By: Barbell Logic Team
Your grip strength is potentially the biggest impediment to translating the strength you are building in the gym to the functions of life and everyday tasks. While we focus most of our physical development on strengthening the powerful muscles of your legs, hips, back, trunk, and upper body in a coordinated, functional manner, building the ability to produce force across a long kinetic chain, from the ground to an external object. In real life, most often that kinetic chain terminates at our hands frequently with us gripping and trying to hold onto it.
This makes your grip a possible rate-limiting factor to your ability to impart force to an external object. You will observe this within a short time while training your deadlift. Usually, before reaching the end of a novice linear progression, a lifter will have to change his or her grip on the bar to maintain progress, switching from a double-overhand grip, to a hook grip, and perhaps to a mixed grip (with one hand turned outward). Eventually, some lifters will use straps on their deadlifts or deadlift assistance work so that their grip does not get in the way of their training.
The grip being a weakness in the kinetic chain means that it is a mistake to avoid training it. There are only a few muscles in your hand and forearm that contribute to grip strength. The Flexor Digitorum Superficialis and Flexor Digitorum Profundus flex or “curl” your fingers at the proximal/medial and distal phalanges respectively (“digitorum” refers to your digits or fingers). The muscles that flex your thumb are the Flexor Pollicis Brevis and the Flexor Pollicius Pongus (“pollicis” refers to the thumb). These muscles are extrinsic to the hand, meaning their muscle bellies are located on your forearm. There are some muscles intrinsic to your hand that contribute to grip strength, but they are smaller and dedicated more to fine motor functions rather than blunt grip force. Since we are more concerned with grip strength function than with training individual muscles, the real question is how do we make the coordinated force production of these muscles stronger.
How to Train Your Grip
Perhaps unsatisfyingly the answer is simple: Use your grip, and train it for strength. Use your grip. Grip strength is broadly determined by the small number of muscles we named above. These muscles create forces that close your fist or prevent it from opening. Many grip training enthusiasts will identify three types of grips—a crushing grip, a pinching grip, and a supporting grip—and while these represent different orientations of your fingers, they involve the same muscles.
While there are specific tasks for which you might want to train your grip, you should focus on neral strength of the coordinated use of the muscles first. This is similar to the difference between a low bar back squat and a front squat. The low bar squat builds general strength, while the front squat is a specific exercise, most useful for Olympic weightlifters. The larger extrinsic flexors of your thumb and fingers are trained in their function when you deadlift.
Train your grip for strength. Any time we are training for strength, we are training to increase our ability to produce force. Training your grip for strength is no different. You must require your grip to resist greater and greater forces to get stronger. This means that wrist curls are out. They may train some form of muscular endurance, but they do not tax the force producing capacity of your gripping muscles. As with any strength training, progressive overload is critical.
Grip training is built into any good strength program with the deadlift. The first way to train your grip is to hold onto the bar. There are three different types of unassisted grips we typically use for deadlifting, and these will affect your grip training in different ways. The standard grip, also called a double overhand grip, is one in which both hands are facing your body. When you grip the bar this way, the bar is attempting to open your fingers by rolling out of your hands. Your muscles must contract isometrically to prevent that from happening.
A stronger grip than double overhand is a mixed-grip. For a mixed grip, you supinate one hand, turning it outward. This balances the “rolling” force of the barbell. The bar is rolling into each hand. This means that the only force trying to open your hand is the force of gravity pulling straight down on the bar. While this grip is much stronger than a double overhand grip, we often do not prescribe it for lifters because of the inherent asymmetry of gripping differently with each hand. This is a good grip for competitive lifters who struggle with a hook grip.
A hook grip is a friction grip. You place your thumb against the bar and trap it there with your fingers. The strength of this grip comes from the friction between the fingers and the thumb, with your thumb being squished and structurally preventing your fingers from opening. This is a powerful grip that can take some time to get used to. It is an excellent grip for heavy deadlifts, but not the best grip for training your grip strength.
The amount of force you can produce with your grip depends on the security of the grip itself. There is an inverse relationship between how secure your grip feels and how much grip force you can produce, meaning you can grip a lot more forcefully with a double overhand grip than a mixed or hook grip. The more secure your grip, the better you can train your deadlift, but the less forcefully you have to use your gripping muscles.
This means that you should consciously train your grip strength once you change your deadlift grip for your worksets. The first and best way to do this is to continue to use a double overhand grip for all the warm-up sets that you can. We don’t want your grip to limit your deadlift training, but just because you hook grip your work sets does not mean you should hook grip your warm-up sets as well. Use a double overhand grip for as long as possible on your warm-up sets. Naturally, as your deadlift progresses, your warm-up sets will get heavier, this can provide enough stimulus to train your grip along with your deadlift.
Dedicated Grip Training
If you need dedicated grip training, you may also need to use assistance lifts as part of your grip training. Importantly, most lifters do not need specialized grip training if you are using the above strategy. Some sports and hobbies require extra grip strength training, and some people just want to develop an impressive grip. Here, instability is your friend. (see, e.g., https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jn.19126.96.36.1993 (decreasing friction is associated with increased force production of grip strength.) Axle bar deadlift and presses prioritize grip strength. Using a fat bar for pull-ups will also tax your grip and force your muscles to work harder. The increased force production here comes from the insecure grip from the extra diameter of the bar.
Dedicated grip training should follow the same rules for programming assistance work as any other weakness training.