For most individuals, training grip is an afterthought. However, your grip is your body’s connection to the barbell, your opponent’s jersey, and the stick used to play your sport. What’s even more important is that grip is considered to be a useful indicator of overall health. This article will provide sample exercises to improve grip strength to help blast past your deadlift PR and help increase your overall muscle and strength!
What Are The Benefits Of Improving Grip Strength?
If you are a strength athlete or someone who is interested in strength training, you have probably noticed your grip failing on movements like deadlifts or pull-ups. One of the most frustrating moments is when you PR (almost) a deadlift and the bar slips out of your hand at the top! I know because this happened to me at my last powerlifting meet and it forced me to go and learn exercises to improve grip strength to prevent this from happening again. Watch the video below to see a dropped deadlift PR in action!
Dropped Deadlift PR Due to Lack of Grip Strength
The biggest lesson dropping this deadlift taught me is that my muscles like my back and hamstrings may be strong enough to lift a 500lb deadlift, but the gripping muscles like the hands, wrist, and forearms were only strong enough to lift 450lbs. This forced me to think critically about how these muscles are involved in nearly every single strength training or athletic movement. Improving grip strength is key for overall strength development.
From a [P]Rehab perspective, improving grip strength is key in keeping you healthy. Research has demonstrated grip strength to be an indicator of rotator cuff function (Horsley et al 2016). Common ailments like tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, and carpal tunnel syndrome share the common symptom of poor grip strength. Improving grip strength by strengthening the muscles of the forearms can alleviate some of the symptoms caused by these injuries. And if that doesn’t give you enough reason to focus on grip strength, knowing the benefits it has on your overall health should only help. One study showed that “grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure” (Leong et al 2015). After learning these things, I know I am making grip strength a priority of mine!
The main foundation of grip strength is one side of the hand provides the force while one side stabilizes. In most exercises to improve grip strength, the thumb is going to be the support system while the fingers provide the force towards the palm of the hand. The wrists and forearms also play a key role in helping to improve grip strength. Knowing these functions helps to determine a strategy for training grip correctly. The qualities of grip strength that we are going to discuss include supporting, crushing, pinching, and friction, as well as training for the wrist and forearms.
Improve Grip Strength And Your Overall Hand Health!
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This is the type of grip strength that most individuals are going to be familiar with, as it is involved in holding onto a barbell for a deadlift or holding onto something thick. It is a form of static strength since you are continually trying to apply force into the object, rather than opening and closing your hand.
The popular grip exercise farmer’s walks fall into this category. While I am a fan of farmer’s walks for training grip and I believe it should be apart of your training plan, I don’t believe it is the best exercise for building grip strength. For most variations of the farmer’s walks, you are holding onto the object for time that is typically in the range of 30 seconds or more. Holding onto the object for time is training endurance and hypertrophy, rather than strength. If your goal is to improve your deadlift, will you aim to lift the barbell for 30 reps or more? Or will you aim to lift a challenging weight in the 1-5 rep range? Training for grip strength should fall in line with the same thought process.
For supporting strength, I am a fan of taking my normal strength training movements and increasing the diameter of the grip used. Your gym may have thick handled implements like dumbbells or barbells which makes this easier, but I recommend investing in a pair of Fat Gripz. These are a cheap and easy way to increase the thickness of the handle of movements like pull ups, rows, and presses. In the video below, I am using Fat Gripz to increase the thickness of my grip while performing pull ups.
This is the type of grip strength that is going to be involved as you close your hand together. Think of crushing strength as the grip needed to deliver a solid and firm handshake. It is a form of dynamic strength since the fingers are applying the force as you close your fingers into your hand. As discussed above with most gripping exercises, the fingers are the prime movers while the thumb is the supporter. Training the fingers to become stronger can help with exercises like deadlifts and pull-ups or with implement based sports like the shot put or weight throw and for a football player who needs to protect the ball.
Most exercises for crushing strength aren’t easily found in the gym, unless your gym has a dedicated machine where you focus on closing your fingers into your palm. I personally like the handheld crushing grippers that can easily be purchased through fitness websites or stores. My recommendation is to buy 2 or 3 of varying degrees of difficulty to have a goal to progress to as you build your crushing strength.
This is another type of grip strength that is going to help strengthen the fingers. Rather than the dynamic strength used in crushing strength, pinching strength trains the fingers in static strength. I personally have found this useful for transferring to my supporting strength, since I’m able to focus on applying the force through my fingers. You can train pinching strength through the full fingers or through the fingertips.
For the full finger pinching strength, I like exercises like plate pinch lifts or the Reeves Deadlift. In both of these movements, I am applying the pinching strength through the fingers to lift the weight. The Reeves Deadlift is a more advanced version where you can work to overload your pinching strength over time. An example of a fingertip pinching exercise is grabbing the top of a dumbbell with all 5 fingers and lifting it from the ground.
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This is a unique type of grip strength, as it requires force to be applied equally through your fingers and thumb. The object or implement used also has the ability to slide through your hand like a towel or rope. I typically use friction grip strength with athletes like football or rugby players who may be grabbing onto an opponent’s jersey.
Some examples of friction strength include the tug of war, pulling a rope through your hands that is attached to a sled or weights, or strength movements performed with a towel like pull-ups, rows, or farmer’s walks. With farmers walks, I’ll load a challenging weight where the athlete is aiming to train strength rather than endurance.
A grip strengthening article would not be complete if I failed to mention training the wrist and forearms. Muscles of the wrist and forearms often get worked with bicep curls and rowing or pulling motions, but it’s a great idea to focus on these smaller muscles if your goal is to maximize your grip strength. I place more of an emphasis on wrist and forearm strength with stick or racket based sports.
Popular wrist strengthening exercises include wrist flexion, wrist extension, ulna and radial deviation, and the wrist roller. Some gyms have wrist roller options, but you can rig one up yourself using a barbell, rack, and band as seen in the video below.
For the forearm strength, I often combine supporting strength with my normal strength movements like thick grip dumbbell curls. Bonus points if you use variations of bicep curls like the hammer or Zottman curls which emphasize the brachialis and brachioradialis.
Grip strengthening is often overlooked, but it should be a necessary part of your strength training routine. The easiest way to include exercises to improve grip strength is to involve these qualities into your normal strength training routine. An easy way to include this is to perform pulling or rowing motions with thick implements or a towel, farmers walks with the plate pinch, towel, or thick grips, and including at least 1 wrist and forearm exercise. As someone who has learned to train grip thanks to dropping a deadlift, be consistent with your grip training and you will reap the rewards!
Take Control of Your Lower Arm and Hand Health!
What do high-fives, carrying groceries, push-ups, throwing a ball, and brushing your teeth, and classic cartoon character Popeye have in common? They all require the use of the lower arm! Well, maybe Popeye doesn’t require the use of the lower arm but have you seen his forearms?!? Strength builds resilience which in turn decreases the likelihood of injury. It’s time to regain confidence and build those Popeye arms.
Horsley, Ian, et al. “Do Changes in Hand Grip Strength Correlate with Shoulder Rotator Cuff Function?” Shoulder & Elbow, vol. 8, no. 2, 2016, pp. 124–129., https://doi.org/10.1177/1758573215626103.
Leong, Darryl P, et al. “Prognostic Value of Grip Strength: Findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) Study.” The Lancet, vol. 386, no. 9990, 2015, pp. 266–273., https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(14)62000-6.
About The Author
Ryan Nosak, MS, CSCS, SCCC
[P]Rehab Writer & Content Creator
Ryan was born and raised in Throop, Pennsylvania and he has worked in the world of fitness since he was 15 years old. Ryan realized he had a deep affinity for strength training and how it can alter the human mind, body, and spirit. He began his coaching career in high school by coaching his friends through strength training sessions, which inspired him to pursue a career in strength and conditioning.
Ryan spent 10 years as a Division 1 strength and conditioning coach with stops along the way at Penn State, Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Robert Morris, Charlotte, and DePaul. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and operates his own training practice, RyNo Strength, out of Studio DelCorpo in Chicago, IL. He specializes in fat loss, body composition, strength, and sports performance training programs.
Ryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from Penn State and a Master’s in Sport Management from Western Carolina University. In his free time, Ryan enjoys training for bodybuilding, eating at the amazing restaurants in Chicago, and spending time with his wife and dog.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.