can help you make a better plan for improvement—and get back to dual-wielding your keys and phone or beating a high score in a video game in no time.