By Todd Bumgardner ProSource
Big weights used for big lifts result in big muscles. It's the simple equation strength enthusiasts and bodybuilders have followed for decades to morph their bodies into something extraordinary. We've all seen the pictures -- the ones of Arnold squatting, of Dave Draper overhead pressing. I can't count on four hands (let alone two) the times I've seen the black and white picture of Franco Colombo deadlifting. In the picture, Franco is hoisting big weight without any grip assistance and he looks like a monster while doing it.
These days there are a plethora of grip assistance devices and some of them are pretty good. Straps and wraps definitely have their place in training. The problem, however, is that lifters can become too dependent upon straps and wraps rather than gripping the bar solely with their mitts. To compensate, lifters add in unproductive forearm exercises.
If the above factors are an outline description of you, you need more grip. Here's more on why.
Grip Strength = More Strength
We're starting this section off with a quick test. Hold your arm straight out and very lightly squeeze your hand into a fist. Didn't feel much? Maybe just your hand closing a bit. This time I want you to squeeze your fist as hard as possible. You felt it that time, didn't you? All the muscles from your hand to your shoulder contracted synchronously.
What you felt is called irradiation, adjacent muscles contracting when others strongly contract. Irradiation builds muscular tension, which, in turn, signals the central nervous system to open the neural flood gates.
Think of it in survival situations. If you had to grab a bear by the throat to save your life, would you lightly place your hand under its chin or would you crush its windpipe?
A stronger grip sends a stronger signal to the central nervous system that it's safe to produce a hurricane of force.
A Strong Grip Protects the Shoulders
I've yet to meet a lifter that didn't, at one point in their career, have a shoulder issue. Too many times I've seen guys walking through the gym rubbing their shoulder while swinging their arm in a circle. More often than not the injury is a result of something silly done in training -- overuse from poor form, attempting a new circus trick or loading too heavily too quickly. A strong grip can't fix a misinformed thought process, or counteract silly mistakes, but it can limit the damage.
Once again, the reason is irradiation. Grip muscles in the hand and forearm contract, then come the elbow extensors and flexors. The muscles that stabilize the shoulder quickly follow suit. We'll use the bench press as a palpable exercise example.
Grabbing the bar with a loose grip allows for laxity in the arm that travels into the shoulder joints. This laxity, in turn, allows for too much movement in the shoulder while pressing. But if the bar is gripped firmly and “broken” by twisting the outside of the hand into the bar, laxity is dissipated and the shoulder joints are stabilized.
Training a Strong Grip
Most guys longing for a stronger grip waste time doing wrist curls and wrist extensions. It's a sad progression that ends with sore forearms and not much strength improvement. Rather than curling your way to nowhere, try these grip exercises instead.
Barbell Suitcase Holds: Holding a suitcase isn't that challenging. (I'm sure there are some New York City bell boys that disagree). Barbell suitcase holds, however, make grip training extreme.
Set up a barbell in a squat rack at mid-thigh level. Instead of facing the barbell, stand with it at your side, hinge at the hips while tightening your lats, pick up the barbell and hold it at your side while maintaining good posture. Neutral spine, no body lean, no body rotation. Beyond the grip, this exercise is a full-body challenge.
To start, keep the weight light--sixty-five to eighty-five total pounds is plenty. Complete sets of thirty second holds.
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Walks: I'm aware that not everyone has access to kettlebells. But if you do, include this exercise in your warm-up for a strong grip and healthy shoulders.
Completion is simple. Take a kettlebell, turn it upside down and hold the handle so that your grip is set on the bend closest to you. Be sure to set your grip hard and then take a walk. Don't, however, continue your walk until grip exhaustion. This exercise trains the grip and shoulder stabilizing muscles to fire in good sequence, working to exhaustion negates the training effect.
A twelve to sixteen kilogram kettlebell is a good place to start for most. I'll not give you a distance, walk until you're challenged but not until grip failure.
Chaos Push-ups: This exercise, like the bottoms-up kettlebell walks, requires specialized equipment--jump-stretch bands.
Using the bar hooks, stretch the bands across a squat rack at waist level. You'll need a few two-inch bands. Now, center your hands on the bands, grab them and do push-ups. To make the exercise harder, you can elevate your feet.
Do these push-ups slowly--this causes the bands to vibrate; challenging the grip and activating the shoulder stabilizing muscles. Start with a tempo of three seconds down, one second bottom pause and three seconds up. You won't need more than three to five reps per set. To progress, increase time or increase reps per set.
Health and performance requires a lifter to own a strong grip. Rather than dilly-dallying with silly wrist curls and extensions, use the above exercises to build a monster grip and healthy shoulders.