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A friend and I are hanging side by side, our hands slipping from the bar. “If you cannot give me leg raises, just free-hang” Now, I am a rare animal and even more than weak grip, I am terrified about hanging because of my fear of heights – which is completely irrational, but there you go.
Anywhos, I jump up and do my best to pull off a negative without freaking out about the empty space beneath me. My friend looks at me, her hands quite raw: “my hands just keep slipping, I just cannot hang on the bar”.
How many times have we heard that? How many times I thought the solution to this problem was:
A. To use a mixed grip to help me pulling a bar
B. To use wraps to give me better grip
The truth is, most of us – and especially us ladies – really need to work on our grip big time.
Through my Animal flow practise, I learnt the importance of mobilising and strengthening my wrists as well as my core. I usually spend five to ten minutes stretching my wrists if I am planning on doing piroettes of some sorts.
The focus on wrist strength and mobility really made me wonder about how often we tend to look outwards for answers, and most often it’s all about small, constant tweaks. Grip strength and wrist mobility are very finely interconnected.
Building up your grip strength is imperative for lifting more weight in the gym on powerful moves like pull-ups and deadlifts.
In the Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger advised lifters not to use straps with pulling exercises, because you want your grip strength and forearm strength to progress along with your ability to pull big weights when you deadlift and perform exercises like bent rows, dumbbell rows and weighted pull-ups (working your lats).
Disclaimer: I am not advising to throw your wraps away in rage – there is a place and a time for wraps.
However, most beginners who deadlift with a bar (or use kettle bells) should really see bare hand training as a way to get a feel for the bar. Get their hands acquainted to the feels, as well as say hello to callouses – which my boyfriend religiously picks and threatens me he will clip away at some point!
My issue with wraps and straps is that rather than challenging your grip to become stronger, using those tools actually encourages your body to rely on help and may actually make your forearms weaker. Try to switch it up and use wraps only occasionally or if advised by your coach.
Make grip training part of your routine
Different people like to incorporate this sort of training in different ways.
For myself – and my clients and student alike – grip training usually takes place as an end-of-workout finisher, or an upper body pull session.
The truth is, if you are programming for yourself, you should be able to incorporate different grip exercises without really affect your workout.
Still if you train your grip right before taking a one-rep max in your deadlift, you may want to ask yourself a thing or two about your programming.
A few ways to train your grip
- Grippers: I heard of hand grips first in a Tim Ferris podcast with Pavel Tsasouline. The best thing about them, is that they are inexpensive, easy to carry around, and do not require a lot of thought really. A few different companies manufacture high quality grippers that come in various tensions. If you’d rather create a routine for yourself, try three sets of as many squeezes as you can manage, with a minute’s rest between sets.
- Strongman training: [by yourself or in a class environment] A very straight-forward way to train your grip without doing anything new is to add pulling and lifting in your routine. The repetitive stress will cause a quick jump in grip strength and will immediately help to further develop your forearms. Another great exercise is farmer’s walks as it will blast both your midsection and forearms – it works extremely well as a finisher.
- Grasp a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells. Keeping the core engaged, walk from one end of the gym to the other until you can no longer hold onto the weights.
- Squeee the bar: Sounds obvious, but there is so much going on when you are pulling a bar. Actively squeezing the bar with your hands during a set leads to greater grip activation and therefore more gains in grip strength. It’s worth focusing one set on actively switching on your hands as much as possible. Your overall strength and stability will go through the roof.
- Grip variations: Play with your grip. Beginners usually associate mixed grip with a easier grip (I did hear gym buff calling it the ‘sissy grip’). In all fairness, mixed grip requires more attention and care than what someone may think – it can seriously tear your biceps. Overall, there are several different ways to grip a barbell, and each variation serves its own purpose to help you get the most out of your workouts and activate different muscles. I recommend you looking at my references below for more ideas on 5 great alternatives.
A note on calluses
You should treat your hands with a bit of TLC. Just do not be afraid of calluses. If you are looking to improve your grip, and you are “pulling” quite a lot at the gym, it will undoubtedly start to happen.
Your grip is linked to how strong your hands are, and it’s essential to have a solid grip to avoid rips and painful tears.
Think about how you actually grip the bar. Are you grabbing it way down in the palm of your hand? Or are you grabbing it more around the base of your fingers? Think about how rock climbers use their fingers more than their hands. Think about the fact you are pulling on something, not pushing. The bar should not be all the way into the bottom of your palm, it will only cause more folds of skin to bunch up and you are more likely to rip.
(Breaking Muscles, reference below)
As a rule of thumbs, do not train your grip when your calluses hurt, because your central nervous system hasn’t fully recovered and you won’t get the optimal benefit out of a grip workout at this point. When you can push on your calluses and they don’t hurt, you’re ready to train grip again. This will allow you to progress further and protect your hands.
To read more about your hand care, check the article below from Breaking Muscle.
Goodbye slippery hands
Remember, our body is a complex little thing, and as most things grip strength is often thought of as hand strength. However, there is so much more when thinking of grip: it goes from your elbows down to your fingertips.
Many of our forearm and hand flexor muscles originate above the elbow, which means that anytime a muscle crosses a joint, it will in some way influence it (forearms, the wrists, and into the hands, fingers, and thumbs) – apologies, I went a bit geeky there. Nevertheless, strongergrip means better workout, less injuries, heavier lifts and overall less cases of inflammation-related forearm pain such as tendonitis, tendonosis and epicondylitis.
References and resources
- 5 Barbell Grip Variations and how to Use them (ARTICLE)
- Hand Care 101 (ARTICLE)
- Barbell Sthrugged: How to Train your Grip (PODCAST / VIDEO)
- Grip Strength Training Tips (ARTICLE)