By Mark Reifkind
There are no strong people with weak hands.
In fact, grip strength, along with abdominal and hip strength (read glute) are the three key neural generators of strength. You’ll never meet a weak mechanic or farmer or anyone who uses their hands in manual labor. Why? Because the body is a linked, interconnected system and the hands (along with the feet) are our first connection to the physical world. Strong hands, strong body.
Grip strength is also being used now by doctors as a key indicator of longevity. When your grip goes, your health might not be far behind. It’s been said that the legs are the first to go, but perhaps it’s the grip that tells us when we are losing the battle of strength and health.
Pavel has said that the easiest way to maintain overall body strength during a gap in your weight training is to maintain or build grip strength with grippers. This is partly because when one is maximally activating the grip, the abs and glutes come on line reflexively (Sherrington’s Law of irradiation) and if one wants to maximize their force production, voluntarily flexing those muscles intentionally will increase strength dramatically (hyper-irradiation).
That’s a lot of strength and force just from grip work! Work the hands and the entire body comes along.
For me, when it comes to building a seriously strong grip, nothing beats ballistic kettlebell training. After 13 years of competitive powerlifting, my grip was seriously strong from deadlifts of all sorts. When I got into kettlebell work I never went over 32 kg for one arm swings or snatches and my grip seemed fine. After more than a few years of no deadlifting and focusing more on 24 kg snatches than swings, I decided to go heavy into swing training. I was shocked when the 36 kg seriously challenged my grip for one-arm swings! I stayed with it though and built up to where I did 100 one arm swings with a 48 kg bell in five minutes; ten reps every 15 seconds (with 15 seconds rest).
My grip strength was as good as when I could deadlift 3x bodyweight!
No less a luminary than Dr. Fred Hatfield (one of the first to squat 1000 lbs in competition, at 45 years old and 240 lbs.) wrote that he didn’t think there was anything better than heavy barbell power cleans (without straps) to build grip strength and power.
Gripping a heavy barbell that you are also trying to accelerate maximally challenges the grip to its limit. Pretty much just like heavy or high rep kettlebell ballistics. These kinds of endeavors typically also work the abs and the glutes. The Strength Triumvirate.
For these hard and heavy grip endeavors, one undoubtedly needs chalk. Not just any chalk, but great chalk. Like, VIKN Performance Chalk. This solidifies the hand to iron connection. Spot welds it to the metal. Helps link up the strength of the hand to the strength of the body. All great iron athletes use it; Weightlifters, powerlifters, strongmen. And gymnasts, rock climbers and kettlebell athletes as well.
These athletes all depend on their grip and hand strength. And all use chalk. A lot of chalk.
Since there are very few muscles in the hand itself, much of grip strength comes from strong forearms. Another advantage of training the grip for strength and endurance is the development of your forearms. Just as you never see a strong person with a weak grip, you never find someone with strong grip with small forearms. In fact, thick, meaty forearms just scream strength.
Another important component of true grip strength, are exercises that really work the thumb. As good as kettlebell ballistics are for the grip, the thumb muscles (pollicus brevis and longus) don’t really come into play. You could swing with a false grip easily.
Clubbell training, however, will challenge the grip in a big way. Your overall grip strength and muscular development will improve as well. The torque on the grip with clubbell or mace work just has to be experienced to be believed.
The closest thing to this without clubs would be doing pullups while gripping a vertical towel or rope hanging from the bar. Just hanging is amazingly challenging. Any exercise done this way (leg raises, L sits, etc.) will make it a serious grip challenge as well.
Of course an article on grip strength without mentioning old time strongman feats of strength would just not be complete. Bending horseshoes, rolling up frying pans and tearing cards test the grip probably like no other feats. But be careful, it’s very easy to damage the tendons and ligaments of the hand by doing so. Make sure to seek out a competent and experienced strongman coach before you get started. And remember, joint injuries are the gift that keeps on giving.
Modern grip challenges like the Captains of Crush hand grippers are an excellent way to build up the absolute strength of the hands and wrist. This tool can take a hand strength athlete as far as they want to go in a safe, progressive manner with little coaching needed.
Hand strength is vital, especially as we age. No matter what method you choose to train your grip, hands and forearms, just know that it’s more important that you do, than how you do it!
And, don’t forget to chalk up :)
Mark Reifkind is the Owner and Master Instructor of Girya Strength. Head to VIKN’s Ambassadors Page to learn more.