Five Stretches That Will Help You Knit Without Pain
An expert on ergonomics demonstrates how to keep fingers and hands nimble, and improve sitting posture.
Knitting has held a special place in Carson Demers' heart ever since he was a little boy. He was only nine years old when he fell in love with the craft back in the '60s, vividly recalling the clanking sound of the aluminum needles his mother used as she practiced each and every stitch. "I saw my mom," he describes, "she used to make cables on garments, and I thought that was just magical that you could make that kind of texture and cross stitches and all that. I wanted to learn, so she taught me the basics." Fast forward almost 50 years later to the present, and Demers still creates masterpieces out of yarn every chance he gets. But when he suffered a computer-related work injury 20 years ago, he had to learn how to be a "smarter" knitter. "When you love something, you just find a way to be sustainable, and make simple and smart choices," he says.
It was this list of issues—carpal tunnel syndrome, problems with his elbows, nerve irritation, and neck problems—that forced him to discontinue work (and knitting) for about two years. "When I was finally well enough to [work] again, I started to see knitters coming into my clinics with the same injuries that I had," he says. "In talking with these folks, I learned that they had the same problem that I did. They didn't have the information that they needed. During my two-year rehab period, I did a ton of education and learning about ergonomics and made it a clinical specialty for myself, and started to then bring it to the clinic." Today, as a physical therapist with a specialization in ergonomics and the author of Knitting Comfortably: The Ergonomics of Hand Knitting, he teaches others how to prevent or minimize injuries from knitting.
For knitters who experience pain, they don't necessarily have to pack up their needles but make simple adjustments to the practice. "One of the nice things about knitting is that there are so many variables that you can control, so you can for instance control how often you do it," Demers says. Therefore, those with discomfort should consider incorporating stretch exercises into their knitting practice, which Demers says can help strengthen areas of pressure and pain, and ultimately allow a person to gradually build up their tolerance for knitting.
Before You Stretch and Knit
If you're already having discomfort, Demers advises halting your knitting practice to investigate the reason. "Knitters have a tendency to work through pain because they like knitting so much and they're willing to ignore the fact that their elbow is burning or whatever the issue might be." But it's important to look at your daily activities over the course of a day, as this can affect your knitting. For example, "Computing is a big competitor for knitters; we use the same muscle groups and the same postures, and we're usually sitting down to do that, so it mimics knitting very closely," he says. "That's important to know, because if you're having discomfort while you're knitting, but everything is ergonomic there, look at your desk, look at your chair. Are you using the right posture at your computer? That could be the problem."
Knitting is such a repetitive process that even a small amount of force adds up over time, and that's how injuries happen—accumulating on the tissue of your hands, arms, and back. "It's better to know where those forces are living and hiding," Demers explains, "so that you can make smarter choices as a knitter about spool selection, and matching yarn to needle, and matching needle to the kind of stitch that you're going to work with, the anatomy of the needle, the size of the piece... all those types of things." He suggests taking a look at what type of yarn, needle, and stitches you regularly use in your projects. Choosing diversity in fiber, stitch pattern, and yarn weights, will help to restore balance in your knitting practice and prevent constant stress to certain areas of the body. He recommends keeping a knitting journal with details of each project—this can help people examine their habits and make adjustments.
As a knitter, there are a few essential stretches that Demers says you should perform regularly. They target areas that tend to get tight such as the fingers, wrists, neck and shoulders, and forearms and hips.
The Finger and Wrist Extensor Stretch
This stretch warms up the muscles that are used to tension your yarn and make stitches. Extend your arms in front of you, keeping the elbows straight. Make a soft fist with your hands. Bend your wrists downward—feel the stretch in your forearms. Now, rotate your fists so the backs of your hand face each other—feel the stretch move across the forearms. Hold this stretch for a few seconds. Applying heat to the hands before knitting can help greatly to diminish discomfort. "Once the hands get warm, the joints start to produce the lubricant that they need to make knitting more comfortable," Demers explains. Try washing a few mugs in warm soapy water or treating yourself to an at-home paraffin hand dip treatment to warm things up. Demers also recommends wearing wristlets that cover the elbows, wrists, and forearms to keep warm.
The Finger and Wrist Flexor Stretch 1
This stretch lengthens the muscles used to hold your needles and yarn and make stitches. Extend one arm in front of you with your wrist flexed as if you're making a "stop" sign; keep the elbow straight. Use your opposite hand to gently bend the wrist and fingers back toward you. Hold this stretch for a few seconds. Reverse and repeat this stretch for the opposite arm.
The Finger and Wrist Flexor Stretch 2
Similarly, this stretch also lengthens the muscles to hold your needles and yarn, and make stitches. Extend one arm in front of you with your wrist and elbow straight and palm up. Use your opposite hand to gently bend wrist and fingers down with palm facing away from you. Hold this stretch for a few seconds. Reverse and repeat this stretch for the opposite arm.
The Chest and Shoulder Stretch
This stretch works the chest and shoulder muscles that shorten from holding your work in front of you, and slumped postures. Lace your fingers behind your back, resting your hands on your back. Lift your chest and tuck your chin to straighten your spine. Lift your hands off your back keeping your elbows straight and chest up. Take a deep breath, exhale, and relax.
The Ankle Pumps Stretch
This stretch improves blood circulation in your legs while sitting. Alternately lift heels and toes repeatedly. You can also do this while standing (and knitting) to yield the same result and increase strength in your legs. Demers says that contrary to popular belief, "you don't have to sit to knit." If you're experiencing discomfort, you may want to adjust the way you're sitting or avoid sitting altogether. Adding some movement to your knitting is also a good practice. "Knitters tend to sit for hours on end, and that contributes to injury because your circulation and heart rate goes down, so you're not getting good oxygenation to the working tissue." He advises standing up and moving around to help prevent further injury.
Demers recommends that knitters stretch before and after their knitting sessions, plus a few breaks mid-session. Having a glass of water on hand will help to rehydrate and replenish the body. One of Demers' favorite post-knit power moves is the arm swing. "I'm a big fan of these because they really help with circulation in and out of your hands, so I usually recommend this as a warm-up exercise, particularly for people who have arthritis in their hands, and then ending the session with some arm swings as well to help take away the metabolic waste that may have accumulated in your muscles while you were knitting." Doing a few quick "jazz hands" moves is also great, Demers says.