“No one is afraid to do what he is confident of having learned well. A small force which is highly trained in the conflicts of war is more apt to victory: a raw and untrained horde is always exposed to slaughter.” – Christine De Pizan
Ken Kelly, the artist responsible for the painting above, has many great pieces in his portfolio. He was an acolyte of the eternal, never-to-be-equaled, king of fantasy art, Frank Frazetta, so this should come as no surprise. That one is possibly my favorite though(its a tossup with a Conan painting). I like that piece so much because of its less than subtle implication…modern man, in his dress shirt, cubicle and range rover is a faint shadow of his progenitors…rough, powerful men who could seize their often brief lives by its throat. There is no romanticism in this…I agree with Thomas Hobbes assessment that, in a historical sense, life for humans has been “brutish, nasty and short” on the whole. However, the fact remains that should the time machine one day become a reality, there are precious few men left in the world who could stand up to a Viking such as the one from Ken Kelly’s imagination.
If you want to be one of those precious few men, even if you are a woman(attribution to Pavel Tsatsouline), you will need to get a grip.
Before you can hope to claim the title “warrior”, survive in combat or a combat sport, or just truly be prepared for what life can throw at you, you must have strong hands. This is an uncontestable fact and it goes for both men and women. Sadly, we live in an era that has taken away much of the need for work that built strong hands in centuries past. Also, the physical training culture has all but ignored hand strength except in a few rarer circles, substituting it with vanity-oriented nonsense. I don’t care what you look like or how much you can bench press…you aren’t strong until you have the hands, wrists and forearms to match the rest of the body.
After losing to an armbar in the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships (the pinnacle of MMA in my humble opinion, but another story), massive, powerful wrestler Mark Coleman, remarked that he could not escape the enormous grip strength of Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueria. Anyone familiar with Minotauro knows how effective he was at tying up ultra-strong men on the ground by grabbing their wrists and attacking them with a number of submissions. It is not an exaggeration to say that his ground attack game hinged on the strength of his hands. While Minotauro is a more extreme example, this should be a lesson for anyone seeking combative efficiency.
Imagine too the need for strong hands among fighting men from all cultures prior to the firearm. Life and death was often separated by a thin line…the power in their grip. While the gun has certainly changed the nature of combat, as a soldier, police officer or armed citizen, you could one day find yourself experiencing that ancient struggle of retaining your means of survival while wrestling with a determined foe.
It is time to reforge the death grip.
Let’s look at the hands first and discuss the aspects of gripping before looking at training
The marvel of the hand.
The hands are the means by which we physically interact with our environment, physically manipulating everything from objects to other people. As you are probably well aware, the evolution of an “opposable thumb”, a feature we share with all great apes, was one of the key physiological advancements on our road to mastering our environment. If you spend a minute studying your hand and the huge amount of flexibility of movement it has, you very likely will gain a new appreciation for its complexity and the genius of evolution’s design. Artists often remark that you can judge the technical skill of an illustrator or painter by how well they can depict human hands.
The hand itself is moved by an intricate spiderweb of muscles and connective tissues. The muscles involved with grasping can be separated into extrinsic musculature(muscles that make up the forearm) and intrinsic musculature(muscles that are confined to just the hand). Both extrinsic and intrinsic muscles can be further divided into two categories. Those are extensors(muscles that open or hold open the hand and fingers) and flexors(muscles that close or hold closed the hand and fingers). At the risk of sounding exclusionary, flexor strength and development is your primary concern. This only makes sense if you think about it. Much like an alligator who is not worried about how hard he can open his jaws, the combative, sportive and survival functions of the hand always involve closing it. This is not to say that the extensors should be ignored and allowed to atrophy. Like any muscle pairing, development on both sides of an articular point are certainly important, if for nothing else but maintaining orthopedic health and normal function. Also, the body has an interesting way of regulating itself and overly weak extensors will either totally stall your attempts at stronger gripping or worse, get you hurt.
Types of grip strength
The functions of the grip, and the type of strength required, can be classified into a number of categories as follows:
Crushing or crush grip – This is your classic firm handshake scenario. The crush grip is used when one wants to close the thumb and fingers around an object with maximum force as if to smash it.
Pinch grip – Any time you hold something between your thumb and one or more of your fingers, you are performing a pinch grip. Pure pinch gripping is rarely seen in an athletic sense but the development of the thumb musculature it causes is of major value.
Supporting grip – A supporting grip is closely related to the crush grip. The hand is held in the same configuration (thumb and fingers closed around an object in the palm) but where as the crush grip is active, the supporting grip is static…you simply don’t want to let go of what is in your hand, not crush it into oblivion. A farmer walking with his milk pails is a classic example.
Finger strength – What is meant by finger strength is the strength of the individual digits when the hand is open or partially open but an object is still being clutched by the ends of the fingers. Two classic examples are some of the more difficult hand holds utilized by rock climbers and the fingertip gripping of the gi material by jiujitsu and judo players. Finger strength is often ignored out side those endeavors but it should be noted that some of the strongest hands you will ever feel are advanced climbers and gi-sport fighters precisely because of their development in this neglected area.
Wrist strength – Certainly very important if you ever intend to hit anything. (By the way, everyone reading this blog should be preparing for the eventuality of having to hit someone with a fist or a weapon, at least in a self defense context).
Dynamic gripping – This is maybe the most elusive of all grip-strength types. By dynamic gripping, I mean the ability to explosively grab on to an object or material and transition into one of the above types of grips. Again, this type of strength-skill is rarely seen outside of gi fighters and climbers who need to leap from hold to hold and explosively grab on to their new perch.
If you are after a true death grip, all of these types of strength must be attended to. Let’s now examine the methods.
As I see it, there are three pathways to truly strong hands(unless you are genetically blessed with bear paws). All three require making modifications to your 2-to-6 a week strength and conditioning sessions, something I will discuss in a bit. The three pathways, in addition to regular strength training, are as follows:
1.Work a manual labor job or otherwise do a good amount of manual labor weekly
2.Train in a high grip component sport like wrestling, jiujitsu, judo or climbing on a weekly basis.
3.Conduct one or two specialized grip training sessions per week to mimic #’s 1 and 2.
You can also use some combination of the above but be careful about burnout.
I am not a huge fan of buying tons of specialized grip equipment because it is expensive and really not necessary unless you want to be a “grip athlete” (yes, they exist and their hand strength is quite monstrous but we are more slanted to a generalist approach around here.) I am not a huge fan of spending inordinate amounts of time doing isolated grip training either. This is largely a matter of time efficiency. The method I prefer is to choose strength and conditioning exercises that build the hands while developing other physical qualities at the same time.
Here are my favorite tips and tools to maximize your S&C time while building the grip.
Make every effort to avoid using lifting straps on barbell exercises. If you can’t deadlift it without straps, you can’t deadlift it. Every rule has exceptions but I am not even going to mention them for fear of confusing the issue. If you are a serious strength athlete, you are already probably aware of the few possible exceptions. Everybody else, get your hands strong enough to actually hold on to what you are trying to lift.
Add farmer’s walks for time or distance with strongman competition farmer’s walk implements, dumbbells or buckets filled with sand. The farmer’s walk is an incredible total body strength(legs, core, traps, back) and conditioning exercise. At the same time, it is the premiere supporting grip exercise.
Practice one-hand swings, cleans, and snatches with thick handled kettlebells. I have seen some garbage kettlebell designs out there with a very thin handle. Kettlebells are meant to have a thick handle for a reason. Explosively accelerating the bell and then abruptly shutting down its movement by crush gripping the thick handle will give you a killer grip. Kettlebells are also one of the few strength tools that very easily can be adapted to developing the elusive dynamic gripping aspect. This is done through swinging, releasing and then catching a kettlebell in flight. Some kettlebell practitioners become quite adept at catching it after a full flip or two, an advanced skill for sure but one that helps to develop the “snatching” dynamic grip better than almost anything can, at least in a weightroom.
Climb rope like you did as a kid in gym class. Hang from it, do chin ups off it, but most of all, get very good at climbing thick ropes. There are some very good rope climbing progressions and skills out there but your primary initial goal should be mastery of hands-only single rope climbing before moving on to anything trickier. Hands-only rope climbing is really the only thing I do on a rope but it has served me well. The rope makes strong grapplers, better than anything out there besides actual wrestling/rolling. While a lot of muscles need to work together to get you up the rope, the grip takes the lead. For anyone interested in grabbing a resisting opponent’s wrist to control them, a climbing rope mimics this very well. It is not by accident that many world class wrestlers and judoka name the rope as the most important piece of training equipment.
Work with the sledgehammer. Smashing a sledgehammer into a tire is a caveman simple exercise but don’t be fooled by its apparent crudeness. Aside from developing greater shoulder mobility, a stronger back, a stronger core and serious lungs, stabilizing your grip on the hammer after it strikes a tire or other suitable target will build your hands and forearms in a massive way. Much like the kettlebell, the need to ballistically “apply the brakes” to the training instrument can build that mysterious dynamic grip strength without risking being thrown on your head or falling from a cliff. High rep sledgehammer work will also build the grip endurance of worthy of Thor. For most athletically inclined men, a 16 pound long-handled sledge is one of the most useful conditioning tools you can get your hands on – pardon the pun. Pipehitting ladies will probably be better served starting with an 8 pounder. Both are available right now at the big box home improvement store around the corner. Specialized heavier hammers exist and can definitely be of use but they can be very expensive.
Bodyweight training can be modified to develop hand strength too. Chinning exercises will do a certain amount of grip strengthening on their own obviously but an extra, excellent practice are timed hangs from a bar. It can also be an interesting form of psychological and physical torture if you make a real effort at hanging on for dear life. If this isn’t enough for you, there are always one hand hangs… The lowly pushup also offers a lot of opportunity to train the gripping musculature. Pushups on the knuckles are a hard-style (as in karate) staple for good reason as they build up both wrist strength and the density of the knuckles. The fingertip pushup or pushup hold is one of the best ways to work the neglected extensor muscles of the hand and forearm.
Like I mentioned previously, truly strong hands can be built in one of three ways, genetics aside (like anything else, some people are just blessed with pretty tremendous hand strength from birth).
If you don’t work with your hands regularly or take part in an athletic activity with a high grip component, I think it will be necessary to try and mimic those endeavors with a specialized grip session once or twice a week(or do that in addition even if you are an athlete or a laborer if you wish and have the time and recovery ability).
You can do so the frugal way or the lavish way.
The frugal way involves a towel or an old heavy gi jacket. You will then throw either of those over a bar and do chins and holds. The gi is more versatile, especially if you are a juijitsu, sambo or judo player. That is because you can mimic actual grips on the jacket such as the lapel or he sleeves. There is another good use for the towel though. Get it soaking wet and then practice wringing it bone dry until your hands and forearms ache. My understanding is that this is a favorite drill among some Soviet grapplers as it is both cheap and wickedly effective.
The more lavish way is to head over to http://ironmind.com/ and scoop up any number of their grip tools. If you have the money to spend and feel the need to purchase specialized grip equipment, that is the place to do it. While I will leave much of the browsing of the ironmind catalog up to you, I do feel it neccessary to mention one grip tool that should be in everyone’s arsenal(yes…EVERYONE’S). I speak of the Captain’s of Crush grippers. Ironmind makes the toughest, most solid grippers on Earth. You will likely will them to your heirs. Don’t confuse these with the silly plastic things you get in sporting good stores. The weakest ironmind gripper is much more substantial than the strongest of those. As for the strongest ironmind gripper, the infamous level 4? You will never close that one…some of the most powerful strongman competitors have been humbled by it. Over the years, the Captains of Crush line has expanded greatly and includes enough variety for almost any level grip trainee to get into them and keep making progress. If you don’t have a few(I have 5 so far), go pick them up.
Now, go build a grip worthy of your ancestors.
Aut cum scuto, aut in scuto.