How many times has your grip slipped or fatigued, keeping you from doing another rep or getting your max weight up? How many times has your grip given out before other muscles when working out? Arm, leg, or back strength is meaningless without the ability to hold on to whatever needs to be moved. Therefore, grip-strengthening exercises must be included in every weight training program.
Hand grip strength is one of the basic elements in the development of forearm strength and one of the important factors if you ever want to deadlift more than your own weight. Countless times we have met people who complained about the weak hand grip and how it makes the bar slip out of their hand. Very often we would then find ourselves arguing about which exercise is better for strengthening the forearms so that the next time the bar fits firmly in our hands – without the need to open the fingers of the hand.
Very often, athletes and serious recreationists start with forearm strengthening exercises in order to improve their grip. However, they all forget that this is only one component in a series. Namely, grip strength is not forearm strength, that is, forearm strength training does not (by default) also develop grip strength. Therefore, we must break down these two components right at the beginning. Later in this article, you’ll see why is that so. You’ll also find out the best ways to strengthen your grip and how important it really is in every strength training regimen.
What is grip strength?
Grip strength refers to the ability to transfer strength from your upper body to the weight load. Put simply: it’s how tightly you can hold something in your hands and how long you can hold it compared to how heavy that something is. This means that even though you might have a strong back, chest, shoulders, and arms, the decisive factor to move a certain amount of weight will be your grip strength.
What are the 3 main types of grip strength?
There are 3 main ways to grip onto something:
- Pinch grip strength. The pinch grip is the strength between your thumb and four fingers. This is generally considered a weaker grip position. The pinch grip is used when grabbing something like a weight plate or lifting a sheet of plywood by the top edge.
- Crush grip strength. This is the strength between your fingers and palm. It involves a handshake-type grip, where the object being gripped rests firmly against the palm and all fingers.
- Hold grip (support grip) strength. This is basically your endurance or how long you can hold onto something. Think pull-ups or long and productive shopping trips. This also includes overhand-grip deadlifts, snatch-grip deadlifts, Reeves deadlifts, weighted pull-ups, heavy rows, single-arm dead hang holds, heavy shrugs, and farmers’ walks.
What muscles are engaged in gripping?
Grip strength is determined by the strength of your fingers, forearm, thumb, and wrist. Therefore, numerous muscles come into play to produce gripping force in every grip-strengthening exercise. Every muscle, big or tiny, from your elbow to your fingertips, contributes to your gripping strength. The biggest players are mainly the thumb, fingers, hand, wrist, and forearm muscles.
To be even more precise, there are a total of 35 muscles involved in the movement of the forearm and hand. During gripping activities, the flexor mechanism in the hand and forearm provides strength to the hand while the extensors of the forearm stabilize the wrist.
What are the crucial factors affecting hand grip strength?
Grip strength depends on several factors, which are as follows:
- Chronological age;
- Hand size and span (fingers);
- Shoulder position (protraction – shoulders lowered forward, retraction – shoulders directed backward);
- Forearm (range/strength);
- Wrist (range/stability/mobility);
Other factors affecting grip strength are body construct (height, weight, bone mineral density [BMD], hand size, upper arm circumference, hand dominance), socioeconomic variables (occupation, social status, lifestyle), and other physical and psychosocial variables. So, we can say that there are two different types of factors affecting hand grip strength: genetic endowment and the current strength of one’s gripping muscles derived from proper training.
How to measure grip strength?
Grip strength is measured using an instrument called a dynamometer. Your dynamometer manual will have a table that will tell you how good your grip strength is.
Are grip strength and forearm strength the same thing?
As we wrote in the introduction, grip strength and forearm strength are not the same thing. Although they are very similar, here is the difference; flexion or extension in the wrist (palmar flexion and dorsiflexion) are movements of the forearm, i.e. they can also be an exercise to develop the strength of the forearm. The movements of opening and closing (contracting/squeezing) the fingers are the movements of the fist and are therefore considered exercises to strengthen the grip.
Of course, we train grip strength every time we pick up a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell in our hands. We train it every time we carry loads (farmers walk), but flexion and extension of the hand muscles is the only understandable way of training grip strength from an anatomical and kinesiology perspective. If we think about it a little more, our grip strength training is in 99% of cases reduced to isometric training of the fist grip (we keep the fist clenched every time we receive a bar or a dumbbell), and somehow we’re quite sure that’s the very core from grip training.
Therefore, grip strength is determined by the strength, size, and density of the bones and muscles of the hands, fingers, wrist, and forearms.
Right here we come to a crucial conclusion that says that our forearm can be strong, but if our hand starts to open, then there is no help. Studies show that for grip strength, the grip strength of the fingers of the hand is necessary, i.e. grip strength training must also include isometric grip training of different diameters (e.g. thick weight plates and thin weight plates) and flexion/extension training of the finger muscles.
One of the smart ways to train grip strength involves exercises with soft balls. Although these types of exercises/stimulants are mainly intended for rehabilitation purposes, they can also be used to develop grip strength in athletes or serious recreational athletes who are engaged in Olympic lifting, powerlifting, or kettlebells. As with classic training, here as well we can apply different training volumes and intensities. That way there is no difference between hand strength training and classic training.
Is grip strength really the deciding factor in sports and fitness?
It’s more than obvious that having a strong hand grip is very important for success in lifting weights. Having a strong grip will improve your ability to handle heavier weights in the gym. This is especially true with the big compound lifts such as deadlifts, barbell rows, and pull-ups. You will also produce better hand endurance (keeping a lighter weight for a longer time) on every exercise in your routine, and this will allow you to pump out more repetitions.
Does this apply to all other sports as well? If we want the answer to the question: “Does grip strength affect a positive result in sports?”, we could turn to the research from 2017 (Cronin et al., 2017) where the mentioned author conducted an extensive discussion on various tests protocols, types of dynamometers and covered a whole range of different sports within which a positive correlation could be found between hand grip strength and a positive influence on the result in the respective sports branch.
The study covered sports in five categories:
- Sports with a stick, racket, or ball;
- Water sports;
- Climbing and gymnastics;
- Martial arts;
- Disciplines of strength;
In general, without going into details, a high correlation was shown in some sports and a lower one in others. It is logical to conclude that in martial arts (judo for example), the strength of the grip is more important than in water polo. However, in no sport did grip strength prove to be a dominant variable that can predict success in a certain sport discipline.
What are the key benefits of having a strong hand grip?
Benefits associated with strength training:
- Lift heavier weights;
- More endurance on the pull-up bar;
- Improved sports performance;
- Preventing injuries;
- Predictor of cardiovascular disease. Weak grip strength according to a study is associated with cardiovascular death in those who develop cardiovascular diseases.
- Lower mortality risk. This is due to the correlation between grip strength and bone, cardiovascular, and overall health.
- Improved quality of life. Since grip strength is associated with muscular strength, it helps you to manage your daily task easier.
- Higher bone density in wrists and elbow joints.
What about using straps or hooks to bypass weak hand grip?
You might think that using straps or hooks will bypass your weak grip. This will worsen your actual grip strength and destroy your future gains.
Grip-strengthening training tips
- Ditch your lifting straps. The simplest and most effective way to train your grip is to actually let your grip do the work. When doing deadlifts, pull-ups, and rows, don’t use lifting straps to help you do the work.
- Use thick bars and dumbbells (if possible). Thick bars have the ability to enhance your grip because of the level of effort required to hold the bar. Add them to all your exercises and you will get an intense workout for your thumbs, fingers, hands, and forearms while doing your regular exercises.
- Add functional grip exercises to your training. You can find them right below.
What are the best exercises for developing and improving grip strength?
Your goal is to strengthen the muscles needed for a good grip. Grip training must include three elements – strength, mobility, and endurance. Your grip training should include heavy, short, and explosive grip movements to increase grip strength. On the other hand, you should also do lightweight, long, and slow movements to build grip endurance and the ability to hold on to something for extended periods of time. To do so try these grip-strengthening exercises:
- Farmers walk. Take a pair of heavy dumbbells (or other types of exercise equipment) with thick bars and walk as far as you can until your grip can no longer hold.
- Hex dumbbell holds/Thick handle dumbbell holds. Stand upright and hold hex dumbbells by the extremity. The alternative is to hold thick-handled dumbbells in both hands, as heavy as you can. Grip hard and hold them by your side as long as you can stand. If your gym doesn’t have thick-handled dumbbells then buy Alpha Grips 3.0. to easily convert any bar/dumbbell/cable attachments into a thick bar of 3.0 inches in diameter.
- A thick bar hangs. Grab a thick pull-up bar, get your feet off the floor, and hold until your grip gives out. Again, if you can find a thick pull-up bar use the above-mentioned Alpha Grips 3.0.
- Plate pinches. Take two plates that are flat on one side so you can hold them together. Start from the floor and pick them up as your stand up. Keep the elbows slightly bent as long as you can and put them back down. Start with light plates and use heavier ones as you start to progress.
- Towel pull-ups. This is an extremely hard exercise and requires you to have impressive grip strength to execute. Loop a towel around a pull-bar and take an end in each hand, then do pull-ups as usual.
- Hand grippers. They are easy to purchase online and come in various tensions. You can either perform repetitions by closing or try to hold it closed for as long as possible. Start with a lighter gripper first and use increased resistance to improve your strength.
- Standing arms-extended wrist roller wrist curls. Raise your arms in front of you, and then start rolling your hands forward (flexion) to wrap the cord around the handle. Use an alternating hand action, and try to wrap as much cord as you can per wrist flexion, i.e., use a large range of motion.
You may also want to check the forearm strengthening exercises.
Grip strength plays an important part in everyday life. It’s something we take for granted and may not appreciate – at least until we try to deadlift heavy weights or perform pull-ups and other weight-lifting activities and notice our grip weakening and bars slipping.
Grip strength is determined by the strength, size, and density of the bones and muscles of the hands, fingers, wrist, and forearms. Thus, it is important to train for grip strength with a device that will target all these structures to the fullest possible degree.