A strong grip is important in most sports. We are certainly aware of that in weightlifting and powerlifting. You have to be able to hold on to that bar. It is also important in wrestling, rock climbing, tug-o-war, gymnastics, canoeing, kayaking, and many other sports.
Less obvious examples include ball throwing (baseball or football) and horse racing. The better one’s grip, the more spin one can give a ball. Many might be surprised at the grip strength of jockeys, those little men who barely top one hundred pounds. They need to control a horse weighing 10-12 times their own weight. They cannot afford to lose their hold on the reins because that could be fatal. As a result, they all have phenomenal grip strength.
When we talk about grip strength we should be more specific. There are three types of grip strength. The most familiar one is that of crushing strength where the fingers are contracted around an object with the goal of crushing it like an empty beer can or at least maintaining contact with it as seen in a pull-up.
The importance of gripping strength is most obvious when we iron-heads clean or deadlift a barbell. We can have great leg or back strength but if that is combined with a weak set of hands the lift may need to be dropped before it can be completed.
The second type is gripping strength as seen when a heavy object is pinched between the thumb and other fingers. A favorite test of pinching strength when wide-lipped barbell plates were standard involved holding two 45 pound plates together back-to-back merely with pinching strength alone. Very few could do this. Most who attempted it were at least smart enough to keep the plates’ position well away from their toes, for dropping them was the usual abortive outcome of such attempts.
The above two gripping feats involve single attempts at demonstrating strength, similar in concept to doing heavy singles. Progression, in that case, consists of gripping ever-heavier objects as the grip gets stronger. So far, so good.
Gripping gets more interesting (read: difficult) though when endurance becomes the objective. It is difficult enough to grip a heavy object only momentarily. It is quite another to maintain that grip for a longer time. Such a gripping feat is then an isometric movement.
Examples of this will include repetition deadlifts, farmer’s walks, or wheelbarrow pushing. Progression then takes the form of holding the grip on a certain weight for ever-longer periods (or distances as in the farmer’s walk) or gripping ever-heavier weights for the same time period. Usually, both are trained.
What Influences Grip Strength?
What physical factors most influence gripping strength potential? These are two-fold—one’s genetic endowment and the current strength one’s gripping muscles derived from proper training. Let’s start with one’s physical endowment.
The most obvious factor influencing grip strength is that of body height. Height? Yes, height. The taller a person is the longer one’s hand will likely be. And the longer the hand, the longer the fingers. There may be exceptions but this is generally true.
From there it can be seen that longer fingers are able to grip more of the object, imparting more force. Lucky you if this is your situation. Gripping will be much easier for any strength level. Shorter fingers mean a weaker grip.
Closely related but not often considered is hand width. A wider hand will also have more contact with a gripped object so again more force can be exerted. Of course, hand length and width are closely related. If a hand is longer it is usually wider as well. Those who have large hands can do well at the deadlift.
This is why relatively tall people are often the deadlift record holders in each weight category. That same height is not so advantageous in the bench or squat, so they seldom hold the total records. Old-time lifters Paul Anderson, Doug Hepburn, and John Davis were world beaters at most lifts but their small hands could put them at a disadvantage if they had to deadlift.
Women are on average five inches shorter than men, so inevitably they will have more problems with their grip. That is why Olympic weightlifting uses a thinner barbell for women, 25 instead of 28 mm. Shorter men have just as much difficulty gripping the 28 mm bar as the women but they do not, so far, have the option of using a smaller bar. The reverse is true for women in powerlifting. They must use a 28-29 mm bar regardless of size.
A person cannot do much to increase their hand size. One has to work with what they've got. All is not lost though as one can train grip strength just like any other muscles. Besides the small muscles in the fingers, the main grip muscles are those in the forearms. Their flexors and extenders supply the strong foundation of those in the hand, as they cross the wrist joint providing a solid foundation.
Improve Your Grip
There are several ways to improve the grip. One is to train with larger diameter barbells or conversely to artificially increase the width of the bar. After a period of such training, a reversion to the standard barbell handle will feel, and be, much stronger.
In training, one can use straps to literally tie the hands to the barbell when doing pulling movements but that is a mixed blessing. True, this allows more weight to be handled but straps have an obvious drawback. They improve the lifter-barbell connection but do not improve gripping strength. The strap does all the work.
This prompts many coaches to advise against their use in pulling exercises, especially if there is a sub-optimal level of gripping strength. This sounds like reasonable advice since the grip will then not be sufficiently trained. This all gives the lifter a false sense of his or her pulling ability.
It is disingenuous though since the rest of the pulling muscles will then not be adequately challenged if poundages have to be limited to what can be pulled with a weaker grip. The solution is obvious. Weaker grips must be trained separately from other pulling work until grip strength matches pulling strength.
Another grip strength expedient is the reverse grip where one hand grips the bar overhanded while the other goes underhanded. This is a stronger grip although it can cause problems because it can twist the spinal column slightly. This is standard procedure in the deadlift while strongmen use it to continental-pull a non-revolving bar to their chests.
The weight is pulled up in this manner to the top of the abs where the grip is quickly released and re-attached in overhand fashion before heaving it up the rest of the way to the shoulders. The bar in question is usually an extra thick one which is great for improving grip strength in the first place.
Alternatively, some remedial bodybuilding may be advisable. Bodybuilders develop a lot of gripping strength via their many pulling and arm exercises. This is not always realized by those in the other weight trained disciplines.
I remember one time that our local weightlifting people wanted to publicize how strong their athletes were, especially vis-a-vis bodybuilders. What better way than to have a tug-o-war battle between the two. It was incorrectly assumed that since weightlifters are always stronger than bodybuilders that they would easily win such an event. This would result in an embarrassing defeat of the “body-beautiful boys” and a propaganda coup for the lifters.
Well, no such thing happened. First of all, the bodybuilders were bigger than most of the lifters, so had an advantage right off the bat. Most bodybuilders were 180 pounds or over while the lifters had a number of smaller men. Another thing the lifters did not count on was the superior gripping endurance of the bodybuilders.
All had much more impressive forearms which do most of the heavy work in gripping. It was really no contest. The bodybuilders won easily with greater grip endurance while the lifters had to give up when the contest ended up lasting longer than expected. The lifters had to go home re-calibrate their egos. (I won’t get into tug-o-war technique (yes, it exists) which was another factor again.)
You Have to Have Grip
The bottom line to grip strength is simply how important it is to overall strength. We in weightlifting always like to point out that leg and back strength is far more important than arm strength in determining the fitness of athletes, regardless of what the general public may celebrate.
But even a sport that is more dependent on lower body strength will find its practitioners at a complete loss without adequate grip strength. Arm, leg, or back strength are meaningless without the ability to hold on to whatever needs to be moved.
You might also like:
- How Grip Strength Defines You
- The 3 Types of Grip and the 8 Ways to Train Them
- Why Wrestlers Have Better Grip Strength
- Grip Strength For Lifters, Climbers, And Fighters
- Grip Strength: Better Than Any Dating App