Not so long ago, strongmen were lauded for their massive forearms and feats of gripping strength, which included ripping phone books apart and bending nails and steel rods. Champions from all the weight training disciplines would engage in impromptu arm-wrestling challenges, and the annual arm wrestling championships in Petaluma, California, were a regular feature on Wide World of Sports. Time marched on, however, and somewhere along the journey from Nautilus machines to stability training and core work and bench press shirts, the iron game forgot about grip training. Let me give you a few examples.
On YouTube, you’ll find videos of weightlifters all over the world shattering their personal records, and even world records. The one thing virtually all these athletes have in common is that they’ve used straps, which means their record shattering is somewhat deceptive.
One of the first things a weightlifting coach teaches a newcomer is to grasp the barbell with a “hook grip,” which is characterized by wrapping the fingers around the thumb. Depending upon the current strength of the athlete, the hook grip can increase the amount of weight lifted by 5 percent – and straps can add another 5 percent. Actually, using straps and a hook grip work to your advantage not so much by helping you hold onto the bar but by enabling the elbow flexors , deltoids, and traps to be more relaxed during the start of the lift so they can be more strongly involved in pulling you under the bar. Knowing this, you would think that grip training would be an integral part of any weightlifter’s training. Likewise, a golfer who has a powerful grip will have a more fluid swing because they don't have to grip the club as hard.
In powerlifting, one of the weak links in the deadlift is the grip. To compensate, powerlifters would often use a mixed grip, in which one hand faces the body (pronated) and the other faces away from the body (supinated). To illustrate, let’s go back to 1949 when championship weightlifter John Davis accepted the challenge to lift Apollon’s famous Railway Car Wheels. This was an axle that was 1.93 inches (49 mm) thick, smooth and didn’t rotate. Davis successfully lifted Apollon’s Wheels on September 13, 1949, but the only way he could lift the bar to his shoulders was with a mixed grip (actually, he used a mixed grip during the pull then switched to an overhead grip when he shouldered the weight). Good for Davis, but it’s a bad idea when deadlifting because the stress this grip places on the arm may easily result in an injury to the biceps, and the asymmetry it develops in the spine increases the stress on the lower back.
In bodybuilding, training has evolved with an increased emphasis on machines. Arthur Jones’ pullover machine, which served as a blueprint for many of his future machines, was designed to eliminate the influence of the grip. As such, the exercise provided what Jones called “direct resistance” to the large latissimus dorsi muscles. Many other machines also minimized the influence of the grip, and in fact Jones promoted the idea of keeping the grip relaxed on many exercises. This is a mistake.
For one thing (and I’m saying this to put to rest Jones’ mistaken opinion that his machines were superior for training athletes), a strong grip is necessary to apply strength from other upper body muscles. Next, you need variety in your training protocols to make continual gains in strength and muscle mass. If a trainee has been training on a machine that does not emphasize grip strength and then switches to a free-weight exercise that does, such as going from a Nautilus pullover machine to a barbell pullover, grip weakness could inhibit results – that is, the pullover machine results will not transfer to the free-weight variation. In fact, I’ve found that weakness in the forearm muscles often can be a limiting factor in the development of the biceps.
Redefining Grip Training
At this point it’s important to establish a few definitions. Crushing grip strength involves primarily using your fingers to produce force. When you hold a golf club or shake someone’s hand, you’re using a crushing grip; the difference is the golf club uses a closed hand and shaking hands uses a more open hand. This is an important distinction.
In law enforcement suspect restraining, the officer needs often to the suspect’s limb, so their grip training should involve using implements that simulate this activity, such as extremely thick barbells and dumbbells. While thick implements will help a golfer, a more specific method of training would be to use gripping devices.
Another type of grip strength is called pinching grip strength, and the distinction is that the thumb is more involved in the activity. One popular type of grip training in the past was called pinch gripping, and the most common way this was performed was by grasping the outside edges of a weight plate, or several weight plates, and attempting to lift them. As with crushing grip strength, it can be performed with an open or a closed hand.
Let’s throw two more variables into the mix – maximum strength and strength endurance. In weightlifting, force on the bar only needs to be applied briefly, and therefore maximum strength is important; in wrestling, strength endurance is important because a strong grip often must be maintained for much longer. However, weightlifters do need strength endurance to some degree so they can make it through their workouts without relying on straps.
Using a plate-loaded gripping machine, such as the one I developed for Atlantis that attaches to a power rack (R-248 Grip Trainer), is ideal for developing gripping strength because you can perform protocols for developing both maximal strength and strength endurance, both with an open and a closed hand. For example, you can load up a weight and hold it isometrically with either an open or a closed hand; you can open and close the device; and you can use either low-repetition or high-repetition protocols. You can also use the other hand to assist you and perform eccentric-only contractions, and because it’s plate loaded you can add weights in small increments.
One of the best protocols I have found for developing maximal strength is 5 x 4-6 reps of 8-second holds using a 1018 tempo and 90 seconds of rest. For strength endurance, I recommend holding a thick-grip implement (such as a 3-inch barbell) for 3 sets of 60 seconds, with 2 minutes of rest between sets.
Because a lot is riding on your gripping ability, specialized training should be an essential component of any strength training program, especially in protocols designed to improve athletic performance. Do I really need to say it? Get a grip!