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April 27, 2020 10 min read
Our hands are one of the most important tools that we have. They help us move things, create things, and destroy things. Useful both in functional real-word scenarios and in the gym, we wouldn’t be getting far without them.
Yet for whatever reason, many people don’t place an emphasis on training the strength in their hands—a.k.a., their grip. While you do get some grip training in your regular upper body workouts since your hands are relied on in almost every exercise, there are a number of benefits in adding some grip emphasis into your training routine.
And even without some specific benefits which come from a good grip, training up this aspect will also benefit you in your regular lifts and your upper-body aesthetic. If you have any grip-training needs, look no further.
As we mentioned above, a stronger grip will pay out dividends in the gym. Practically every upper body exercise necessitates the use of a good grip. If your grip isn’t up to par with your lifts, then that means the rest of your training can suffer. This is also true when it comes to bodyweight exercises. If your grip has ever failed you while doing chin-ups or pull-ups, then it’s probably time to focus in on your grip strength.
Since it’s often the grip strength that will give out before your other muscles, these other muscles won’t get a good enough workout. Therefore, training grip can smash your plateaus if you feel that you’re doing everything right but nothing’s changing with your PRs. Training the strength and endurance of the grip can easily boost performance, especially when it comes to movements like the deadlift.
A ton of different sports rely on having a good grip. Hockey, football, golf, baseball, wrestling, grappling, basketball—including many more—will all benefit tremendously. Grip strength will result in being able to swing harder, shoot faster, and rebound better. With more strength will come more control over where you’re focusing your energy or impact. This will be especially helpful in things like palming basketballs, hitting harder in tennis, and being a better receiver in football. Sports like rock climbing are obviously much easier with a stronger grip. Training your grip will also help in preventing injuries such as getting your finger jammed and spraining your wrist.
While it might not make a big and grand difference in the mirror—at least not like a 6-pack and big pecs will—training a strong grip can have effects on a wide portion of your upper body. Most notably, it’ll be your forearms which are impacted the most heavily. And not only do big forearms look impressive, but they’ll also help in training when it comes to your biceps, triceps, delts, back, abs and pecs. This will help in gaining that coveted v-shape and having eyes follow you next time you hit up the beach.
And if you want to leave an even better impression, then a strong handshake is the way to go. While more of an aesthetic feature, this can have profound effects on leaving a good first impression with people and potentially opening up opportunities that were closed before.
Speaking in terms of injuries, exercising your grip is also a good place to start in rehabilitation. If you’ve had a more serious injury affecting your hands or arms, grip training is an excellent place to start if you can’t do the more traditional upper body training. You can slowly build up strength in your grip, wrists, and forearms, without putting too much stress on problem areas.
But even when looking at mundane daily chores there’s still the chance of minor discomfort or carpal tunnel syndrome. Quite simply, stronger muscles and connective tissues help prevent injury—so in order to prevent injury in something as essential as our hands, it’s important to condition them properly. This conditioning will positively affect your mobility, endurance, and strength, which will then in turn prevent injuries from happening.
But there’s more! Training your grip will also improve the bone densities in your wrists and elbow joints. And stronger bone density means there’s a lesser chance of breaking anything andreally putting your fitness progress back. More importantly, however, is that a better bone density can also offset the damages done by osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that develops with age and brings on a reduction in bone density. While there’s no cure, strength training can minimize the chances of this condition occurring and maximize longevity.
Above all, grip training will improve the strength and endurance ratios between the forearm muscles and elbow muscles. It’s this discrepancy between the strength ratio that often leads to elbow pain and other more serious arm injuries.
While it might seem a stretch at first, research has shown a strong link between a person’s grip strength and life expectancy. A 2018 study has suggested that weaker grips correlate with higher chances of respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer. Furthermore, the results of this were adjusted for sedentary time, socioeconomic status, and diet.
Not only was there a higher risk of specific illnesses, but also a higher risk of death. The association between grip strength and longevity seems to be even stronger than the association between activity levels and longevity. And this isn’t just a one-off study—others have shown similar results between the importance of grip as a biomarker for how long one lives and even mental health.
While you can’t stop aging, you can definitely slow it down. With proper physical activity and a nutritious diet, it’s possible to have a significantly lower biological age than chronological age. If you’re not sold on grip strength yet, take a look at the number of muscles activated with a grip focused training plan.
There’s a lot of muscles that are activated with your grip—a lot of which you’ve probably never considered. The muscles in your hands, wrists, forearms, and entire upper body benefit from grip training—plus more, but we’ll get into this a little later on.
Altogether, there are 35 muscles considered in the movement of the hand and the forearm. A large portion of these are taken into account when gripping things. It’s the flexor mechanism in the hand and the forearm which creates force while gripping. On the other hand, it’s the extensors that stabilize the wrist. However, that’s not all. Your grip also plays a major role in what’s called irradiation.
Put your arm out in front of you and make a fist. But like a really tight fist, squeezing a lot. Chances are you’re not just feeling the tension in your first, but also down your forearm. If you squeezedreally hard then you might’ve even felt your lats or your core engage.
This is the principle known as irradiation. It essentially means that when you make a fist, a signal is sent to all of the surrounding muscles to activate. This enables a higher transfer of power across joints through two-joint muscles. Even the tiny muscles of your rotator cuff will engage, along with your biceps, triceps, pecs, and lats.
This allows us to express strength not just through the muscle being focused on, but also the entire muscular system which supports it, through tension. This is most noticeable when doing unilateral movements. A failure to complete a heavy one-sided lift is usually not because of a lack of strength on the side that’s lifting. Rather, it’s an issue with tension generation on the other side. Allowing your non-lifting arm to go out and make a rock-solid fist will irradiate tension throughout the body and prevent the torso from rotating.
It follows that grip training will benefit not only your grip but also all the muscles which are worked via irradiation. While this might seem like quite a lot of muscles to keep track of, the entirety of training can be simplified into three (and a half) gripping training exercises.
The crush grip is probably the one you’re most familiar with. Simply put, it’s just the act of closing your hand around something and squeezing. This is what happens whenever you hold onto a dumbbell or shake someone’s hand, for example.
The second type of grip is the pinch grip. This action allows you to hold onto an object and squeeze it with just your fingertips, without letting it drop. The third is the support grip. This grip allows you to hold onto things such as pull-up bars and ropes.
The fourth exercise category isn’t technically a grip, but it does train similar muscles to the ones used for gripping. The hand extension keeps a healthy muscle balance in your hands and wrists and can be trained by putting a band around the fingers and then trying to splay them out. So, what does this all look like when it comes to exercises?
The most common strength training for your grip is using a hand gripper. While they come in all shapes and sizes, they’ll all bestow the same benefits on you (but actual hand grippers should be very challenging to close). Their strength is that you can use them anywhere you have a free hand and some free time. This means at home, in the office, sitting around during rush hour—the gripper is an effective way of getting the most out of your grip and your time.
You can also train with them in a variety of ways. Either going for reps and sets or just holding the gripper closed until failure or a set amount of time. A simple tool, grippers can take your arm strength to the next level.
While training your grip can have positive effects on your other lifts, the same can also be said in reverse. This is especially true when it comes to the deadlift, since picking up the heavy weight relies a lot on how much your grip can handle. Well, it’s possible to make that even more challenging.
Depending on the gym you go to, you might have access to a fat bar. Thicker than a regular bar, the fat bar forces your grip and forearms to work overtime since there isn’t a possibility of wrapping your fingers around like in a normal hook grip. Even if you don’t have access to a fat bar, there’s plenty of accessories that you put over a regular in order to make it thicker. Pulls and rows are the best bang-for-your-buck exercises when using a fat bar since there’s an increased muscle activation in the forearms and hands (compared to pressing exercises).
This technique can also be utilized in other grip training exercises. For example, the static barbell hold simply has you deadlift a load to the top lockout position—and then hold it for as long as possible. Holding it for as long as possible is particularly challenging, but the challenge can be even further increased by using a thicker bar.
The dead hang might look easy, but it packs a wallop when it comes to grip strength training in a pinch. The idea is just to simply hang onto a bar with an overhand grip for as long as possible. Depending on how athletic you are will guide your record time, but an unbroken 1-minute hang is generally a good indicator of excellent grip strength. Aim for 2 to 3 of these in a session.
But there’s even more you can do with the humble pull-up bar. Even though traditional pull-ups are great when training grip, the towel grip pull-up will take the challenge to the next level andreally emphasize grip. The way to do these is to wrap two towels around the bar, where your hands would normally go. Then simply grab onto the towels with each hand and begin your pull-up session. The fact that you’ll be using a neutral grip (rather than overhand or underhand) will mean that more muscles in your forearms and hands will be recruited than in a regular pull-up.
The farmer carry is an excellent full-body workout that hits a number of muscle groups, including those used in gripping. Keeping to the theme of simple exercises, the farmer carry just requires you to pick up a pair of dumbbells (or kettlebells) in either hand, and walk with them for a set time, distance, or as long as you can.
While there’s nothing wrong with walking quickly, posture is paramount. Your chest should be up and your shoulders back for the entirety of the walk. It might also be a good idea to do these either until failure or for a set time. If you do the farmer carry for a set distance, there’s a chance you’ll be motivated to walk faster at the risk of ruining your posture. It’s also recommended to start with a load that’s half of your max deadlift. So, if your max deadlift is 300, start by carrying two 75 lb weights and see how you feel. It’s important to really feel the burn and have your body taxed—the benefits will extend much further than the arms and hands.
A variation of the farmer carry can even train your pinch grip. By grasping a weight plate with just your fingers, your grip will be placed under significantly more tension. Make sure to not use the handles—these are plate pinches after all. This has the added benefit of exercising your hands and your fingers, both of which are essential in improving your grip strength. Additionally, if you want to take your fingers to the next level, try doing finger push-ups. If you can’t, work up to them by doing regular push-ups and pinch plate farmer carries.
For a real challenge, pick up the things that weren’t meant to be easily be picked up. Sandbags are a great example since they have an irregular shape and require a strong grip in different configurations. Sleds are also a good (and fun) tool to use when it comes to grip training, along with truck tires. Also including battle ropes and steel maces, these irregular objects require a greater amount of not only strength but also endurance and mobility. They’ll challenge every possible configuration of your grip, that regular gym loads might not.
Whatever your fitness level or your goals, a good, strong grip will benefit you in every aspect of being a gym-rat and in general health. While often overlooked, grip strength is essential for preventing injuries, crushing plateaus, and exuding confidence. And perhaps most importantly, it seems to be an important marker for longevity. Next time you’re pumping iron, remember to get a grip on training your grip—and reap the benefits.