February 8, 2016
Quick question: which of your muscles did you use the most over the past hour? The past day? The past week? If you're like most people on the face of this planet, the answer is this: your fingers, hands, wrists and forearms.
Just think about it: not only does nearly every sport that exists, from swimming to wrestling to golf to tennis to football to basketball to baseball to climbing to obstacle course racing and beyond require extremely high activity levels of the thirty-five tiny gripping muscles in your forearms and hand…
…but most common activities of daily living also rely upon adequate strength and endurance in these muscles too, including typing, moving the trackpad or mouse on your computer, doing the dishes, carrying laundry, turning a doorknob, vacuuming, driving, and even sex (seriously, just try to get it on in the bedroom with your hands tied behind your back or your fingers clenched in fists the whole time).
So in this article, you're going to learn more about why good grip is so important, the top techniques for not enhancing grip but also eliminating wrist and elbow pain, and some of the top grip strengthening secrets from my personal fitness coach Yancy Culp.
Why Good Grip Is So Important
If your grip and forearm muscles are not conditioned with mobility, strength and endurance, then the result winds up being the frustrating chronic repetitive motion injuries that plague both office workers and athletes alike. For example, without adequate grip and forearm strength, tennis players develop tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis), which is debilitating and disabling pain on the outside of the elbow. Golfers, climbers, CrossFitters and obstacle racers who don't have adequate grip and forearm training often develop the opposite issue, a problem known as golfers elbow, climbers elbow and medial epicondylitis, which is basically pain anywhere on the inside of the elbow and forearm. People who work on a computer often get one or both of these same issues. And you can undergo all the deep tissue work, injections, massage, and anti-inflammatory remedies on the face of the planet, but until you address the underlying issue of grip and forearm conditioning, these problems will continue to plague you.
It actually baffles me why many physical therapists, physicians and chiropractors don't more often prescribe grip strengthening strategies for recovery from issues such as tennis elbow or golfer's elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome. For me personally, the elbow pain that I've gotten from the combination of copious amounts of pull-ups and rope climbing combined with ungodly amounts of time spent typing away on my Macbook Pro has only really been remedied with the type of grip exercises you’re going to get later on this article, and not via remedies such as injections or topical ointments or curcumin or ginger or anything else that would normally work for injuries on other parts of my body.
Fitness training legend Charles Poliquin backs this up when he says…
… “these ailments are often caused by improper strength ratios between the elbow muscles and the forearm muscles. If the elbow flexors, like the biceps and brachialis, are too strong for the forearm flexors, uneven tension accumulates in the soft tissue and results in elbow pain”.
Yep, that means that all the bicep curls, preacher curls, barbell curls, tricep extensions, and any other “traditional” arm training exercise you may be doing could actually make your problem worse not better if you're not training and mobilizing your grip at the same time.
Heck, issues with your grip can even radiate out to other areas of your body and cause even more injuries that you’d never guess would have had anything to do with your grip. For example, the health of your shoulder and rotator cuff has been correlated to the strength of your grip. One study found that grip strength has a significant correlation with the muscle strength of shoulder abduction and external rotation, and another study has revealed increased prevalence of rotator cuff weakness and injury on the same side of a hand injury or disorder.
But grip strength goes above and beyond just injury prevention. For example, it's been proven in multiple studies that grip strength is a fantastic predictor of overall body strength. In his book Science of Sports Training, sport scientist Thomas Kurz recommends the measurement of handgrip strength using something called a grip dynamometer (you can get one for home use here) to reveal the strength and physical readiness of an athlete. For example, if grip strength is fallen below baseline or before where it was before the previous day's work out, it can actually be an indicator of fatigue or lack of optimal recovery.
Back to the wisdom of Charles Poliquin, who also says that…
… “when your grip strength improves, less neural drive is needed for the forearm and hand muscles to perform other exercises. That is why many trainees report breaking training plateaus in a host of lifts, ranging from dead lifts to curls, after doing a grip specialization routine.”
In my Get-Fit Guy episode “How to Train like an American Ninja Warrior“, I talk about why grip strength is paramount in an obstacle-style event, especially for obstacles in “American Ninja Warrior” like the Arm Rings, Salmon Ladder, Devil Steps, and the Pipe Slider. In that episode, I mention that some of my favorite grip strengthening activities include doing pull-ups or assisted pull-ups with as many different grips as possible, wrapping a towel around a bar and hanging from the towel, walking while holding some kind of heavy rock or a bucket filled with water, pinching two weight plates together with one hand, and even bouldering at my local rock climbing facility.
But you don’t need to be training for a TV show to benefit from these type of movements. As you’ve just learned, you can be a writer with wrist pain or a golfer with elbow pain and these same exercises, when performed properly and combined with a few other tips you’ll get towards the end of this article, can banish your frustrating pain.
I detail many of these grip-strengthening strategies in my answer to a rock climber on the podcast episode “The Best Ways To Increase Grip Strength”. The reason I go out of my way to find so many different ways to train my grip is because there are so many tiny muscles in your fingers, your hands, your wrists and your forearms that the greater the variety of ways you can train your grip, the greater the likelihood that your grip isn't going to fail when you need it the most. And the less the likelihood that you're going to develop chronic repetitive motion injuries from things like typing, housework or other activities of daily living.
It’s also important to understand that (as I also detail in the podcast “The Best Ways To Increase Grip Strength”) some of your grip work should be heavy, short and explosive to build grip strength and the ability to grasp a variety of objects, while some of your grip work should be light, long and slow to build grip endurance and the ability to “hold on” for long periods of time.
Enter Yancy Culp
Last year, I hired a fitness coach to help me personally stay motivated, stay accountable, to reduce my own “decision-making fatigue” when it came to planning my own workouts, and to also get faster and more proficient in the sport of obstacle course racing. My coach’s name is Yancy Culp, and since hiring him, the grip strength and the mobility in my fingers, hands and wrists have absolutely exploded. So to give you even more insight on the nitty-gritty of how to increase your grip strength, I turned to Yancy to get his thoughts in to gain more insight into his techniques.
Here’s what Yancy had to say when I asked for his best grip training secrets:
“I grew up on a farm where I was required to work with my hands literally seven days a week, performing various tasks from hauling hay, to chopping wood, to building fences, to working livestock, to a variety of other farm duties. When I began competing in obstacle course racing (affectionately known as “OCR”), I quickly realized that these many years of working with my hands played a key role in my ability to complete the various upper body obstacles (note from Ben: Yancy was actually one of the few athletes during the entire racing year to be able to complete every single obstacle with zero failures).
The moment I left the farm, I stayed active in various sports such as such as powerlifting and weightlifting and football – sports that required me to continue using my grip, so I rolled right in to the world of obstacle course racing without every going through a period of time where I allowed my grip strength to significantly decline.
Once I began to hit obstacle course races, I realized that the same grip strength and grip endurance that helps you prevent nagging elbow and wrist injuries, helps you with activities of daily living and helps you maintain overall body strength can also help you with rope climbs, monkey bars, rigs containing numerous types of hand holds you must traverse such as balls, pipes, ropes and rings, herculean hoists, sandbag and bucket carries, Tarzan swings, sideways wall traverse, upside down rope traverse, cargo nets, walls, and a huge variety of other obstacles you might encounter in a Spartan race, a Tough Mudder, a BattleFrog or any other obstacle race.
But even if you didn't grow up on a farm, or have never done much weightlifting or powerlifting, or you have never trained your grip strength and currently feel as if you have terrible grip strength (and, if you're an OCR athlete, you struggle with every upper body obstacle on an obstacle race course), you can still develop epic grip strength faster than you’d think.
The Best Grip Strengthening Exercises
Let’s first start with some of the more common, traditional methods of developing grip strength, and then I’ll provide you with a few methods and activities and sports you may not have considered.
1) Do a farmer’s carry (also known as a farmer’s walk) using as many different type of weighted objects as possible, including sandbags, kettle bells, dumbbells, barbells, milk jugs, cinderblocks, tires and just about anything else you can get your hands on. What's a farmer’s carry? You guessed it: just pick up the weights and start walking for as long as you can. When you get tired, set the weight down, shake out your hands for a few seconds (note from Ben: it takes approximately eight seconds for your hands to replenish their creatine levels and begin producing ATP energy again), then pick up the weights and start walking again. You can go up hills, down hills, upstairs, downstairs, around your backyard, stepping up and down off benches, you name it.
2) Do pull-ups using various grip positions from a front, overhand grip, to a neutral, sideways grip, to a reverse, underhanded grip. On the same type of objects that you do pull-ups from, you can also do static hanging using various grip positions. So, for example, you can do three pull-ups, and then do a static hang, which means you simply hang for as long as you can until your grip gives out. Do this over and over again as a set worked into one of your workouts. If you'd like, you can do things like cardio and core work in between your pull-ups and your hangs. And here's a quick tip: the thicker the bar, the better training for your grip. If the bar is too thin, just wrap a towel around it and do your pull-ups or your hangs from the towel instead of the bar. Once you’ve conquered the pull-up, grab a weight and put it between your feet, put on a weighted vest, or wear a weighted belt and being to do resistance hangs and resistance pull-ups.
3) Pick heavy stuff up – specifically by using deadlifts and deadlift varieties. Using a variety of handgrips and a variety of bar shapes (again, the thicker the bar the better) and a variety of objects, simply practice picking a heavy weight up and off the ground over and over again. Shock your body by using low reps with high weight on some days, and high rep with low weight on other days. If you don't have a barbell to do your deadlifts, you can do deadlifts with a sandbag, a couple of kettle bells, dumbbells, heavy rocks, logs, you name it.
4) Use handgrip strengthening devices. One of the best handgrip strengthening devices out there is made by a company called “Captains Of Crush”, and comes in a variety of levels from easy all the way up to several hundred pounds of resistance. The same company also has little elastic bands for your fingers called “Hand Expanders”. When you combine regular use of a handgrip strengthening device with these elastic bands for your fingers, it's not only a perfect way to train grip, but also an extremely effective way to get rid of issues such as tennis elbow and golfer's elbow (pain on the outside or pain on the inside of your elbow).
5) Hit the playground. On a playground, play around with as many different methods of traversing the monkey bars as possible: sideways, front-to-back, back-to-front, one arm on a bar at a time, both arms on a bar at a time, etc. Throw in other moves on the playground equipment if other equipment is around, like climbing up the swingset chains, shimmying up poles, hanging upside down and doing pull-ups from the jungle gym, and even bouldering back and forth on kid’s rock climbing walls. You can easily spend an entire workout at a playground, and throw in sprints, skips, bounds, hops, burpees and other moves in between your playground time.
In addition to the tips above, when working with Ben and my other clients, I also implement a few of my lesser-known grip-strengthening methods that allow you to have fun at the same time you’re getting a better grip, including Jiu Jitsu, Judo, other martial arts, wrestling, climbing trees, working with hand tools such as shovels, hoes, rakes (pretty much anything and everything associated with landscaping and gardening), cutting and chopping wood, swinging sledgehammers against giant tires, hauling hay, water skiing, wakeboarding and other water sports where you have to hold a ski rope. Other activities qualify too, such as playing a guitar for long periods of time, walking through airports carrying your luggage in your hands rather than rolling it on wheels or slinging it over your shoulders, and yes, even the extremely macho activity of kneading bread.
So as you can see, there are a huge variety of ways to train your grip. However, I’m often asked what my “bread-and-butter” grip training exercises are. So, in no particular order of importance, here are seven of my favorites.
7 Top Grip Strengthening Exercises
- Sandbell rows
- Sandbell snatch & throw
- Sledgehammer swings
- Tire flip
- Horizontal and vertical pull-ups and hang
- Farmer’s walk
- Hand grip strengthening device
In the video below, I demonstrate each of these exercises:
When I incorporate these strategies with Ben and my other clients, I work grip strength training into the training program a minimum of three times a week, sometimes as part of a bigger workout and sometimes on its own as part of a “mini-workout”. For an OCR athlete, or anyone else who wants a better grip fast, a huge key is to include as much variety in a single workout as possible, because in many cases you’ll have to deal with two, three, four or five grip strength obstacles within a very short distance out on course (in a Spartan race, a series of obstacles like this all lined up in a row tend to be called a “Burpee-maker”, due to the high rate of grip failure and the ensuing burpees you must do if you fail any of those obstacles).
Performing higher rep count sets that get you a forearm and grip burning feeling (which means lactic acid is building up in those muscles), then resting, and repeating while using many different types of devices as possible can go a long way in helping you out on a race course, and in building grip endurance.
A Sample Grip Strengthening Workout
Here’s what a very basic and easy-to-implement sample workout I’d program for Ben would look like:
-Run for two minutes at race pace
-Do sandbag farmer’s carry for thirty seconds
-Do ten pull-ups, then hang until forced to drop
-Continue repeating for ten rounds but drop pull-ups down to 9/8/7/6/5/4/3/2/1 for remaining nine sets.
The reasoning behind training like this is it’s easy for many to step up to a pull-up bar and knock out pull-ups when they are fresh, but hitting that bar with a high heart rate and after hammering the grip with the farmer’s walk is a whole different story. Completing workouts like this will start to build a lot of confidence as you approach obstacles out on a course, and even if you never plan on doing an obstacle course race, developing a strong grip will help you reduce risk of elbow and wrist injuries, increase overall body strength, and reduce your propensity for shoulder injury.
Oh, and one final thing: try not to wear gloves. Rather than relying on the tacky grip of a glove, it’s better to build up callouses and tough skin on your hands and fingers. Plus, if you are indeed an obstacle course racer and your gloves get wet or muddy, you’re going to find that you slide off obstacles quite quickly. In other words: ugly, beat-up hands with big old muscular sausage fingers make for a great grip.
A big thanks to coach Yancy Culp for these tips!
There are a couple extra quick take-aways I want to throw in before bringing this article to a close. In a recent podcast I recorded with an award-winning author about avoiding elbow and wrist pain by dictating rather than typing on a computer, I mention two other strategies – strategies that you should highly consider implementing if you type a lot, have wrist or elbow pain from any other activity, or if you're doing plenty of the type of grip strengthening exercises you’ve just learned.
1) Get Yourself An “Arm Aid” Device. This is a device that looks like some kind of a medieval torture device but that actually works better than anything I have found for deep tissue work on your wrists, forearms and elbows. Here’s a video of me demonstrating what it looks like and how to use it.
2) Try The “Elbow Cure” Program. At first glance this website appears to be selling a cheesy, internet marketing slang-filled e-book, but it's actually one of the most innovative programs I’ve ever used for eliminating my own elbow pain fast. It involves things like a hammer, rubber bands, big wooden sticks, and other easy-to-find tools for banishing elbow pain. It's a very simple, easy-to-follow program.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about getting a better grip, your own grip strengthening tips to add, or anything else? Leave your thoughts below and either Yancy or I will reply!