What is the difference between purple and red? Grip strength! I’ve been promoting the benefits of thick-handled weight training equipment since 1982, but I don’t think my message has been getting across to the bulk of the personal training and strength coaching community. If it had, then most gyms in this country would be equipped with the mass of thick-handled dumbbells and barbells I have at the Poliquin Strength Institute in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. And I think one reason they are not is a lack of, or at best inappropriate, goal setting. Let me explain.
In the ’80s when strength and conditioning coaching started to be taken seriously as a profession, many of the college strength coaches came from powerlifting and weightlifting. These individuals often focused on what they knew best, so the powerlifting strength coach would strive to see how many linemen he had who could bench press 400 pounds or squat 500. Likewise, the weightlifting coaches would set goals such as 300-pound power cleans and, if they had some real horses on their teams, 350. And of course there were a few odd “speed guys” from track and field who would focus on having as many skill position players run 4.4 in the 40 and reach 35-inch vertical jumps. Again, the theme was to teach what you knew.
When athletes other than football players started appearing in the weightroom, strength and conditioning workouts began to evolve into a hybrid of those from powerlifting and weightlifting, with the core exercises being the power clean, squat and bench press. As women started entering the weightroom, there was often some confusion about what to do with them, and the result was that lunges and lat pulldowns started making an appearance, along with light dumbbell work. But the general focus was still to put up big numbers to impress the sport coaches and their colleagues.
After this phase the athletic trainers started getting involved; and the last time I checked, athletic trainers (not strength coaches!) represented the largest demographic of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which many consider the governing body of the profession. But as with the Iron Game coaches, these people did what they knew best. That resulted in their interpretation of “functional training” exercise that often focused on abdominal exercises, stretching, stability exercises and the current flavor of the month: kettlebells. Oh, and somewhere in this mix the sport science people would put in their two cents’ worth on the importance of year-round cardio training monitored by heart rate watches that could download their data into Excel spreadsheets. And that’s pretty much where we stand now.
The point of this brief history lesson is that the pioneers of the modern strength coaching profession have not been focusing on what should have been their primary goal: to develop athletic fitness for their sport. And I say this because one of the best ways to make athletes much better athletes is by having them train with thick-handled equipment.
Wider Is Better?
If nothing else, using thick implements takes care of grip and forearm training, which is often neglected in many strength programs. I recall that many Nautilus machines designed by the late Arthur Jones eliminated the use of the arms. For example, with his famous pullover machine, the trainee would push with their elbows, placing their hands on a crossbar only for position. This type of exercise may be fine for bodybuilding purposes (and as long as you continually used the machine), but in sport upper back strength has to be applied through the grip, and if the grip is weak, then that strength cannot be utilized.
It’s also interesting to note that when asked what qualities he looked for to determine weightlifting talent, one Bulgarian coach said, “little men with big hands.” This was because if an athlete had a weak grip or small hands, it would be difficult for them to transfer the strength of their lower body to the barbell. Further, to accommodate the smaller hands and relatively weaker grip of women, the International Weightlifting Federation approved the use of a smaller-diameter women’s barbell.
In sports such as judo and wrestling, it has been shown that one of the best determinants of competitive performance is grip strength, especially since much of the grappling moves require gripping with an open hand. In fact, two graduate studies research theses have shown that they predict the outcome of both the judo and wresting world championships!
Think about it. In real life, when you push or pull against something, whatever you are gripping is sure to be thicker than the 1 1/4"-diameter dumbbell. For example, athletes from the grappling sports like jiu-jitsu will have to grab limbs that far exceed the diameter of standard barbells and dumbbells. In strongman competitions, more often than not, gripping strength is the limiting factor.
The point I am trying to make here is that grip strength is important for sport performance but is often neglected. If you examine the workouts published by top strength coaches over the past three decades, seldom do you see any direct grip work. The common belief is “If you take care of the large muscle groups, the small muscle groups will take care of themselves.” Not quite. But rather than performing a few meek sets of wrist curls at the end of a workout, if anything at all, using thick implements takes care of this important aspect of training. Seriously, if you train on thick implements and someone asks you the secret of your tremendous forearm development and grip strength, you could answer, “Presses and rows!”
The concept of using thick-handled equipment is not new. Alan Calvert, one of the true pioneers of weight training methodology, recommended this type of training in 1924 in his book Super Strength. The problem I had nearly 30 years ago when I first heard about the benefits of using thick-handled equipment was that at the time such equipment was hard to find – for the simple reason that nobody wanted it. What I ended up doing (at considerable expense), was to have a medicine ball manufacturer increase the diameter of Olympic (regular diameter) dumbbells for me by using the same materials used in their medicine balls. These custom-made weights worked great, and in fact I could not believe how sore my hands and forearms got from using them.
Making the Big Change
?As anyone who has ever visited the Poliquin Strength Institute knows, I am a strong believer in using extra thick dumbbells (2'' to 2 1/2"/ 5 cm +) and barbells (3"). Every single person who has committed to using such equipment has experienced rapid, tremendous increases in grip strength and forearm development because the fingers, wrists, thumbs and forearms are more challenged by the bigger diameter. Interestingly, I’ve found that the muscles that adduct the thumbs will become quite sore when trainees first try these types of weights.
I highly recommend thick bars and dumbbells for all upper body exercises and even for deadlifts. Thick-bar pressing movements, such as bench presses and seated presses, should be performed in a power rack with safety pins, as it’s difficult to balance these implements at first and they are often dropped. But don’t stop there! Try doing chins or curls with oversize bars, using athletic tape, foam or even plastic pipe to thicken your bars – and if you’re really serious, invest in one of the specially-made power racks from Atlantis that have thick-handled chin-up bars attached to them. Oh, and after a few training cycles with this type of equipment, you can probably toss your lifting straps – you won’t need them anymore.
But thick-bar training does more than just develop a viselike grip and Popeye forearms. Using thick implements increases motor unit activation in the muscles, especially the faster-twitch muscle fibers – all of which results in faster gains in strength. (In extremely simple terms, motor units are specific types of cells that stimulate the muscles to contract.) Although the exact mechanism responsible for the effects produced by using thick implements is unknown, one theory is that thick handles may prevent inhibitory reflexes that reduce the amount of strength that can be produced (just as applying the brakes while pressing the gas would reduce the speed of a car). Whatever the reason, trainees who practice thick-bar training report back to me that they can handle 10-12 percent more weight when they return to the regular-diameter handles. As for research in this area, I’ve read four peer reviewed papers that have shown that thick implements induce gains in both rate and magnitude.
Finally, consider that thick-handled implements may help correct strength imbalances between limbs (or to use the scientific terminology, the bilateral deficit). One doctoral thesis I read showed that subjects using thick dumbbells versus standard dumbbells corrected the difference in strength between the nondominant and the dominant arm, and I believe this will be supported in future research into this area.
In 1982, thick-handled dumbbells were hard to find, so I had a medicine ball manufacturer increase the diameter of Olympic (regular diameter) dumbbells for me by using the same materials to make medicine balls. I could not believe how sore my hands got from using them. I don’t sell thick-handled equipment, but I know who produces the best quality products. For gym owners, commercial-type thick dumbbells are available from Watson Gym Equipment, for the US market go to: http://www.savagestrengthusa.com/ and for the European market: go to http://www.gymequipment.uk.com/. Both outlets make the Poliquin bars that be used in both commercial and residential settings.
At the Poliquin Strength Institute we have the Watson thick dumbbells, which I have help their own Simon Watson design. Ours go up in small increments: 0.5kg at a time! This is far better than 2 to 2.5 kg jumps you see in almost every gym.
One of the best compliments I had on my Arizona training facility came from strength legend Bill Kazmaier, who came to my facility to get a shoulder treatment. We have extra-thick dumbbell handles ranging from 10 pounds to 195 pounds and going up in 2.5-pound increments. He came early for his appointment, so he asked if he could get in a quick workout. Once he saw my thick-handled dumbbells, his eyes lit up like a four-year-old kid on Christmas morning. After his workout we had a quite an interesting chat on the value of thick handles in developing strength and mass. Now, in every facility I design, from Dublin to Sydney, I have the owner purchase calibrated, thick-handled dumbbells, with handles that revolve.
Whether you are a bodybuilder or are training to be a better athlete, focusing on thick-handle exercises will help you achieve your goals faster.