How to Build Grip Strength for BJJ
Grip strength is an important part of Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) but often is not given as much training time as it deserves. In the DVD set, How to Defeat the Bigger, Stronger Opponent (HDBSO), featuring Emily Kwok and Stephan Kesting, Emily stresses that grips are the first point of contact with your partner and the person who gets the best grips first is more likely to end up in the more dominant position.
I’ve rolled with people who had such good grips they rag-dolled me from their guard before pulling me into a sweep or submission and there was nothing I could do about it. To combat this I've been doing research on grip training and talking to veteran grapplers about how to strengthen it.
First let's understand the common grips in BJJ:
- Hook grip – grip the cuff of your partner’s gi sleeve from the outside by grabbing excess material and tucking it into the cuff with four fingers
- Pistol grip – grip the excess fabric of the sleeve or pant leg similar to the way you would grasp the handle bar of a bicycle. Either place your hand on the outside of the sleeve or use a cross grip.
- Two-on-one – a cuff grip with an additional grip of the excess material at the elbow on your opponent’s arm.
- Lapel and sleeve – One hand grips the lapel while the other hand grips the sleeve.
All of these grips are explained in detail in the HDBSO DVD set. Emily recommends the pistol grip as it is easier on the fingers; the downside of that grip is that it’s not as strong as the four fingers in grip. When getting grips, remember to ensure the thumb is not in a position to get caught in the gi during a scramble. Also note it is illegal in tournament, as well as dangerous, to grip inside the sleeve or pants cuff.
In the video below, my teammates at Titans MMA demonstrate common grips and their uses, particularly in relation to spider guard:
How to Train Grip Strength
Supplemental strength and conditioning training for BJJ and MMA sometimes overlooks grip strength specific training. During my training, I’ve missed reps in deadlifts and pull ups because of my weak grip. A machine is only as strong as its weakest part and for me the weakest link was my hands. Serious powerlifters often use hooks or straps to help them lift heavy in the deadlift but in BJJ, our hands are our only option.
There are several different ways to train grip strength:
- Technical drills
Rope climbing, using progressive difficulty as well as timed holds, is great for gi and no-gi grip strength due to the girth of the rope. Another great way to improve grip is rock climbing. Not all of the grips used in rock climbing are similar to those used in BJJ, but they do help to increase hand and forearm strength.
Convict Conditioning 2 by Paul “Coach” Wade suggests the following progression after adequate warm up (Note: I would do grip work at the end of my strength workout in order to have a fresh grip for training and a nice warm up for grip work):
Using a vertical bar, hang from two hands. Once you can do that for 60 seconds, switch to hanging from one hand until you can hold it for 60 seconds each, from there, switch to a towel or a gi with both hands, then one hand. Fold the gi or towel over for a thicker grip and repeat the same sequence until you can hang from a thickly folded gi with one hand for 60 seconds. At that point, you will have the grip of a superhero.
Hold weight for 60 seconds with a dumbbell in each hand, increasing the weight as your strength builds.
Pulling is a great way to increase grip strength, but usually the focus of pulling exercises is on other body parts, with the grip being secondary. Pulling exercises include deadlifts and rows. The other types of grip work will greatly benefit these lifts.
After a recent injury, I had to do deadlifts wearing a thick cast, which immobilized my thumb. It made me realize how much support the thumb provides. For days afterwards my forearm was sore from using the hook grip. The two most frequently used grips in BJJ are the hook grip without the thumb and the typical grip with thumb support. When training grips, you can alternate weekly.
A good drill for grips is to grip your partner’s gi in various places like the sleeve or the lapel and have him or her strip your grip. Switch from offense to defense.
Anti-Grip: Working the Extensors
In the book Convict Conditioning 2, Chapter 5 is dedicated to the fingertip push up and its importance in creating balance in the hand muscles to prevent injury. Fingertip push ups are done with straight fingers, using the pads, and strength should be built progressively. Initially, the athlete should do the push ups against a wall, then inclined on a bench, then kneeling, then half push ups until he or she can do full push ups on the fingertips.
For BJJ athletes, doing grip work once a week should be adequate but since we grip so much in training doing fingertip push ups twice a week would more evenly balance the hands.
Any BJJ practitioner who has spent a lot of time training with the gi has felt the ache in his or her hands and forearms from constant gripping. To get relief, try self-massage.
The muscles in the forearm control the hand so if you have sore, tight hands, it’s a good idea to start working to release the tension in your forearms before moving to the hands. There are several options to do so:
- Roll the forearm over a tennis ball on a hard surface to release muscle tension.
- Apply some lotion on the arm, lay it on a flat, firm surface and use your opposite elbow to strip the muscles.
- Self-massage devices such as The Stick or the Forearm Rx.
- Hold your arm straight out in front of you with your hand in the upright position and gently pull your fingers back with your other hand. Repeat with the wrist down holding 30 seconds each.
Grip strength can take a long time to build and it can be frustrating when rolling with stronger, or more skilled, opponents. It will come in time - you just have to hold on.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock and Dragon Door.