Get a Grip

The subject of grip strength has come up a lot recently when I have been coaching / talking shit with my athletes. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the matter.

Whether you want to be able to make it from your car to the front door with 18 bags of shopping slowly pulling your fingers out, or you need to be able to hold on to ridiculously heavy deadlifts you probably need to put some thought into a little supplementary grip training.

There are lots of facets to grip strength (and if you ever find yourself involved in the murky world of hand strength competitions you’ll see what I mean!) and I find it useful to break it down into three key areas:

  • Grip – The ability to keep your hand closed against resistance.
  • Closing Grip – The ability to close your hand against resistance.
  • Thumb – Manipulation of an object and your own hand using your thumb.

Lets look at a few of my favoured methods for building a vice like grip!

Barbell Holds

This is one of those simple, borderline blindingly obvious, parts to training. Want to get better at doing the thing? Then do the thing!

In this case we are talking about simple barbell holds, an effective, if tedious, method of improving your grip strength. There are a variety of ways to approach this, including, but not limited to: Double overhand holds, ‘monkey’ grip holds (thumbless) and fat grip holds (with an axle, bar end or branded bar thickening handles!)

Double overhand holds should be a staple in the grip aficionado’s armoury, use a thumbless grip if your finger strength is lagging, and use a fat grip to really challenge yourself. The grip’s weakest position is, after all, when the hand is most open.

Regardless of the version you choose, I recommend shooting for 3-5 sets of 30-45 seconds, aiming to increase the load in a linear fashion. Be prepared for these to get really heavy!

Behind the back barbell curls

One of my absolute favourites, and hugely effective at improving your closing grip strength. Setting a barbell up in a rack slightly lower than your hands, and behind you, lift it out and unfurl your fingers until the bar is hooked onto the very tips of your fingers. Then curl your fingers until the barbell is in your palm, continue wrapping your hands around it into tight fists, and finally curling your wrist up as far as you can. Perform these as smoothly as possible, ensuring you lower the barbell all the way down to your finger tips on every rep.

You won’t be able to use particularly heavy weights with this one, so high repetitions are the order of the day. I recommend kicking off with 3-5 sets of 15-25 repetitions.

Plate Holds

A great movement for thumb strength, and are best done with steel plates rather than rubber coated or bumper plates if you have them. This is simply because they are much more slippery and therefore it’s much harder!

This is best done by pinching two or three plates together, or even four if you have hands like shovels! Simply grab hold, and keep squeezing your thumb into the plates until they fall!

Due to the nature of the movement and the plates that are likely to be available it is quite difficult to progress the loading on these in a linear fashion. For that reason I recommend completing 3-5 sets to momentary muscular failure (when you have to let go!) and trying to extend the total duration as you progress.

Wrist Roller

An absolute corker now, a very good all round tool. This will tax all three of the aforementioned aspects of grip, with the added bonus of building up your grip endurance, something most people will benefit from!

You’ll need a piece of pipe, stick, or as I have here, an old rower handle. Attach a piece of rope to the handle, and a (small!) weight to the other end. Set yourself up so your forearms are supported on a barbell as in the picture.

Then you simply begin the slow and tortuous process of winching the plate all the way to the top, then all the way back down again! Use strict, precise movements deriving from the wrist and hand, rather than leaning, contorting and generally flailing around to get the plate to the top. Ensure you winch both up and down, both forwards and backwards for maximum benefit.

This is an absolute monster and is best used as a finishing exercise, done for 2-3 sets after performing some other grip exercises or a barbell session.

So there we have it! How to turn your noodle fingers into steel clamps! For extra credit I would also throw in 2-3 sets of finger extensions using some strong rubber bands around your fingers, do these after one of the key movements described above. These are important to ensure you don’t develop any imbalances or overuse injuries by focussing solely on hand closed and closing movements.

I would look to include one or two exercises just a couple of times a week, as grip training is really hard to recover from if you hammer it! Remember, stimulate don’t annihilate!