(How-to) Get A Grip!

From valiantly carrying all the groceries in one trip, having an intimidating handshake, to playing tug of war with your dog, we all need grip strength! In fact, in a study by Perna et al. it was determined that most folks “fell into the ‘needs improvement zone’.” Furthermore, in Leong et al.’s article Prognostic Value of Grip Strength, it was determined that “grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure.” Sounds important, yes?

The three kinds of grip strength:

  1. Crushing
    • This is when the fingers and their base are generating most of the force, such as a handshake or crumpling a can.
  2. Pinching
    • This is when the fingers remain static and the thumb provides much of the force, such as pinch holding the top of a dumbbell or pinching a textbook and holding it.
  3. Supporting
    • Supporting strength is probably the most frequently used skill as it demonstrated by strength and endurance when grip is necessary to complete a primary task. Think double overhand deadlifting, carrying your groceries in, having grip and forearm endurance for pullups, etc.
  4. Extension (muscles that open the hand)
    • This doesn’t truly fall into the category of the three kinds, but it is an important function of the muscles in the arm and hand that can be trained too (more on that later in the article).

Of course, while we generally train one of these three in a more isolate fashion, grip strength is a general skill and the crush-pinch-support paradigm could be looked at as more of a continuum or a color wheel spectrum with soft lines between “types” rather than hard divides between one and the other. This means that we need to train all three types consistently and in a variety of novel ways over time.

Relevant anatomy

The primary muscles required for grip strength include the forearm’s flexors and extensors as well as the small muscles of the hand. As is made evident in the photos below, there are many small muscles some which provide prime moving roles and some of which provide more supportive roles. Regardless, it is generally not practical to think about training them all individually, and since they all function in unison anyways, it is again best to exercise a variety of grip exercises over time and to include exercises for the flexors and extensors.

A note on extensors

Taking a rubber band around the fingers is an option for training the “opening” muscles of the hand. In fact, some companies even make fancy hand specific rubber bands for this purpose. From the wrapped position one can practice opening the fingers individually, as a group, or isolating the thumb against the band tension. Another alternative is dipping one’s hand in a bucket of sand or rice and opening it against the resistance, but not many of us have a bucket of rice lying around that we want to put our chalked up barbell hands in!

Thick Grips on Exercise of choice

You can purchase a variety of grip expanders at most sporting goods stores and online. These were from academy sports, but you can also purchase Fat Gripz online in a variety of sizes too. You can add these to bench presses, chin ups, curls, deadlifts, rows…the variety is endless!

Thick Grips
Thick Grips with comparison to bar

Towel holds

These are another exercise that can be added to a variety of movements. My personal favorite is to wrap towels around the bar for chin-ups.

What I like about this is how closely it mimics the Jiu-Jitsu gi grab you see in fighting often. Those guys have some of the strongest grips on the planet, is it any wonder why?

Towel on a pulldown bar for example
Jiu Jitsu Gi Grip

Plate OR DB Pinches

I do these for time at the end of a session, typically for a few sets of 30 seconds working up to longer times but usually no longer than a minute and a half. 2-4 sets should be plenty here.

Simply pinch one plate and hold for time, OR pinch two plates together in an iso hold to prevent them from slipping away from each other for time. You can also pinch the square end of a dumbbell for a similar but thicker grip challenge.

DB pinch
Plate Pinch with 10lb plates together

Adding them in…

The first method I recommend for training one’s grip is to incorporate it in incremental doses into regular training sessions. You don’t need to go overboard here, but simply wrapping a towel around the bar for your bicep curls, or adding some plate pinches at the end of a session can be more than enough at the outset. The trick is to get the most gain out of the smallest effective dose, that way when you plateau (which is a normal part of training), you have somewhere to go – if we fire all our guns at the start of the battle we have nothing left to win the war with. So, add a little work here and there – your grip – and you ability to carry a whole grocery haul in one trip – will thank you!

Disclaimer

This article doesn’t take the place of advice by a qualified health professional. What’s appropriate for one individual may be counterproductive for another. If you are suspicious of an illness, injury and/or are in constant pain I encourage you to see a doctor and a therapist to get a proper diagnosis and rule out illness. Illness, pain, and injuries are complicated topics that have a variety of causes and presentations. You should see your doctor before beginning any exercise program. I am not qualified to prescribe treatments, diagnose, or assess medical symptoms or conditions. This article and any information contained there-in is for informational/educational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for medical advice. Please talk to your doctor and medical care providers before starting any exercise or fitness program.

References

  1. Leong DP, et al. Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. Lancet. 2015 Jul 18;386(9990):266-73.
  2. Perna FM, et al. Muscular Grip Strength Estimates of the U.S. Population from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2011-2012. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Mar;30(3):867-74.
Holler Box
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