Boxing: Should You Wrap Your Hands?
I will spoil the surprise early. The quick and easy answer is YES! you should wrap your hands. Regardless of your ability or training level, if you are training in sports like boxing, MMA, kickboxing or Muay Thai then it is an essential aspect of reducing your injury risk. Whether your personal trainer has you hitting pads for fitness, you’re working combos on the heavy bag or sparring in the gym you want to reduce the risk that you will injure your hands or wrists as injuries lead to pain, lost training time and less improvement. Like the old saying goes “prevention is better than cure”.
X-Ray of Australian Former UFC Champion Robert Whittaker’s thumb fracture
What are hand wraps?
Elite boxer’s have been shown to be able to generate 4,800N/490kg of punching force and even the novice boxer is able to produce 2300N/230kg of force (5). That means that even the complete novice is likely hitting with more than 3-times their own bodyweight! That is a substantial amount of energy being transferred through the small structures of the hand. It makes sense that we need to try to strengthen the area in some way. This is where wraps come into play.
Hand wraps take three common forms:
- Traditional Cloth Wraps: made from thin material and usually slightly stretchy, these are the commonly used wraps you can apply yourself. They come in various lengths and usually the longer the better as they provide more wrapping and rigidity (depending on hand size).
- Professional Wraps: most commonly seen in competition or used in training for elite level fighters. These wraps are layers of thin gauze, tape and padding and are often applied by a trainer. The average Joe would generally not use these.
- Gel Inner Glove Wraps: usually used for convenience, these aren’t actually wraps but more like a small padded glove which secures around the wrist. They generally offer less wrist protection than a wrap however may suit your training regime. They are likely only sufficient for very light training.
From left to right: cloth wraps, professional wraps, gel wraps
What do wraps do?
The anatomy of the hand is complex including 27 bones, 29 major joints, over 120 ligaments, 3 nerves and 35 muscles which move it. This is why our hand is so dynamic and able to perform such complex tasks.
Whilst there is little scientific evidence to show the effects of hand wrapping, they theoretically provide protection through:
- Wrist Rigidity: the wrapping pattern forms a splinting effect to the wrist. This reduces the likelihood of stressful movements into flexion, extension or ulnar/radial deviation (side to side) which can stress the joints.
- Hand Rigidity: binding all the bones of the hand together, including the thumb, to prevent excessive movement on impact.
- Protect the skin: punching without wraps is likely to irritate and damage the skin on the knuckles.
- Padding the knuckles: the commonly used traditional wraps provide very little padding, that’s the purpose of the glove. However, a 2015 study found that the addition of 1.2cm of padding added to conventional wraps reduced the punching force by 9-12% (2). This is a significant reduction of force through the hand and is worth considering implementing in fighters with a regular training routine.
- Fill the gloves: the extra thickness added to the wrist and hand help to fill the loose areas within the glove. Think of it like “socks” for your boxing glove.
How should I wrap my hands?
There is a multitude of ways to wrap your hands for striking sports, often each trainer or fighter will have their own preferred method. Wrapping technique may also change with the specific sport due to varying glove sizes and requirements. Therefore it’s not easy to give a one-size-fits-all answer on how to wrap.
YouTube is often a helpful place to start, as it often easier to follow the process visually. Here is one method:
Common hand & wrist injuries in striking sports
Often the head and face are the focal point of concern regarding injuries in striking sports especially with recent research developments in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and examples of “punch drunk” boxers. However, multiple studies have found that fighters may experience upper limb issues in up to 25%-44% of overall boxing injuries (1,4,7) with up to 53% of these upper limb injuries occurring in the hand and wrist (1). A 2014 study found that MMA athletes suffered hand and wrist injuries in about 6-12% of total injuries (6). The statistics vary across studies and sports but all boiled down, hand and wrist injuries are a common occurrence in striking sports, so it’s important for us to try to prevent these and protect the hands.
Common injuries include (1,5):
- Boxer’s Knuckle: this an injury to the sagittal band of the metacarpophalangeal joint (the knuckle) which then allows the tendon that runs over the knuckle to move out of place. It is also used to describe an injury to the joint capsule of the knuckle.
- Carpometacarpal Joint Instability/Dislocation: this is a dislocation between the small carpal bones at the base of the hand and the longer metacarpal bones in the palm.
- Boxer’s Fracture: a fracture to the metacarpal neck, usually of the 4th or 5th. However fracture patterns vary greatly depending on the impact.
- Wrist Sprain: a complex weaving of ligaments cross the wrist, with any excessive forced wrists movements, a sprain may occur.
- Ulnar Collateral Ligament Thumb Injury (Skiers Thumb): when the thumb is forced away from the hand, a small ligament on the inside of the thumb can sprain or rupture. This may occur when the thumb is the main contact point of a punch.
If you have sustained an injury while boxing or kickboxing it is best to have a qualified health professional such as a physiotherapist or medical doctor examine you.
- Drury, B. T., Lehman, T. P., & Rayan, G. (2017). Hand and Wrist Injuries in Boxing and the Martial Arts. Hand Clinics, 33(1), 97-106. doi:10.1016/j.hcl.2016.08.004
- Galpin, A. J., Gulick, C. N., Jacobo, K., Schilling, B. K., Lynn, S. K., McManus, R. T., … Brown, L. E. (2015). The Influence of a Padded Hand Wrap on Punching Force in Elite and Untrained Punchers. International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science, 3(4). doi:10.7575/aiac.ijkss.v.3n.4p.22
- Loosemore, M., Lightfoot, J., Meswania, J., & Beardsley, C. (2015). Unique method for analysing pressure distribution across the knuckles during boxing. doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.917
- Loosemore, M., Lightfoot, J., Palmer-Green, D., Gatt, I., Bilzon, J., & Beardsley, C. (2015). Boxing injury epidemiology in the Great Britain team: a 5-year surveillance study of medically diagnosed injury incidence and outcome. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(17), 1100-1107. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094755
- Loosemore, M., Lightfoot, J., Gatt, I., Hayton, M., & Beardsley, C. (2016). Hand and Wrist Injuries in Elite Boxing. HAND, 12(2), 181-187. doi:10.1177/1558944716642756
- Lystad, R. P., Gregory, K., & Wilson, J. (2014). The Epidemiology of Injuries in Mixed Martial Arts. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(1), 232596711351849. doi:10.1177/2325967113518492
- Timm, K., Wallach, J., Stone, J., & Ryan, E. (1993). Fifteen Years of Amateur Boxing Injuries/Illnesses at the United States Olympic Training Center. Journal of Athletic Training, 28(4).