Clay Culture: Neutral Hands and Wrists

What are your hands and wrists doing while creating? The goal of this article is to create awareness of what your hands and wrists do when creating and to give you strategies to keep them in neutral (comfortable) positions while performing your ceramic work.

I have always had a passion for ceramics, but I had to stop throwing pots because my hands were in pain right after using the wheel. Now I can only handbuild. I developed a repetitive strain injury in my right hand and wrist from being a graphic designer and using a mouse too much. Because of this, I decided to start teaching graphic design instead; however, in order to get a tenure-track position, I needed to obtain a master’s degree. I thought going back to school to get a graduate degree in graphic design was a bit risky, since I would likely have to perform the very activity that caused me the discomfort in the first place! So, I went to graduate school and earned a master’s in human factors and ergonomics. Now I get to help people stay healthy by teaching them about neutral posture, and I love my job. I really want to help you all to stay healthy so that you can keep making ceramics—not only because it’s fun, but also because it’s important to add your creative energy to this world.

The Importance of Neutral Posture

We can all learn to use our body in a more neutral position to keep ourselves healthy as well as to reduce or eliminate discomfort. Using awkward, non-neutral positions can fatigue our arms, hands, limbs, and joints. Maintaining a neutral posture is important; if you respect the way your body is designed to move while performing studio tasks, then you can minimize aches and pains.

Neutral posture is a body position that causes the least amount of stress and strain to your muscles, joints, and ligaments. Neutral positions are natural, normal positions that are easy on the body, including the musculoskeletal system. These positions are easy for the body to maintain and are painless to reposition from. When your hands and wrists are in an awkward or non-neutral position, grip strength is actually lost and you have less power to complete the task, plus your muscles work harder and fatigue easier. Performing tasks using awkward posture on a consistent basis can lead to fatigue, discomfort, or even disability.

My first article in this series focused on ergonomics in the studio (see Ceramics Monthly, February 2018) discussed that a neutral spine has three curves, forming an S shape. The second article (see Ceramics Monthly, March 2019) demonstrated a neutral position for your elbows in which they are in line with the body. You want to do most of your ceramic work with your elbows as close to the sides of your body as possible and not stretched out in front of you or winged out to the sides. I tell people to get in touch with their T-Rex dinosaur arms—envision having short little arms held close to the body and emulate that to ensure you are working in neutral.

1 Hand at the side of the body in a neutral position.

2 Same hand position, with bent elbow.

Neutral Hands and Wrists

This article focuses on how to position your hands and wrists while performing various studio tasks. Neutral position is easy to find, remember neutral is always with you. Here is a simple exercise to find what a neutral hand and wrist posture looks like. Stand in front of a full-length mirror and look at yourself straight on. Drop your hands to the sides of your body. In this position, your hands and wrists are in neutral (see 1 and 2).

Notice three things about a neutral hand and wrist position:

  1. Your fingers naturally curve in toward your palm.
  2. The tip of your thumb should be close to the tip of your index finger.
  3. Your wrist should have a slight curve away from your body.

To get a better view of this neutral position, try this advanced exercise using only one arm: keeping your hand and wrist exactly as you see it in the mirror, bend your elbow 90°, and look at how your hand and wrist are positioned. This is where people mess up. Try to avoid moving your fingers or wrist from the position you saw in the mirror. People tend to make their fingers stiff or straighten them out. Also try to keep your wrists from bending. If any of these happen, drop your hands to your sides, shake your hands out for a few seconds, and then try the exercise again. Shaking your hands out is like hitting the reset button. Learning this will help you to embody this information.

Making a Behavioral Change

So how can you use this neutral position as much as possible and if you deviate from it, which you will, how do you come back to it? This is going to be a behavioral change. You need to start paying attention to what you do and how you do it. This is a great exercise to take on, though, because through this process you can train your body to use neutral positions as much as possible and reduce your chances of getting aches and pains or even worse symptoms, like long-term injuries.

If you are a teacher, you can then teach these simple concepts to your students. It is best to start in a neutral position as much as possible while initiating learning a new thing, like ceramics, so you do not have to retrain yourself later on. Behavioral changes take about 3–6 months to embody or relearn. One way to help is to put reminders where you can easily see them. You can even use the pictures from this article to help visualize a neutral position.

Limit the amount of time you throw pots in one sitting. Take breaks. Set a timer so that you get up every 30–40 minutes and move (stretch, get something to drink, take a few deep breathes, etc.) for 1–2 minutes. Then sit down again in a neutral position and continue your work. It is important to take these short and frequent breaks. Studies have shown the power of quick breaks in helping to recover from using your body in an awkward position. Our bodies are flexible and designed to move, so we should use that flexibility and not abuse it by sitting for 5–6 hours without getting up and then wondering why our back, arms, or hands hurt.

3 Look at the positioning of your wrist when holding a pencil (or tool). In this image, the wrist is bent back at an angle, the thumb is flexed, and the index finger is bent and flexed destroying the natural curve.

4 This image shows neutral hand and wrist posture. The fingers curve in toward the palm. The tip of the thumb is close to the tip of the index finger. The wrist has a slight curve away from the body.

Pinch Grip Hand Position

The ability to pinch grip is the finest movement our bodies can make, so we want to use this motion only when appropriate. In other words we want to protect this motion so we are able to use it when we need to use it.

Analyze your own habits. How do you hold your pen or a tool? A lot of people use an awkward position to hold a pen or a ceramic tool and grip it with too much force (3). Can you hold a pen or a ceramic tool in your hand using a neutral position and applying just enough force for accurate control (4)? You can practice this whenever you are using hand tools. Use the above instructions on how to find neutral posture and use that to hold a hand tool in a neutral position.

Which photo to the right looks more comfortable, image 3 or 4?

Image 4, of course. This is the one that uses the neutral hand/wrist position guidelines discussed earlier in the article. Check your own posture in the course of studio work (see 5, 6). Which does it look more like? Can you take a few minutes to practice a less stressful and more neutral way to hold the pencil or ceramic tool?

5 This image shows a neutral forearm and wrist position while throwing. Note the slight curve in the wrist area, which may cause forearm muscles to tighten. The fingers and thumb are in awkward positions. The thumb is flexed inside the vessel, and a certain amount of force is needed to hold this position. The fingers are straight, with no natural curve. Use awkward positions as needed, but don’t hold them for long periods of time, and control the frequency by varying tasks.

6 While wedging clay, your hands are in an awkward position out of necessity, so don’t spend an entire hour wedging clay. Wedge a few balls of clay, then take a break to do something else. Set a timer for 15 minutes, then when it goes off, stop wedging and take a 5-minute break to stretch and relax your hands.

Awkward Hand and Wrist Posture (see image 3):

  • Index finger is bent in a flexed position, destroying the natural curve of the finger.
  • The thumb is flexed, you can see an angle between the top of the thumb and the bottom (near hand). This angle is unnatural and stresses the body if it is held for long periods of time.
  • The wrist is bent far back toward the forearm, which causes tension in the forearm muscles.
  • Remember: Awkward posture combined with force equals less physical strength in that area.

the author Serafine Lilien, master of science, is both a ceramic artist and an ergonomist living in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about her ergonomic work, visit www.ergoarts.net. To see her ceramic sculpture, find her on Instagram @lserafiner.

Comments
  • Hi Serafine … this is such an informative, important and interesting article. I’d be interested in learning more about the proper way to throw so I don’t cause stress and damage on my body. Do you have any advice on the best way to sit at the wheel? Thanks so much.

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