Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Shenzhen Ping Pong: the penhold grip

In table tennis, the penhold (or spoon) grip is the less common of the two major ways in which to grip the paddle. The self-descriptive shakehands grip is dominant in modern play. Shakehands offers particular advantages for two-winged attack that the traditionally one-sided penhold grip lacks, requiring instead excellent footwork to compensate.

However, in the last couple of decades, innovation in the form of the reverse (side) backhand has allowed modern penhold to compete with the backhand loop of the shakehands grip. In previous relevant entries in this blog, I have documented my attempts to acquire that reverse penhold backhand.

I (un)lucked into the penhold grip by accident. Many decades ago, someone with good intentions gifted me a Chinese-made, one-sided Double Happiness penhold paddle of the kind sold in department stores. It had short pips-out rubber on one side and merely painted wood on the other. Because of a grip size difference, blades for penhold and shakehands also typically have different handles: in particular, penhold handles are too short to hold comfortably with the shakehands grip. As they say, the rest is history: I'm stuck with penhold.

An interesting fact about the human wrist joint is that it has a remarkably limited range of motion. The wrist is really only capable of a limited amount of natural rotation (relatively unstressed) about the cylindrical axis. You can rotate the hand relatively far clockwise but not very far at all anticlockwise (without co-opting the elbow). The hinge at the base of the palm allows the hand to tilt (or "cock") forwards or backhands in addition to the rotation. Furthermore, it's abundantly clear that there is considerable variation in the degree of flexibility exhibited by different players. Small changes in how one grips the paddle can mean large differences in available paddle angle. And differences at the wrist can require (undesirable) larger compensatory differences at the elbow and shoulder. A little sad perhaps, but I can safely report I made it from absolute beginner to 2100 level in the 1990s without really knowing how hold a penhold paddle properly.

Although improvements have been forthcoming, I still cannot state with certainty that I know how to hold the paddle correctly. Having said that, I believe the correct way is to grip the paddle between the thumb and the back three fingers. Obviously, the handle fits in the valley between the thumb and index finger (section 2). But aside from that, a range of subtle but significant adjustments seems possible. The index finger is free to close around the handle or relax and slide away from the center of blade, therefore widening the grip to achieve a more vertical paddle angle when the reverse backhand is deployed. Straightening the back fingers a bit (at least the middle finger) also seems to help with the reverse block/punch stroke. Rotation of the wrist clockwise about the cylindrical axis of the forearm is also critical to helping keep the reverse penhold open and aligned parallel to the table endline. (Otherwise, it seems the natural resting angle points perhaps 45 degrees too far to the right.) In terms of the forehand stroke, straightening the back fingers seems detrimental to a natural followthrough and therefore achievable power. (I find its effect can be felt as awkwardness at the elbow.) One must either fix on a compromise position or be able to execute subtle shifts in finger positioning on the fly. Experimentation is necessary, plus (as I mentioned earlier) some people have much greater wrist flexibility than others.

As for the paddle, the Chinese handle itself seems largely standardized between manufacturers. (The Japanese/Korean and twiddler penhold handles are another topic entirely.) I have made some measurements with calipers that seem to confirm relative standardization. Comfort and fatigue are especially critical issues for reverse backhand penholders who need to put rubber on both sides of the paddle. The resulting paddle is oftentimes nearly as heavy as shakehand paddles, despite having a shorter handle.

For example, here is the Chinese-made Sword blade I've been playing with since I resumed the game until very recently. I find this handle extremely comfortable with minimal customization. It weighs about 188g complete. Only change has been to smooth the sharp edges at the neck of the paddle on both sides. Of course, comfort is individual, given possible variation in hand size.

I recently switched to a Butterfly Amultart blade. This blade is heavier and much faster than the Sword. I weighed two samples at 94g and 90g, respectively. Incidentally or not, it seems to partner Tenergy 05 extremely well (as long as one has the skill level to handle the extra speed, somewhat debatable given my circa 2100 level of play). Outwardly, the unmodified handle is dimensionally extremely similar to the Sword but I found it "too big" and strangely uncomfortably.

After a few weeks of trying to get accustomed to the Amultart blade, I had to carefully modify the handle (over a period of several days) using a Dremel tool to "thin" the center section down to 25.4mm to comfortably accommodate the knuckle area (shown as section 1, top picture) and thumb. I also had to "scallop out" the underside of the handle (for section 2, top picture). Initially, I was puzzled by this. But experiments with an identical Butterfly handle with a thinner center section confirmed to me that the extra core thickness of the Amultart blade was responsible. We're talking just a few mm, but the differences in grip feel substantial and significant. (Incidentally, that other blade was a penhold Innerforce ZL Carbon, which is lighter and plays slower than Amultart, but seems to be another stellar offering from Butterfly.)

Modifications are shown in detail below (1: top/side, 2: top, 3: side, 4: underside).

Note: I have included a small cut out for the thumb on top of the blade.


There exist penhold blades with special handles designed to facilitate use of the reverse backhand. I am grateful to those who brought my attention to the Gushi (古氏) and Sanwei (三维) designs below.

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