Why give any attention to grip strength? What would you have to gain by taking some time to work your grip as hard as a killer set of squats? For a bodybuilder, grip strength isn’t necessarily that important. However, for those of you involved with other strength sports or grappling, grip strength is an asset that deserves some attention. If you have trouble opening that jar of pickles in your refrigerator, you might want to read this. If you rely on your wife to open that jar of pickles, you need to read this.
Most of us assume that grip strength is related to forearm size. While it’s true that there is a mild crossover effect, the bulk of exercises used for forearm development don’t always translate to good grip strength. There are also several kinds of grip strength, each with specific methods for training. I’ll outline the various types of grip strength and how each can be trained without elaborate or expensive equipment. Most of the equipment used for building grip strength can be constructed with a minimum investment of money and effort. One thing that you must remember is to keep your training progressive. Just as in lifting at the gym, you want to be sure to either increase volume, intensity or resistance (or any combination thereof) when possible to building strength. Treat these exercises the same as you would any other gym lift.
Types of grip strength:
* Crushing grip strength: Giving a firm handshake is an example of crushing strength.
* Supporting grip strength: Being able to exert crushing strength on an object and sustain it for a period of time. For example, high repetition stiff-legged deadlifts would require strong supporting strength.
* Pinch grip strength: Grasping and lifting an object placed between your thumb and fingers is an example of pinch gripping strength. This type of grip strength relies very heavily on the strength of the thumb.
* Wrist strength: Lifting a chair by grasping one of the front legs (while keeping it level) is an example of wrist strength. While this doesn’t necessarily impact grip strength, I feel that strong wrists are an essential part of lower-arm strength.
Training your Crushing Grip:
To train for maximum crushing grip strength, there are some simple methods available. The most cost effective manner in which to train crushing strength is with “hand grippers” that you attempt to close by squeezing the handles. Most of us have seen the little plastic grippers at the sporting goods store. Unfortunately, I’m not talking about that kind. Ironmind Enterprises sells a set of grippers called “Captains of Crush” grippers ($19.95ea) in a series of five difficulty levels. Here is a quick breakdown of the grippers and their difficulty level:
* Trainer: 100lb pressure
* Number One: 140lb pressure
* Number Two: 195lb pressure
* Number Three: 280lb pressure
* Number Four: 360lb pressure
These grippers have set the standard for testing crushing grip strength. To put things in perspective, fewer than 100 men in the world have successfully closed the #3 gripper with one hand. Most guys can’t close the #1 on the first try and fewer will close the #2. So far, ONE man (JB Kinney) has closed the #4 gripper under authenticated conditions. Ivanko also sells an adjustable device called the “Super Gripper” that looks to be another effective tool for building your crushing strength. The grippers can be trained for singles, or any variation of repetitions. I will also sometimes use negatives with a gripper I can’t yet close. I’ll use two hands to close it, then try to hold it shut with just one hand.
Another simple method of training your grip is with a plate-loaded gripper. I recently purchased one from www.newyorkbarbells.com that is sized for Olympic plates. Sadly, it doesn’t hold enough weight in its standard configuration because only 25lb plates fit the frame. With some welding and a little creativity, I’m updating mine to fit either more plates on the sides or size it to hold 100/45lb plates. Again, the action of using one of these is similar to the grippers. You simply try to squeeze the handles together. JB Kinney recommends using heavy negatives and static holds with the plate loaded gripper machine. Since he’s slammed the Ironmind #4, I plan to heed his advice and give this a try, in addition to various repetition ranges.
Another exceptional tool for building crushing strength is “plier lifting” as noted by John Brookfield in his excellent book, “Mastery of Hand Strength.” Mr. Brookfield suggests simply getting a pair of pliers and a bucket. Put some sand, plates, water etc. in the bucket and lift with the pliers in a sort of hammer curl motion, while keeping the pliers vertical. Rather than squeeze the bucket handle directly with the pliers, Mr. Brookfield advises to use a piece of leather (and old belt would do) or rope that you thread through the handle, while pinching the ends together with the pliers. The heavier the weight gets, the more force you’ll have to exert. You can do any variety of sets, repetitions or timed holds with “plier lifting”.
Training your supporting grip:
While supporting and crushing grip strength are linked very closely, I find the endurance factor of the former to be challenging to develop. Using a thick-handled barbell (or dumbbell) is an outstanding way to develop both supporting and crushing grip strength. There is no doubt that the extra thickness of the bar makes every lift more challenging, especially for the hands and wrists. I first read of using thick bars in Brooks Kubick’s book “Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development”. I believe thick bar training is also mentioned briefly in Stuart McRobert’s original “Brawn” book. In order to make your own thick bar, you can buy a 7′ length of cold-rolled steel (hot-rolled steel is weaker) from a local steel supplier. By centering a 5′ length of steel pipe with a 2″ inside diameter over your 7′ bar, you’ll create a thick bar with a 2 3/8″ diameter and 12″ sleeves on each end for your Olympic plates. If you aren’t into making your own thick bar, check out www.ironmind.com for a variety of thick bars and thick dumbbell handles.
I purchased my thick bar, called Apollon’s Axle, from Ironmind Enterprises. It is 2″ diameter bar with no knurling, which makes performing pulling movements extremely challenging. I use the bar for basically everything except my squats and heavy (near PR) deadlifts. By simply using this bar for presses, cleans, curls, snatches and rows, I was able to close the #2 Ironmind gripper without doing any sort of direct grip training. Doing some one-handed deadlifts or timed holds with a thick bar will also give a very direct grip workout.
Aside from using the thick bars, another great way to build supporting grip strength (among other things) is doing the “farmer’s walk” with some very heavy dumbbells. Simply pick up the heaviest dumbbells you can hold and start walking. When the bells hit the ground, your grip will be fried…as will your traps. You won’t believe how sore your traps will be the day after trying this. Don’t blame me when you wake up in pain. This agonizing exercise is performed with up to 300lb in each hand during some strongman competitions, so start aiming for at least 150 per hand, taken for a nice, long walk. Just watch your toes when the ‘bells hit the ground.
Another very novel idea for training the supporting grip is to use a baseball (or softball if you have large hands) with an eyebolt through it from which you can suspend weight. I believe and arm wrestler named John Ottarski first mentioned this method of grip training in the pages of MILO magazine. Mr. Ottarski drove a nail through his baseball and bent it to form a hook, to which he could attach a rope or chain to secure the weights. I decided to drill a hole through a ball and insert an eyebolt instead, since it would be easier to attach a carabiner, which is connected to a chain holding the weight. John Brookfield suggested using a softball in the same manner. While this is unusual, it’s definitely an interesting twist to grip training, although you may get some odd looks when bring such equipment to your gym. I would suggest trying fairly heavy single repetition lifts or timed holds with the “baseball lift”.
Training your pinch grip:
Even if you have a very strong crushing grip, you may find that pinch gripping objects is difficult because it requires a great deal of thumb strength. It’s difficult to directly strengthen the thumb while doing other grip work because the fingers alone generally exert the squeezing forces. The simplest way to train your pinch grip is to grab two wide-rimmed plates and put them together with the smooth sides facing outward. Now, put your thumb on one side, fingers on the other, and lift! The mark of a man with an excellent pinch grip is to be able to do this feat of strength with two, 45lb wide-rimmed plates. I assure you, it’s much more difficult than it sounds. You can also try this using four, 10lb plates. Just try to hold them as long as possible. For progression in your training, you may find that you’re stuck at using a certain pair of plates. If you want to add weight in a progressive manner, simply put a DB handle through the plates and add whatever amount is necessary to continue making the lift a challenge, until you’re ready to tackle another pair of larger plates. You can also try lifting a plate by the center hub, grasping it with just your fingertips and thumb. Again, a traditional feat of strength is to lift a 45lb plate by its hub. This will naturally only work with the wide-rimmed plates. I have some of these in my home gym and find that 35lb will be about my limit, but I plan to try stacking some small, 1-1/4lb plates on the 35lb plate to begin working toward the elusive 45lb plate. This type of lifting is well suited to single attempts or timed holds.
Another very simple way to build your pinch grip is to with another homemade device that I’ll outline for you. Take a short 2″x4″ board and cut a section anywhere from 4″ to 6″ in length. Find the center of the board (laying it horizontally) and drill a hole in it through which you can insert an eyebolt. Again, the idea is the same as the aforementioned baseball/eyebolt combination. Once you have your weight connected, just use your fingertips and thumb to grasp and lift the board. I’ve found that using something thicker seems a bit easier to grasp because a 2″x4″ is actually only 1-1/2″ thick. I used a short piece of a 4″x4″ board instead, but the idea is the same.
Training your wrists:
The last portion of building complete, powerful hands is building wrist strength. You can work your wrists well with the conventional wrist curl, but I suggest that you do wrist curls using a thick bar or thick dumbbells if at all possible. The extra thickness of the bar takes this exercise to a completely new level of difficulty. For purely building strength, I’d suggest doing no more than 6-8 reps per set. Brooks Kubick recommends doing heavy singles, but I would ease into these gingerly. My wrists got painfully sore from attempting heavy weight when using a thick bar for low repetitions.
Another twist on the wrist curl is to do them with a plate, instead of a barbell or dumbbell. Simply rest your forearm on the bench as you would for a traditional wrist curl, but perform the exercise with a plate (palm facing up or down). You’ll actually be pinch gripping the plate, so you’ll be getting a twofold effect by training the thumb and fingers as well as the wrist. I was completely shocked when I realized how hard it is to do “plate wrist curls” with a paltry 25lb. plate. Another form of plate curling you might attempt is performing a full, standing curl while holding the plate in your pinch grip. You can do them with the plate vertically (like a hammer curl) or horizontally (like a regular curl). The idea is to keep the wrist at the same angle throughout the lift. Again, even a semi-light weight is going to feel very heavy. I suggest sets of 6-8 repetitions.
Another simple method for training the wrist without unusual equipment is to simple load one end of a dumbbell and perform exercises like rotating the hand right, left, up and down while not moving the elbow. You may want to support your forearm across you leg or a bench while doing these in a seated position. For these, anything from medium to high repetitions would be fine. I personally don’t think heavy singles or extreme low-rep work would provide benefits outweighing the potential for injury during this exercise. I would stick to sets of at least 6 repetitions.
Miscellaneous training thoughts:
Many of you remember the wrist roller, made from a wooden dowel rod. While this little piece of equipment can really blowtorch your lower arms, the problem for me was that the deltoids or other supporting muscles got fatigued before my forearms. After seeing some interesting wrist rollers in various issues of MILO magazine, I’m going to recommend that you trying making a thick wrist roller from a longer piece of steel pipe. The idea here is to place your long wrist roller across the pins in a power rack so you can remove any supporting muscles from the lift, as well as set the pins high to gain a very long range of motion. I’ve seen pictures of guys rolling nearly 300lb. in this fashion, so imagine the forearm development you’d get by using that kind of weight coupled with a long range of motion. Just be sure to roll it in both directions to work the forearm completely.
Feats of grip strength:
For many old-school traditionalists, feats of grip, hand and wrist strength are fun to attempt or watch. I’m going to briefly outline a handful of old-time strength feats that are rarely seen any longer, except in a strongman act (by someone like John Brookfield).
Tearing a telephone book in half
Tearing a deck of playing cards in half (or quarters for the extremely strong).
Bending a 60-penny nail (I have done this on two occasions and it is extremely difficult).
I believe the greatest feat of overall hand strength must be the following:
Hermann Goerner: 727.5lb one hand deadlift. This was performed October 8, 1920. Goerner used a “hook grip” meaning that the thumb was first wrapped around the bar, with the fingers placed over the thumb. This feat of hand strength is considered by many to be the greatest feat of single hand lifting in recent recorded history. The hook grip is still used a great deal by Olympic weightlifters and others who are not using lifting straps. Don’t use straps if you want a strong grip!
For those of you interested in learning more about developing grip strength, I’d suggest the following:
Brookfield, John: Mastery of Hand Strength
Brookfield, John: The Grip Master’s Manual
MILO: A Journal For Serious Strength Athletes
*MILO covers Strongman, Highland Games, Olympic Weightlifting and Iron Game history. 6 Issues per year.
# The preceding can be found at www.ironmind.com. Ironmind also sells a huge variety of grip training tools, as well as other heavy-duty equipment. Also check the website for John Brookfield’s “grip tip of the month”!
Kinney, Joe: Get a Grip…The Video
# Write to: JB Kinney, PO Box 32 Bean Station, TN 37708
In closing, I’d like to say that just putting together this article has inspired me to get my motivation for grip training back where it should be. I have a long-term goal of closing the Ironmind #3 gripper and eventually becoming a member of the “Captains of Crush”. I hope some of you will find the basic tips that I’ve explained useful and productive in your training. If there is sufficient interest, I’ll happily assemble a continuation of this article in a forthcoming issue of Mind and Muscle.