By Michael Krueger
For most people, grip is an underappreciated and undertrained aspect of overall strength. In the gym, pulling movements rely entirely on grip and can’t be trained to their full potential without it. If you can’t pull hard and heavy, there goes half your workout. Outside the gym, a strong grip is indispensable in the performance of nearly any task you might encounter as a firefighter from opening a door to climbing a ladder to grabbing and holding onto the arm of a fellow firefighter who has broken through a roof.
Besides, who wants to have a wimpy handshake?
…Back in the day
During the 1800s and early 1900s, feats of strength involving grip were all the rage. Every traveling circus had a strong man who would bend bars, break chains, and pick up chairs while people were still sitting in them and do it with just one hand. This all involved tremendous gripping strength. Even if your arms were strong enough to bend a bar, you still needed to be able to hold it while it was being bent.
Even the “parlor trick” feats of strength were impressive. Back when bottle caps were made of corrugated metal with cork centers, it was a regularly observed challenge in pubs and taverns to bend bottle caps between your fingers. The competition was to see who could fill a beer bottle the fastest with folded caps. Each cap had to be folded flat enough to drop into a standard beer bottle; this way, no one could cheat.
“Big Mac Bachelor” was a man known for tearing decks of cards in two and folding three bottle caps at once, one between each of his knuckles. In more recent years, Bill Pearl would tear license plates in half. While these feats of strength were impressive, they weren’t particularly useful in the real world. They do serve to show what can be done if you are willing to work your grip as much as any other set of muscles in your body.
Useful grip strength
I once had a client who loved to golf. To get him to work hard at anything, I had to show him how a particular exercise would in fact improve his golf game. We worked on leg drive and upper body and rotational strength as well as flexibility, all in the name of improving his golf game.
One day I mentioned improving his grip strength. He insisted that the idea of golf was to hold the club lightly, so grip strength wasn’t as issue. Right then I knew what we needed to do: improve his grip strength.
Strong hands and forearms are so important in any endeavor that requires you to grasp an object, be it a golf club or a hose nozzle. If you need to use all of your strength to hang onto something, you are creating an incredible amount of tension not only in the obviously affected muscles but in all the physical structure right up the line. Tense hands create tense forearms, which create tense shoulders, back, neck, glutes, and hamstrings. Each step increases the amount of energy used until your tank is empty and your fluidity of motion is gone.
If you only need to use half of the grip strength you have to achieve the result you are looking for, your body will be less tense since you aren’t pushing to your max. You aren’t transferring stress to your arms, back, and glutes so they remain relaxed. Nothing happens in isolation, so remember that when your grip strength is taxed, that stress permeates your entire body and makes you much less effective and a lot more fatigued.
There are so many exercises and devices aimed at improving grip strength that I could fill page after page with them. If you want to spend time working just your grip, you may “Google” grip strength and find hundreds of videos devoted just to that. If, on the other hand, you’re time strapped and you’d like to incorporate grip training into your normal workout, you are in luck, because it is incredibly easy to do.
The two exercises that are most dependent on grip as to be nearly impossible to perform them without it are the chin-up and the deadlift.
If you are unable to do a chin-up, you may start with a dead hang or a bent arm hang: Just hang from a bar for as long as you can. As your strength progresses, you will begin doing chins for reps, and eventually you will be able to do 20 or more repetitions. At this point, you may add weight by attaching plates to a belt or wearing a weighted vest.
Weighted chins put an incredible strain on your grip as well as your elbows and shoulders, so take care when adding weight. Consider the execution of a weighted chin, since quickly dropping into a dead hang can cause shoulder injury. One viable option is to lower yourself slowly to a box to avoid the drop into a full dead hang.
Another way to improve grip strength while doing chin-ups is to hang only from your fingertips or to hold onto a towel slung over the bar. This type of training puts even more work into your fingers and forearms. Try it; you might find the variation a nice change and the increased difficulty challenging.
Deadlifts are an excellent full-body exercise that will not only pack on muscle and improve back and leg strength but will improve your grip as well. Training toward the ability to hang onto a bar when 300 or more pounds are being lifted for repeated reps is an excellent way to work your grip strength. If you are new to the deadlift, be sure to get proper personal instruction, begin light, and slowly build up both your back and leg strength right along with your grip. On “YouTube” you will find numerous videos showing the execution (both proper and improper) of many deadlift variations. Rather than relying on a video, it is best to get personalized instruction since proper form is paramount and you could injure yourself if you do not do the lift properly.
If you are new to deadlifting, you may find that your grip is your weakest link. Despite this, using aids such as lifting straps to allow you to lift more is not something I would recommend. Lifting straps supplement your grip strength so that you are able to lift more, thereby perhaps training your back and legs harder. Unfortunately, they actually diminish your grip training progression by literally tying your hands to the bar. If your hands aren’t able to lift the weight, then odds are the musculature of your rear kinetic chain and your ligaments and tendons aren’t either, so you are just setting yourself up for injury.
While not an aid for your grip, a device you will frequently see lifters using while training deadlifts is a lifting belt. These belts were designed to give added support when attempting a one rep maximum lift in competition, not for supporting a weak core while training. Your core should be strong enough on its own to do the workout you are attempting. If your core strength is lacking, focus on that before training with heavy deadlifts.
Whether you need to wield an axe, hold a hose, insert an IV, lift a victim, calm a child, or shake a hand, a strong grip is a necessity. Being able to rely on your grip strength in any situation is a confidence-boosting advantage. When everything goes sideways and you are required to “hang on for dear life,” it’s a good thing to know that you are up to the task.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.