Without even realising it – grip strength may be the biggest weakness in your strength game…holding you back from truly maximising your strength potential.
It’s time to grab hold and work on improving your grip strength today.
Set the Scene
Days, weeks, months…session after session has been poured into this one day. You’ve worked harder than ever before and now…now is the time.
It’s time to test your strength with the ultimate exercise – The Deadlift.
You tighten your belt, crank up the volume to your favourite lifting song, blaring down the headphones. Stepping to the bar, you can feel your excitement and a slight hint of fear building.
You reach down to the bar. Nestling the iron into your palm, you pull down into position.
As the bar begins it’s ascent, you feel every sinew in your body taking the tension of the weight. Your nervous system firing, your tendons straining and your mind screaming.
It’s happening…the PB you’ve been waiting for. It passes your knee and as you can see the path to victory laid out before you; you hit a bump in the road.
A pang of doubt snags at your mind – your hand begins to slip.
Within a split second of feeling your progression cemented in stone it literally, slips through your fingers.
The feeling of failure is amplified by the ring as the bar crashes to the ground.
Where the hell did you go wrong?
Learn the topic.
You may have never suffered defeat at the hands of…well…your hands. And after reading this article, I can assure you –
You never will.
Your grip is a staple of almost all aspects of physical training. Taking it one step further, your hands are your literal connection with the environment around you.
The hands are to the upper body, what the feet are to the lower. And although that sounds obvious, the current way in which most approach their grip speaks volumes into the lack of knowledge in this area.
A strong grip is an essential element of your entire physical performance, with research by Wind et al. (15) finding it to be a valid expression of total body strength across a range of populations.
Although most people have never considered it, the biological engineering of the hand is truly a masterpiece and cannot be overlooked.
As talked about in this BBC News Article:
“Through habitual use and training even a single finger can support the entire body weight.”
Really pause to think about that for a moment…One tiny, measly little finger has the potential to manipulate your entire body.
When was the last time you considered your grip when lifting?
What is your Grip Strength?
Without overcomplicating it too much, there is actually a couple of different ways in which you can test your grip strength.
- Crushing = This refers to the use of the entire hand to create force. It’s what most people would consider being their truest expression of grip. EXAMPLE – Make a fist.
- Pinching = Lesser known but equally important (especially when we come onto building your grip strength to aid your lifting) – this refers to the ability of the hand to pinch the fingers together. EXAMPLE – Press your fingers and your thumb together.
What’s it Good For?
The real question should be, what isn’t it good for?
Pain – My Neck, My Back…
Grip strength is also significantly correlated to neck pain (3), directly influences shoulder and rotator cuff muscle activity (12-14) and is even linked to increased risk of chronic lower back pain (10).
Functional Ability + Independence
Assessing grip strength is also becoming the “go-to” clinical biomarker for aging, finding it to be more closely linked to functional ability and loss of independence than the loss of muscle mass (7).
Expression of Strength
Research has shown grip strength not only as a valid predictor of success in sports such as martial arts (6) but as mentioned earlier, a study of 384 participants (ranging from young children to adults) found grip strength to be related to total body strength (15).
Learn the science and theory.
External Rotation & Torque
If you aren’t familiar with the term, external rotation or “torque” is an essential aspect of not only expressing and maximizing strength but also aids the stability of joint position and decreases injury risk. It refers to the ability to create rotation at a joint, out away from the midline of the body.
In other words, imagine gripping the floor with your feet and aiming to twist the floor outwards as you squat. It’s a sure fire way to help your glutes kick on and improve your stability.
It just so happens that research has highlighted grip strength to be strongly correlated to lateral rotator cuff strength (5) or in other words…the ability to externally rotate the shoulder. Research has also highlighted the influence of shoulder angle on the expression of grip strength (8).
It’s pretty clear…we know there is a direct link between the grip and the shoulder joint.
Now What? – Anecdotal Evidence from Coaching
Over my time coaching, I’ve found that many people suffer from similar postural defects as a result of their everyday life. Whether it’s being deskbound, driving too often, stress…it doesn’t matter too much.
However, one of the most common issues is thoracic kyphosis – or in laymen’s terms “rounding” of the upper back/slumped shoulders.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is a naturally kyphotic curve in the spine as it is.
In this instance, I’m referring to when the shoulder joints themselves are being pulled and rotated inwards.
From my experience, the inwardly turned shoulders often result in hunching over.
TRY IT NOW –
- Whether seated or standing and keeping your hands by your side. Aim to turn them inwards until your palms face out away from your body.
Notice how almost straight away, your chest will feel like it wants to sink down – as if you have a huge weight pushing you down.
- Now do the opposite. Put your hands out in front of you with your arms straight. Turn your palms upwards and continue to rotate them out as far as possible (the crook of your elbow should be pointing upwards).
You should feel the opposite occur, with your chest wanting to lift.
Many people that come to me with a desire to get stronger will be tested in several areas and up until recently, I conducted similar tests to most:
- Squat, Deadlift, Pressing, Pulling Strength etc.
- Body Fat + Weight etc.
However, after observing the link between shoulder and grip on a regular basis, I decided to start testing it as well.
Tests, Findings and What They Tell You…
There are two primary tests I encourage people to perform when trying to identify the link.
*NOTE = These tests aren’t exhaustive. You may find that you do well in both, but still feel like you need to work on your grip – That’s encouraged. You may also see that you’re weak in this exercise, yet you’re already very strong in other movements – that’s fine also.
It’s simply a way of identifying if you have a weakness in your overall postural strength – Don’t be complacent, there are always things to work on!
- Hand Grip Dynamometry = Arm down by your side; elbow bent; wrist neutral and palm facing inwards. Squeeze it as hard as you can for a minimum of 5 seconds.
- Bottoms Up KB Squat = This is without a doubt one of my all-time favorites in the world of Kettlebell Training. It involves stability, external rotation at the shoulder, tightness in your thoracic spine and a great connection between the lower and upper body. If you aren’t familiar, you can see the video below.
The main points with this one:
- Keep the KB upside down.
- Keep the wrist directly above the elbow.
- Keep the elbow and shoulder at 90 degrees, with your upper arm parallel to the ground.
What You May See…
People who have a relatively (relative to your strength in other movements) weak grip will often find this one incredibly difficult, struggling to maintain a stable position (particularly when it comes to keeping the upper arms parallel).
If this is a case, you’re not only leaving a major weakness in your game, but you’re also opening yourself up to a greater risk of shoulder pain and tightness; with external rotation/lateral rotator cuff strength being linked to the prevalence of shoulder impingement (2).
Learn the implementation.
Building Grip Strength
So, of interest to everyone, how do we go about improving your grip strength. It’s actually relatively simple, with only a few considerations to take into account (such as damage to the hands, recovery, etc.). But without further ado:
1. Crush Everything You Lift
From bicep curls to bench presses. From deadlifts to pull-ups. Although this may sound incredibly simple you may also be surprised at how little you do this when in the gym. It’s common to exert yourself in what you think to be the primary aspect of the movement (E.g. pushing during a bench press), many forget how to make the movement a hell of a lot easier than it currently is.
You should be aiming to crush the handles so hard you leave them bent and crooked.
2. Dead Hangs
Not only do they do wonders for your shoulder health (provided you don’t have a pre-existing injury), they’re also the simplest exercise in the world. This is one of the best exercises for building up endurance in your grip, simply grab on and hang for as long as possible.
3. Fat Gripz and Plate Pinches:
This is where one of the key considerations comes to mind – Grip training can damage the hands quite severely. Lifting and holding incredibly heavy bits of metal, doesn’t always do your skin a world of favors.
However, using Fat Gripz™ or performing exercises such as plate pinches is an effective way of building the muscles in your hands without damaging your skin in the process.
To add to the logical rationale of using this type of training, research has shown Fat Gripz™ to be an effective way of improving neuromuscular demand/activation with significantly lighter loads (9) as well as a valid method of improving grip strength when compared to traditional resistance training (1, 4).
4. Use Thicker Bars:
Similar to the point above, using thicker implements will challenge the intrinsic muscles of the hand and forearm without the requirement for abrasion on your skin.
Furthermore, you don’t need to use as much weight to gain a similar training response, with research showing significant reductions in 1RM (and therefore lighter loads used) when using thicker bars (11).
To add to this, the anecdotal evidence of strongmen using the Axle Barbell shows how beneficial thicker bars can be to grip. It’s not always about the weight you hold.
Time, Reps + Sets
I would always recommend the following:
- All grip specific training should be done at the end of a training session, so as to not impact any other of your lifting.
- Provided you’re doing point 1 (Crushing), you don’t actually need to train grip as often as you think. Anywhere between 1-3x per week is ideal.
- Don’t go crazy with exercises, once you begin training it, you’ll realize how quickly they tire. Overtraining your grip and your forearm musculature is a sure fire way to gain some elbow tendinitis.
- Duration comes before weight – I would always advocate choosing a weight, holding/carrying it for 20-30 seconds before increasing it.
- The sets can actually be relatively low (due to the use of your grip in so many other tasks): 2-4 sets per exercise should be enough (no different than typical training prescription).
- Cummings, P. M., Waldman, H. S., Krings, B. M., Smith, J. W., & McAllister, M. J. (2018). Effects of Fat Grip Training on Muscular Strength and Driving Performance in Division I Male Golfers. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(1), 205-210
- Donatelli R, Ellenbecker TS, Ekedahl SR, Wilkes JS, Kocher K, Adam J. Assessment of shoulder strength in professional baseball pitchers. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2000; 30: 544–51.
- Fayez, E. S. (2014). The correlation between neck pain and hand grip strength of dentists. Occupational Medicine & Health Affairs
- Heyboer, N., Leathley, C., & VanZytveld, M. (2014). The Effect of 4 Weeks of” Fat Gripz” on Grip Strength in Male and Female Collegiate Athletes
- Horsley, I., Herrington, L., Hoyle, R., Prescott, E., & Bellamy, N. (2016). Do changes in hand grip strength correlate with shoulder rotator cuff function?. Shoulder & elbow, 8(2), 124-129
- Iermakov, S., Podrigalo, L. V., & Jagiełło, W. (2016). Hand-grip strength as an indicator for predicting the success in martial arts athletes
- Kallman, D. A., Plato, C. C., & Tobin, J. D. (1990). The role of muscle loss in the age-related decline of grip strength: cross-sectional and longitudinal perspectives. Journal of Gerontology, 45(3), M82-M88
- Kong, Y. K. (2014). The effects of co-ordinating postures with shoulder and elbow flexion angles on maximum grip strength and upper-limb muscle activity in standing and sitting postures. International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, 20(4), 595-606
- Krings, B. M., Shepherd, B. D., Swain, J. C., Turner, A. J., Chander, H., Waldman, H. S., … & Smith, J. W. (2019). Impact of Fat Grip Attachments on Muscular Strength and Neuromuscular Activation During Resistance Exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research
- Park, S. M., Kim, G. U., Kim, H. J., Kim, H., Chang, B. S., Lee, C. K., & Yeom, J. S. (2018). Low handgrip strength is closely associated with chronic low back pain among women aged 50 years or older: A cross-sectional study using a national health survey. PloS one, 13(11), e0207759
- Ratamess, N. A., Faigenbaum, A. D., Mangine, G. T., Hoffman, J. R., & Kang, J. (2007). Acute muscular strength assessment using free weight bars of different thickness. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 21(1), 240.
- Sporrong, H., & Styf, J. (1999). Effects of isokinetic muscle activity on pressure in the supraspinatus muscle and shoulder torque. Journal of orthopaedic research, 17(4), 546-553
- Sporrong, H., Palmerud, G., & Herberts, P. (1995). Influences of handgrip on shoulder muscle activity. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 71(6), 485-492.
- Sporrong, H., Palmerud, G., & Herberts, P. (1996). Hand grip increases shoulder muscle activity: An EMG analysis with static hand contractions in 9 subjects. Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, 67(5), 485-490.
- Wind, A. E., Takken, T., Helders, P. J., & Engelbert, R. H. (2010). Is grip strength a predictor for total muscle strength in healthy children, adolescents, and young adults?. European journal of Pediatrics, 169(3), 281-287.