With Ninja Warrior, and Spartan, and Tough Mudder and the like all the rage you’ll be doing your clients a favour to help them build their grip strength. And if you read our last instalment you’ll know that grip strength is a significant predictor of a long disease-free life, as well as a way to easily predict fatigue. So let’s dive in and see how you can help your clients to well, Get a Grip!
Forearms, Grip and Digits
The first thing to know is that your grip is made up of three components - your foreams which can be trained with wrist flexion and extension, your “grip” itself with hand gripping and squeezing exercises, and your digits, or fingers and thumbs. It’s this last component, the digits that often get no training at all, whilst the other two components might get a perfunctory amount. But now that you know how important your grip strength is you can see we have to do better than this.
I have found that forearms respond really well to dumbbell wrist flexion and extension exercises as well as reverse curls. But if you want an old-school exercise that really works them, try the wrist rollup. You can make your own or get one on eBay for about $20 but it is essentially a weight at the end of a rope that you hold out from your body and “rollup” the rope. A bit like the Sissy squat for quads, people can never believe how hard this simple little exercise is.
Don’t dismiss things like the spring-based wrist grips…they do actually work, and I keep a pair beside my desk. But of course, any squeezing type exercise of say a tennis ball will do the trick. My favourite modality however for hand’s is simply hanging. When I have a new client I like to see if they can support their own body weight from an overhead bar. If they can do that then we progress to holding for time, maybe 30 seconds, then moving a long a bar or monkey bars. Then I’ll introduce thick rope over the bar and get them to now hang by squeezing the rope and trying not to slide down it. We’re getting really good when they can hang from one hand alone.
If you’re in any doubt as to how strong your fingers can be, look up Alex Honnold, and especially look for his ascent of El Capitan, but only if you have a strong stomach…he climbs it in 4 hours – a 900m high rock cliff, without any rope attachment. Yes, that’s right, 4 hours when only his fingers and toes stop him from falling to certain death.
For those of us less interested in dying and more interested in strength we can however do a safe version of this by doing a dead hang, as above but this time from a ledge or fingerhold, or even a pullup bar by just hooking your fingers over, but not closing your grip with your thumb. A really accessible one is plate pinching…no not stealing the plates from your local gym, but carrying them vertically as you squeeze them between your fingers and thumb. I love this one because as a trainer I can get some “incidental” training in as I return clients plates to the racks. But be a bit careful, I did drop a 10kg plate on my foot once as I bumped into something an lost my grip – wasn’t pretty!
Bringing it all together
Now that you’ve worked all three components of grip out – the forearm muscles, hand muscles and finger muscles, the perfect all in one is the farmers carry. It’s no wonder variants of this appear in every strongman competition – to carry a decent weight for long you (and your client) are going to have to build significant strength. As a starting point take your deadlift and half it, then half it again and that will be a good amount for each hand. Remember, getting a good grip is not just a part of good fitness, and a key to strength building, it is also a good insurance policy for a longer, healthier life!