Grip training is quite possibly the most underevaluated area of training out there. And that’s a shame, because honestly, when do you not need at least some modicum of grip strength? If you deadlift or do pull ups; if you pitch a baseball, swing a racket, or play Ultimate Frisbee; if you carry a briefcase or groceries; if you open jars and bottles, or play the guitar – heck, even if you want a handshake that doesn’t feel like overcooked spaghetti, having a decent grip comes in handy.
Although very few studies have been done on the subject of grip strength in relation to upper body strength and endurance, those that exist seem to indicate what I have suspected for a long time from my own training – having a strong grip means having a strong and resilient upper body.1,2 Let’s face it – having a double-bodyweight deadlift is a whole different animal when you can do it using a snatch grip without wraps. In addition, a huge host of muscles are involved in the act of gripping: four flexors (digitorum profundus, digitorum superficialis, digiti minimi brevis, pollicis longus), one extensor (digitorum), and three intrinsic muscles (lumbricals, interossei, adductor pollicis).
Strengthening these can help prevent many common injuries to the hand and forearm (those of you in contact sports of any kind know how much this can affect your game), and can help any injuries that do occur to heal much faster.
Types of Grip Training and When to Use Them
Grip training goes well beyond squeezing grippers or stress balls. After all, there’s more than one kind of grip strength:
- The Crush Grip is the grip between your fingers and your palm—the one you use for shaking hands and crumpling beer cans.
- The Pinch Grip is the grip between your fingers and your thumb. This can be further subcategorized into individual fingers + thumb grip.
- The Support Grip is the ability to maintain a hold on something for a while—think pull ups or long and productive shopping trips.
The type of grip training you do depends completely on its applicability to what you want to accomplish. Martial artists may find support grip training to be more useful for things like wrist grabs and such. Climbers may find pinch grip and support grip strength to be most useful. If you’re training to close Iron Mind grippers, well, you’d best do some crush grip training. I personally use elements of all three in my training—I find this keeps me from overtraining one style and gives me well-rounded strength.
How To Train Your Grip
There are many ways to effectively train the grip. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
Grab a pull up bar. Get your feet off the floor. Hold on for dear life. Many people find the limiting factor in their pull ups (or even in just doing a hanging stretch) is the simple ability to hang on to the bar. Hanging for time can be an excellent way to overcome this issue. Try holding the bar in different positions—chin up style (palms facing you), pull up style (palms facing away from you), neutral (palms facing each other), mixed (one palm in, one out), hook (fingers gripping the bar, palm, and thumbs off the bar), individual finger hooks, one arm hangs, and so on.
To make these more difficult, widen the bar you are using. You can do this cheaply by wrapping a towel or sweatshirt around the bar to the width of your liking, or by cutting two short lengths of PVC pipe (width of your choice) and cutting a slit down the side of each so that you can pop them over the bar. You can do this more expensively by purchasing a pair of thick grip tools from a sporting goods supply store. Another option for a pull up bar is to hang a rope or towel from it so that the middle is over the bar. Grab the ends and try to do pullups or hangs that way. If you are a climber or do Brazilian jiu jitsu, you will absolutely want to do some of these!
My personal implement of choice for farmer carries is the kettlebell, but you can also use dumbbells, hex bars, straight bars, large water bottles, suitcases—anything you can carry that hangs from your hands. Pick up one or two and walk as far as you can with it. Make it challenging. This not only trains support grip strength effectively, but also is a heck of a full body workout!
Get two weight plates, preferably with smooth backs. Stack them together so the smooth side on each faces out. Try to pick them up. Better yet, try to take a walk with them after you’ve picked them up.
Hex Dumbbell Lifting:
There is a tool many strongmen use called a “blob.” Many people make their own by cutting the ends off of hex dumbbells. As I don’t have any dumbbells I can cut apart at the moment, I turn them into pseudo-blobs by grabbing the hex ends and trying to lift them. This can be done two-handed (one hand on top of each end in a pinch-grip fashion), or one-handed (dumbbell on its side, one hand grasping the end widthwise). This is much more difficult than it sounds, especially if you have mini-hands like I do.
Hook Grip Kettlebell Swinging:
Kettlebell swinging for endurance, even without the hook grip, is a very tough grip workout. I like to do one-handed hook-grip swings and go until my grip just about gives out. Then I do the same number on the other hand without stopping (which gives my first hand a break), and keep switching back and forth that way. In addition to having major cardiovascular and fat-burning benefits, this will build great finger strength and hip power. To make it more difficult, widen the grip of the bell by wrapping a towel around it or wearing thick gloves, or even try wearing lotion on your hands (make sure nothing/no one breakable is in front of you!).
A wonderful way to build finger and wrist strength is doing plate curls. Grab a weight plate of appropriate poundage. Hold it in your palm with your thumb over the top and your fingers extended over the bottom. Do bicep curls like that.
Fill a few trash bags with sand and load them into a canvas duffel bag, or buy a commercial sandbag. Do NOT use the handles of the sandbag. Instead, try to pick it up, deadlift style, by pinching/crushing the material of the bag.
At some point, you’re going to need to open your hands again. Get a rubber band off a bunch of broccoli, slip it over your fingers, and open your hand as wide as you can. Add more rubber bands as needed.
Don’t overdo it with grip training. 3-5 reps of 3-5 sets of intense grip work one to three times per week (experiment and see what works best for you) is enough. Now get out there and dominate!