For anyone who works with their hands, whether you’re a competitive lifter or manual laborer, your maximum strength will be capped or determined by how much weight your hands can hold. Simply put, if your hands can’t hold onto that 600 lb. deadlift PR, it won’t matter how strong your posterior chain is, that weight won’t make it up. That being said, grip training is an oft forgotten and certainly unappreciated form of training among many lifters. Surprising as that is considering the important of grip in weightlifting, it is very often an afterthought for the average or novice lifter when in fact it may be the very thing that is holding them back.
Grip Breakdown: How it Works and Why It’s Important
Our grip, in weightlifting at least, is influenced by a few different factors. The primary function in training with the exception of strongman competitions is to grab and hold onto a barbell during either Olympic Lifts, power lifts (primarily the deadlift), and auxiliary lifts where grip can be a limiting factor (such as pull ups). In other athletic pursuits grip strength can be vital for grappling, climbing, crawling, swinging a bat, gripping a ball and so on. Bottom line, in any sport that require some usage of the hands, grip is a primary area of concern that become a great advantage or weakness, depending on the training regimen.
The forearm muscles that are responsible for the bulk of grip strength include the brachioradialis (a large muscle close to the elbow), the extensor muscles, and the forearm and wrist flexors. In addition, there is a great number of smaller muscles and tendons in the hand and connecting at the wrist joint from the forearm to the hand. The interdependence of these muscles and tendons form a strong yet flexible grip, which is vital to competent performance in any grip scenario.
Perhaps most important when we are discussing grip strength in terms of athletic performance and especially weightlifting or training, is that grip is primarily an isometric contraction rather than a fluid or powerful movement. In weight lifting, flexibility is certainly required in lifts such as the clean and snatch where catching the weight is important, however even in those examples the grip is primarily static and its goal is to stabilize the weight. Thus, in our training, it is vitally important that grip strength is treated as such and our training program reflects a strong emphasis on the ability to concentrically squeeze and hold for an extended period of time at the peak of contraction.
Following that line of thought, in the next section we will examine some unconventional grip training procedures both for movement based activities as well as isometric contractions for a more complete training stimulus.
(Please note: do not perform grip training prior to a training session as fatigue is a factor, and most certainly do not perform grip training before climbing anything or performing other activities where grip is quite literally vital).
Grip Training: Isometric Exercises
Isometric contraction is a vital skill for strong grip, and the next few exercises will outline some effective ways to improve isometric strength. They are arranged in order of easiest to hardest, so evaluate your grip and train accordingly.
Tennis Ball/Weight Clip Squeeze – Our first isometric grip exercise is as simple as it sounds. Get either a tennis ball, weight clip, or other easily accessible item that can be squeezed, and squeeze it until your hands give out. While this may sound fairly obvious and unscientific, your stamina on this exercise (or lack thereof) may surprise you. Try squeezing a tennis ball in each hand as hard as you can for 10 seconds intervals with 20 second rests for 8 rounds and see if it is harder than you think!
Plate Pinches – Yet another simple and surprisingly brutal/effective grip test. There is a wide variety of plate pinch variations to choose from depending on your grip strength and plates available. My personal favorite is the Three-Fives test. Get three 5lb. plates and stack them together for each hand, making sure to arrange them so that the smooth part is to the outside. Using just the fingertips, grab the plates (3 in each hand) and stand up, then hold the grip as long as possible. This simple test is brutal on the grip and also very effective in building strong hands.
The beauty of grip training is in its simplicity, with farmer’s walks being arguably my favorite method for training. Aptly named, a farmer’s walk is picking up something really heavy, carrying it somewhere, putting it down, and then moving it again somewhere else. What I love about farmer’s walks is that they perfectly encapsulate the need for strong posture and strong grip, two classic weak points of the novice lifter. Dumbbells, kettlebells, and even a couple barbells can be used, however the best tools are either farmer’s walk bars (if you’re lucky enough to have some available) or more likely hex bars. Hex bars are usually more readily available and the exercise is simple: load up the hex bar with a lot of weight, pick it up, and walk as far as you can. The gains you will get both for your grip and your core make it worth the excruciating carry!
Grip Training: Dynamic Exercises
The other aspect of grip training that is vitally important, especially for athletes in sports that require more than a static hold, is dynamically training the isometric contraction. This is a progression of sorts from just holding the isometric contraction; in a dynamic setting we will still be holding an isometric grip but we will also be holding through a range of motion or dynamic movement, challenging both our grip strength and our coordination.
Complex Training – A complex is a series of exercises done with no rest, usually for time. Dumbbell, kettlebell, and barbell complexes are fantastic ways to improve conditioning, lactate threshold, and overall strength. In addition, they are absolute killers on grip and if your grip is a weak link, it will often be the first thing to go in a complex. One of my favorite complexes for challenging my grip strength is a Clean progression complex with a barbell:
5 Romanian Deadlifts, 5 Bent Rows, 5 High Pulls, 5 Cleans, 1 Front Squat as slow as possible.
Battle ropes are a conditioning tool that have become very popular in strength and conditioning over the last decade. Their ability to create constant tension through varying ranges of motion at high speed make them an awesome low-impact conditioning tool. In addition, with the right sized rope they can be a grip killer! To see if you have some decent grip strength, I recommend trying a battle rope tabata circuit (20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest) and evaluate how easy it was.
If you have decent grip strength and stamina the traditional battle rope circuit may not be challenging enough. In that case, I recommend trying battle rope work with only your fingertips on the rope. You will lose the speed and conditioning portion of the rope workout in this case but your grip will be challenged! One tabata circuit with just your fingertips will be brutal, yet effective.
The Classic Forearm Roller – The simple forearm roller has been around for decades and remains a simple and very effective tool for training forearm strength and grip. The traditional forearm roller consists of a wooden dowel with a rope tied through a hole in the middle, attached a weight dangling on the end of the rope. By rotating the dowel in your hands using only wrist flexion and extension, you can isolate your forearm muscles and work your grip and wrist strength.
However, if you are bored with forearm rollers or looking for a new challenge, try this on for size. First, try the traditional forearm roller work with one finger off the roller the entire time; for example roll the weight all the way up and down without the thumbs touching, then try it with the index finger off, etc. If you are still masochistically aching for more forearm work, try the wrist roller with fingertips only!
The Penultimate (and Anti-Climactic) Finish: The Rice Bucket – For the big finish……………..a bucket of rice. While this simple exercise tool may seem like nothing or lack the flash of battle ropes, it is my personal favorite grip trainer and arguably the best way to train all aspects of grip. Try the circuit below on for size and see if you can still write your name legibly when you’re done.
The Rice Bucket Circuit: Do each exercise for 30 seconds with no rest in between, rest for one minute, perform 3 total sets.
Dives – Jam your hand as deep into the bucket as possible, grab a fistful of rice, then pull it back out without spilling any rice. Alternate hands as fast as possible making sure to squeeze hard and get a handful of rice each time.
Finger Flips – Completely straighten your hands, and put only your fingers in your rice or submerge your hand up to the knuckles. Rapidly flip your fingers forward and back as fast as possible without moving your wrist.
Wrist Rotations (clockwise) – Dive your hands wrist deep into the rice and rotate them clockwise as fast possible.
Wrist Rotations (counter-clockwise) – Perform the same wrist rotations the opposite direction.
Thumb Rotations (clockwise) – Dive only your thumbs into the rice, keep the palms flat on top of the rice, and rotate your thumbs clockwise as fast as possible.
Thumb Rotations (counter-clockwise) – Repeat the thumb rotation counter clock wise.
Rice Hold – Finally, dive your hands deep into the rice, grab a fistful, and squeeze it as hard as possible without letting go or letting any rice fall out!