Got Grip II
In the last issue of Mind & Muscle, I discussed the various types of grip strength and covered a variety of exercises for grip training. Since we’ve covered the basics, I’d like to delve into some additional exercises with which you may not be familiar, and offer some suggestions on how to incorporate these into your usual strength-training program. I’ll also cover methods that can be used to train for three of the traditional feats of grip strength I mentioned in “Got Grip Pt 1.” While these traditional strength feats are certainly challenging, I do believe that it is within our collective grasp to become able to perform any of them with consistent, progressive overload training.
At various times, I’ve used sandbags in my training. Admittedly, this isn’t something of my own design, but an idea taken from the pages of Brooks Kubick’s Dinosaur Training. Not only does sandbag lifting work your grip extremely well, but it can also be used to hit other large muscle groups when you perform a compound lift. Sandbag lifting allows you to incorporate some grip training into days of your program that don’t cover direct grip work, thereby increasing your weekly volume of grip work without adding additional sets of pinch grips, gripper work etc. Basically, the premise is simple. Get a military surplus duffel bag, several bags of “play sand” at your local hardware/home improvement store, and put as much weight (in the form of sand) into the duffel bag as you can handle. I’ll suggest that you use two duffel bags. After filling the first bag, either use heavy thread to stitch the bag closed or use duct tape (leftover from your chem.-warfare protection stash) to seal the bag. After doing so, slide your second bag over the first and use the regular clip provided to latch the bag closed. Obviously, by not sealing the bag extremely well, you’ll have sand pouring everywhere, but I’m sure you get the idea.
You might wonder what exactly you can do with this new toy. Personally, I like to use the bag for standing overhead presses. The idea is that you’re going to have to grip very tightly since you’re only holding the bunched-up canvas in your hands. This is much more difficult than simply holding “under” the bag and pressing, since you’d basically be supporting the weight with open hands, instead of actually gripping the bag to maintain control. Doing a clean prior to the press is likewise a great way to put a heavy load on your grip, since the explosiveness of the lift will make the bag want to slip from your grasp. Naturally, this type of grip can be implemented with high pulls, bent-over rows, snatches, curls or even the farmer’s walk, which I discussed in the last installment. By the way, as mentioned in Dinosaur Training, dropping a heavy sandbag on your foot will really only bruise your ego. A steel suitcase or other such implement could crush your foot, so consider the bags for training from a safety perspective. I personally don’t care for doing the farmer’s walk with a sandbag, due primarily to its width, but this is merely personal preference.
The heavier of my two sandbags (about 200lbs) is used basically for “clean” and carry work. I honestly cannot perform what resembles a pure clean, which is why I put quotes around the word. It’s more of a lift/wrestle/continental/drag/push-type lift, just to get it to my shoulder. This obviously doesn’t hit the grip as hard, since I must grip “under” the bag to break it from the floor. However, it is possible to carry a much heavier bag for time or distance by carrying it in a deadlift position, in front of your body. This would allow you to grab the extra material and get a tight grip, which must be maintained to perform any sort of walking with the bag. The best part of using a sandbag is that it’s extremely versatile and certainly not expensive. The duffel bags should run less than $15 each from any surplus store and sand is maybe $3 per 50lb bag. For very little cost, you have a very, very effective tool at your disposal. If you’d rather not make several of these but would like to have varying weights, you can simply add extra weight in the form of chain (3/8” 5/8” would be best) inside the “outer” bag. I do this with the lighter of my two bags; I’ve got some short lengths of log chain that I drop in when I feel like it’s time to add a few pounds. The chain will conform to the bag a bit better than using 10lb. or 25lb. weight plates, which slide around and create a large “lump” in the bag once it’s pressed overhead.
Vertical Bar Lifting (and other variations)
Just as it sounds, instead of lifting a horizontal barbell or dumbbell handle, you have a single bar weighted at the bottom that sits vertically. This works a combination of your “crushing” and “supporting” grip strength. The simplest way to construct a vertical bar is to purchase a “loading pin” from one of the companies I’ve listed at the bottom of this article. They are sized for Olympic or Standard plates.
Personally, since we’re discussing grip, I’m obviously going to recommend the Olympic pins since they have a 2” diameter, which naturally forces you to grip much harder. You may also be able to find a section of water pipe (2” diameter) that is threaded on one end. Simply screw on the appropriate size cap to retain the plates, and you’ve got a budget-minded setup to serve as your loading pin. This type of lift can be done either for heavy singles or timed holds, using a fixed weight. You might try rowing or doing a pulling movement with the pin in order to add some extra resistance in the form of movement. Ideally, you’ll want to either increase the weight, reps, sets or length of time a weight is held. Don’t forget the principles of progression! These loading pins are smooth, with no knurling, so you’ll likely find that it doesn’t take much weight to make it seem as though the pin is glued to the floor.
Alternately, you could suspend a loading pin or other smooth bar from a chinning bar or rafters and attempt to perform chins, or simply hang from the bar for that matter. Again, you can do this for time, reps or both. Another idea, closely related to doing “towel chins” is to purchase a thick piece of rope from a hardware/home improvement store to use for grip work. Much like the vertical bar, you can hang the rope over a chinning bar and hold one end in each hand while doing chins or just holding on for time. Another simple variation would be to hold BOTH ends of the rope together, wrapping your hands around the rope and chinning or hanging that way.
The same idea can, of course, be applied to the towel as well. The first time I tried doing towel chins, I found them much harder than I expected, so be prepared to be humbled. It’s a very different feel when compared with a regular chinning movement or dead-hang from a straight bar.
Brick lifting in the manner I’ll describe works the wrist very heavily, as well as the pinch grip. The way this is done is very simple. Take some standard size bricks, available at any hardware/home improvement store, lay one flat and grasp it with your four fingers underneath and your thumb on top. You’ll be holding the brick “lengthwise” meaning that your four fingers will be nearly to the edges (width) and the length of the brick will run from but base of your hand beyond the fingertips. Obviously, lifting one brick in this fashion is easy; it’s very light.
However, once you start stacking bricks on the end opposite your thumb, you’ll see just how much stress this puts on the wrist and pinch grip (where the thumb is usually the weak link). Try stacking five or six bricks across the end of another, and then lift the whole stack in the manner I’ve described. You’ll have to try hard to keep them level, which is where the wrist work really begins. Hermann Goerner, who I mentioned in my last article, was capable of performing this feat with forty kilos loaded on the end of a brick. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a record. That is a staggering feat of grip and wrist strength. When I initially began to attempt these, I would generally lift a given weight and hold it as long as possible. I found that my wrists would get unusually sore, so I knew I found a great lift to include in my training.
Feats of Strength
Tearing a telephone book or deck of playing cards in half (or quarters) is very impressive to most people. Most of us already have the strength in our body to rip through the pages or cards, but our pinch grip isn’t sufficiently strong to allow us to transfer all the tearing force onto the object we’re attempting to shred. If you’re doing many of the exercises outlined that increase your pinch grip and wrist strength, you’re well on your way to being able to perform either of the aforementioned feats of strength.
However, if you want to attempt to work on the particular feat itself, you may have to get creative, unless you have a stack of telephone books or don’t mind buying decks of cards by the dozen. John McCallum wrote an article on training grip/forearm strength that described how to fold a newspaper into an object that’s about the same size and thickness of a deck of playing cards.
Here is the basic idea that he presented: Starting with two sheets of newspaper, lay one on top of the other. Fold the sheets in half a total of five times. When finished, this will resemble a deck of cards. Once you can go through two sheets, add another. McCallum says that anyone who can tear four sheets of paper, when folded in the manner described, should have no trouble with a deck of playing cards. Another option is to go to a print shop and find some fine card stock. Have this cut to the length and width of a playing card and begin by tearing through as many sheets as possible. Keep adding sheets as your strength improves.
The telephone book is a bit more difficult to simulate. However, we’re an enterprising bunch, so I’d imagine that you could easily find some old magazines that can be stacked together until you’ve created something resembling the approximate thickness of a telephone book. You can also use old cardboard that is cut into similar dimensions. This will be much more difficult to tear than would be a telephone book of equivalent thickness, so keep that in mind.
There are two ways to tear a telephone book. You can either begin your tear at the top, where there is no binding to be broken, or you can start at the side, tearing through the binding first. In order to get through the binding, you’ll need very strong wrists, in order to “twist” the binding back and forth to break it. This will make tearing through it much easier. If you just immediately try ripping through the binding, you’ll likely get stuck. By working it back and forth, you’ll be able to weaken it enough to get it to tear. Once the binding goes, the rest is easy.
I also mentioned the traditional strongman feat of bending a 60-penny nail in my last article. This is quite a bit harder than it looks, due primarily to the short length of the nail. Again, our “equipment” for this will be found at the local hardware/home improvement store. Go to the hardware fastener section and buy a handful of nails. They should be no more than $0.10 each, so price is no concern. I have found that the lack of leverage resulting from the nail’s short length is a much greater factor than my ability to securely grip the nail in my hands when trying to bend it.
If you are unable to immediately bend a 60-penny nail, here is another suggestion made by John McCallum that will get you started. The best way to start training is to get one or two short sections of pipe. You’ll slide the pipe(s) over each end of the nail, going out only far enough to give you the leverage needed to begin the bend. As you become stronger, move the pipes inward, thereby decreasing the leverage advantage. Eventually, you’ll eliminate one pipe, then the other. When you’re bending a 60-penny nail with your bare hands, you’ll definitely be the owner of a powerful pair of hands.
I further suggest that you cut the point and head off the nail (use a hacksaw) and either wear some leather gloves or put a cloth over the nail to keep it from digging into your hands. When you’re applying enough force to bend the nail and the head begins digging into your hands, you’ll understand what I mean. I learned this the hard way. If you like to get fancy equipment, Ironmind Enterprises (listed below) sells something called the “Bag of Nails” that includes a large variety of steel “nails” for bending. The “bag” contains a variety of strengths that goes from well below to well beyond the 60-penny nail. They are all smooth, so there’s no problem with the point or head that you’ll find on a regular nail.
In closing, I’d like to sincerely thank all of you who have given me such positive feedback since my having written the first in my series of grip articles. I have definitely become more motivated to seriously reevaluate my own training program and give more attention to my grip strength. I have further enjoyed discussing various training ideas with the readers on the forum and hope to continue doing so in the future. If you have any feedback, questions or comments, don’t hesitate to contact me through the board. Don’t forget to drop me a line when you join the “Captains of Crush!”