Core? Check. Glutes? Check. Arms? Check. Grip strength? … Ahem, grip strength? ….
One of the most overlooked components of many fitness programs is performing specific exercises to develop grip and forearm strength. Whether it is lifting, carrying, throwing or swinging, your hands are the first point of contact with any object that you will be holding, yet they are frequently undertrained. When lifting heavy weights, the grip is often the first thing to go. Therefore, if your goal is to get strong, it starts with your hands and their ability to grip and hold on to a load.
The forearm contains two opposing sets of muscles involved with creating a strong grip: the flexors, which close the hand to make a fist, and the extensors along the top of the forearm that are responsible for opening the fist to a flat hand. Workouts that strengthen the forearm flexors will help enhance overall grip strength, but it is also important to do movements that address the action of opening the hand with the extensors.
Below are six benefits of training grip strength followed by suggested exercises. Pick two from the list and add them to your workouts to develop strong hands with a crushing grip.
Six benefits of grip strength
- Making a strong first impression. It’s not necessary to squeeze the heck out of someone’s hand, but a firm grip on a handshake is a sign of confidence that lets the other person know that you are someone who should be taken seriously.
- Opening jars. This is not just for little old ladies—admit it, you’ve struggled to open a jar. How often have you been at a friend’s house where everyone takes a turn to open a stuck jar? Having a strong grip can help ensure that you are always an essential guest to add to any social gathering.
- Playing sports. Don’t just play a sport or pursue a recreational activity to get in shape. Get in shape to participate in your favorite activity. The fitter you are, the more fun you will have. Many popular recreational sports and activities, including bowling, golf, softball, tennis and, of course, rock climbing, require a strong grip for success.
- Parenting. From holding a fussy toddler who doesn’t want to leave the park to shaking the hand of your daughter’s teenage suitor, a strong grip goes a long way in letting your kids know who is really in charge.
- Walking the dog. If you have a larger dog, then you know how challenging it can be to hold on to the leash when something grabs its attention. Having a strong grip means that you won’t need to go running after your pet the next time it chases a squirrel.
- Boosting your strength for other lifts. There is a strong (pun intended) neurological connection between grip strength and shoulder strength. The stronger the grip, the more weight can be used for many exercises. It’s common to see people in a gym using wraps or wrist supports when lifting with heavier weight. Don’t fall into this trap. Old-school strength-training enthusiasts who adhere to the original traditions of physical culture believe that if you can’t hold it, you shouldn’t try to lift it. (I’m one of them.) Wraps are a prosthetic device that provide a false sense of security. Lifting with free weights can be the best opportunity to develop forearm and grip strength. When lifting with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags or medicine balls, simply squeeze the handle, bag or ball as hard as possible during the exercise to enhance grip strength.
Eight exercises to strengthen your grip
The following are some suggestions for movements you can use to improve your grip strength. Some you can do from the convenience of your desk or couch, while others will need specific equipment from a gym. If you add one or two of these movements to each of your workouts, you will develop a strong grip before you know it.
Standing Cable Row With a Towel
When I played rugby, I needed a strong grip to hold on to jerseys of teammates when binding in a scrum or grabbing the jersey of an opponent when making a tackle. One tweak I learned many years ago is doing a cable row with a towel instead of a handle attachment. Use a small towel and thread it through the carabiner on the machine. Standing with your feet planted on the ground and spine tall, grip the towel with your palms up and pull the cable toward your bellybutton, keeping your elbows close to your rib cage.
This is one of the most common workout moves for forearm and grip strength because it works. Use a straight or an EZ-curl bar with a palms-down grip, keep your elbows close to your rib cage and lift the weight by pulling up with the top of your hands. For greater effect, lift the weight for one to two seconds and lower for three to four seconds, for 10 to12 reps. Rest 45 to 60 seconds, and repeat for two to three sets.
This one comes from the martial arts and combat sports community. When doing push-ups, instead of placing your hands flat on the ground, bridge your hands so that your fingertips are the only points of contact. Do as many push-ups as possible until your hands fatigue, then drop to your knees and keep going to final fatigue. Rest 60 to 90 seconds, and repeat two to three times.
Farmer’s Walk With Weight Plates
The farmer’s walk is effective for developing core strength when walking, and it is a great grip exercise when using weight plates. Grip the edge of a weight plate in a pinch grip (thumb on one side, fingers on the other). Squeeze the weight as hard as possible as you walk approximately 10 meters (30 feet). Turn around and walk back to start, set the weights down, rest 45 to 60 seconds and repeat for two to three sets.
Bottom-Up Kettlebell Shoulder Press
Stand holding a kettlebell by the handle (so the bottom is facing up toward the ceiling) in front of you at shoulder height. Squeeze the handle as hard as possible as you push the weight up overhead. You will need to use a lighter weight than normal, but this is a great way to combine grip and shoulder strength together. Perform six to 10 reps, rest 60 to 90 seconds and complete two to three sets.
This requires a heavy rope, a weight sled and about 10 to 15 meters (30 to 45 feet) of space, so it may not be possible for all locations, but it is one of my favorite grip exercises. Place an appropriate amount of weight on a sled, attach a heavy (1.5-inch- to 2-inch-thick) rope to the sled, extend the rope as far as possible, sink into your hips and pull the sled toward you in a hand-over-hand technique until the sled reaches you. Use your hips, legs and back to push the sled back to start, rest 45 to 60 seconds and repeat for two to three sets.
This can easily be done at your desk during work or at home on the couch. Weave a rubber band around your fingers and practice opening and closing your hands. Do as many reps as possible to fatigue, rest 60 seconds and repeat two to three times.
Squeezing a Tennis or Racket Ball
Holding on to a ball and squeezing is a good way to develop strength as well as being effective for helping reduce stress. If someone makes you mad at work, don’t get mad, get even by imagining you’re squeezing them as you squeeze the ball. Do as many reps as possible to fatigue (or until you reduce stress levels), rest 90 seconds and repeat as necessary. This is also an effective strategy when commuting in busy traffic.
You don’t need to do a “grip only” workout, but adding one or two grip-specific moves to your workouts can help you to not only increase the strength of your hands but also to boost your overall upper-body strength levels. One word of caution: Once you develop crushing grip strength, you will be the go-to person for dealing with any hard-to-open jar or bottle.
Photo credit: Arthur Edelman, Unsplash