There can be a number of physical benefits to improved grip strength. Whether it be making certain day to day tasks like opening jars or carrying your food shopping less problematic or increasing overall strength gains in the gym, a strong grip is an often overlooked factor. Research has even suggested that hand grip strength may help to lessen the likelihood of functional limitations in old age.
In the gym, a stronger grip will allow you to perform bigger lifts. It’s as simple as that. Especially when it comes to movements which involve a pull. We’re talking about some of the most fundamental exercises in strength training, including: the deadlift, the pull up, and any kind of row exercise. Not only will you be able to lift heavier loads, but you will also be able to perform more repetitions as a result of improved muscular endurance. More reps means burning more calories and greater chances of muscle hypertrophy.
Stronger muscles and connective tissues are more resistant to injury and are also capable of recovering more quickly. If you’re involved in contact sports like rugby or American football, or combat sports like wrestling, or mixed martial arts then improving grip strength could have tangible performance benefits.
What is Grip Strength
The grip is most commonly broken down into 4 major component areas: the crush grip, the pinch grip, the support grip and extension.
This is when the object being gripped rests against the palm of the hand and all the fingers. It is probably what most people think of when they consider their grip and is utilised every day in actions as simple as a handshake when greeting somebody. Trying to loosen the lid to the jar of pickles, or pushing some serious weight on your dumbbell bench press? This is where your crush grip really comes into play!
2. Pinch grip
Typically when fingers are placed on one side of an object and your thumb on the other. Lifting and carrying large sections of plywood or garden fencing might be every day activities in which you notice a deficiency in your pinch grip strength.
3. Support grip
Ever feel the burn carrying a heavy suitcase through the departure terminal, or your weekly food shopping on the walk from the supermarket back to your car? That’s because your support grip is being pushed to its limits. This area of grip strength is typically tested when you are required to hold something for a long period of time.
This term basically describes the opposite or antagonistic movement to all of the above. The action of extending your fingers and spreading the palm of your hand. This is an important area of grip strength in order to achieve balance and is often overlooked. The extensor muscles are key to your grip as they must contract aggressively in order to support finger flexion.
There are numerous ways you can improve your grip strength ranging from simple exercises you can do whilst sitting at your desk in the office or laying on your sofa in front of the TV, to fundamental compound lifts and more grip specific actions at the gym.
Thus depending on your goals and the reasons you have for improving your ability to grip, there should be something relevant to you.
The easiest way to increase your grip strength is by introducing a few simple exercises which you can tick off every day within the comfort of your own home or whilst at work. They’re probably not going to dramatically improve your deadlift or pull up numbers but they might help with day to day tasks and make your life that little bit easier.
1. Rubber band extensions
Close your hand together so that all for fingers and your thumb are in contact with one another. Extend the fingers and thumb outwards away from each other against the resistance of a rubber band. Return your hand to the starting position slowly whilst fighting against the resistance of the band.
2. Grip squeezes
Now you can either buy yourself a crush gripper for between $30-40 or to be honest a tennis or squash ball would probably be sufficient, especially if you’re just starting out and are looking to improve strength for day to day needs.
Place the ball of your choice in the palm of your hand and grip it tightly before releasing slowly and repeating over and over again. Simples!
3. Book pinches
Find the heaviest book you can at home or in the office. Place the spine of the book between your thumb and fingers and simply hold for a period of time. If the book isn’t heavy enough to create a challenge then move your grip backwards and forwards up and down the spine as demonstrated below.
At The Gym
If you’re looking for more significant gains aimed at helping you lift more in the gym and increase your overall muscle strength and/or hypertrophy then you’re going to need to put your grip under a little more stress than the above home exercises are capable of achieving.
That means slightly altering how you perform movements which should already be fundamentals within your gym programme, and maybe adding some new exercises designed to focus more heavily on those muscles in the forearms and hands which contribute so heavily to grip strength.
There a few really simple changes you can make to the way you perform the exercises which are already staples of your programme.
- Ditch the wrist straps! Or anything else which is designed to take some of the pressure off your grip. Rather than challenging your grip and applying enough stress to force adaptations, these aids encourage your body to become reliant on their assistance.
- Actively squeezing the bar with your hands during sets and reps of compound movements like the deadlift will contribute significantly to improved grip strength. It is something that very few gym goers will actively think about as they perform their lifts but is very much worth considering.
- If you have access to thick barbells at your gym then incorporate them into your pull training as much as possible. Alternatively add your own thickness to barbells or dumbbells using a towel or specialist weight lifting thick grips. This will create a more open handed grip by preventing your fingers from wrapping completely around the bar, placing more stress on the muscles in your hands and forearms and thus helping to induce improvements in grip strength.
- Introduce ropes or towels into applicable pull exercises, such as pull ups and supine pulls. This will serve to increase the emphasis on the muscles which contribute to your grip strength during movements which would not ordinarily do so to quite the same extent.
- Try to incorporate pull exercises into all of your workouts in some way shape or form. That doesn’t mean you have to deadlift every time you go to the gym but repetitive stress will certainly help to generate big jumps in grip strength.
- When you perform lifts which place significant stress on your grip and in which the load you are capable of shifting is at least partially dependent on the strength of your grip, be sure to spend some time lifting heavy. The more load you pull, the more stress you are putting the muscles in your hands and forearms under and the quicker your grip strength will improve.
- Don’t spend too much time performing machine based exercises which don’t place nearly as much emphasis on your grip as barbell and dumbbell movements.
- The hook grip! Place your thumb on the bar first before locking it in place with your index and middle fingers. This helps prevent your hands slipping during heavy lifting (particularly deadlifts) and should allow you to lift more weight, which will contribute to improved grip strength as well as more overall strength gains.
Grip Specific Exercises:
In addition to the minor adjustments listed above, there are also a number of exercises which are tailored specifically to work the muscles integral to a strong grip. So be sure to incorporate at least some of what follows into your regular routine.
- Dumbbell head grab
Place a dumbbell on its end and pick it up by the head. Hold for a certain period of time (around 30 seconds). Start with light load and build it gradually as your capacity increases. This is a perfect exercise to improve your crush grip.
- Farmers walk
Place heavy dumbbells in either hand and walk for a certain distance/time. Whilst this exercise has obvious benefits for your legs and shoulders, it will also really test your support grip. Thicken the dumbbell handle with a towel or grips to really up the ante.
- Plate flips
Pick up a light disc weight (somewhere around 2.5-5kg) in a standard pinch grip between your thumb and fingers. Turn your hand so that you knuckles are facing away from you and flip the plate 180 degrees so that it leaves your grip momentarily before you catch it again. Repeat the movement for a set number of repetitions or a length of time.
- Bar hang
Simply hang from a pull up bar (using a grip of your choice, why not mix it up?). Set yourself a time goal or simply hang until failure. Much like with the pull up variations above, you could also add a rope or towel to place even more emphasis on the grip.
Once you’ve mastered the standard double handed bar hang (somewhere between a 1 and 2 minute hold I guess) have a go at a single arm hang.
- Fingertip push ups
The vast majority of exercises which aim at improving your grip capacity will normally focus on the crush and pinch aspects of grip. The fingertip pushup is the perfect remedy to all this grabbing and squeezing, by challenging the muscles which help open your hand out as opposed to close it.
- Dumbbell wrist curls
Use a light dumbbell with an overhand grip (knuckles facing the ceiling). With your forearms in contact with a bench and your hands and wrists overhanging the edge slightly, flex and extend the wrist by moving the weight towards the ground and then back towards the ceiling. Repeat for a set number of repetitions. Be sure to switch to an underhand grip as well (with your palms facing the ceiling) and repeat the exercise so that your hitting all the major forearm muscles.
- Barbell levering
Grab a barbell alongside your body with one hand slightly off centre so that the bar angles towards the ground in front of you. Using your wrist, maneuver the bar so that it is parallel with the ground and then return it to the start position, repeating for time or a set number of repetitions.
Stretching And Mobility
With all this extra strain on the muscles in your hands, wrists and forearms, you’re going to want to make sure you introduce some mobility and stretching exercises into your warm up routine to help keep everything loose and pain free.
These 3 really simple exercises which you can perform at home will help you achieve this.
- Place your hands on a table with your fingers pointing backwards (towards your body) and the biceps facing forwards (away from your body). Your arms should be straight. Rock your body backwards to increase the intensity of the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat.
- Place the tops of your hands on a table with your fingers pointing backwards (towards your body) and the front of your forearms facing forwards. This is a pretty unnatural position for your wrists and arms to be in so be careful and make sure the stretch is only very gentle. Again rock your body backwards in order to increase the intensity of the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat.
- Don’t neglect your thumbs. The best way to stretch the thumb out is against a table edge. With your fingers together pointing forwards and your thumb perpendicular to them (facing upwards) as if you’re about to shake someone’s hand, slide your fingers under the table until your thumb comes into contact with the edge. The more you push your hand away from your body, the greater the stretch on your thumb will be. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat.
Jacky has a degree in Sports Science and is a Certified Sports and Conditioning Coach. He has also worked with clients around the world as a personal trainer.
He has been fortunate enough to work with a wide range of people from very different ends of the fitness spectrum. Through promoting positive health changes with diet and exercise, he has helped patients recover from aging-related and other otherwise debilitating diseases.
He spends most of his time these days writing fitness-related content of some form or another. He still likes to work with people on a one-to-one basis – he just doesn’t get up at 5am to see clients anymore.