Wrist Curls Aren't Enough
Your grip strength is an indication of your full body strength, neuromuscular activation, and overall function.
Don't be fooled into thinking you can increase grip strength by training the forearms and hands with isolation movements like wrist curls. The forearms need both heavy work and pump work to maximize grip potential and pack on muscle. Here are five exercises that'll help you forge an iron grip and killer forearms.
The hammer curl is essential for the development of the brachioradialis, a muscle in the forearm. Using a neutral grip hand position – palms facing each other – gives you a mechanical advantage so that you can produce force over the biceps and elbow flexor group. That's fine for aesthetics, but it's limited. The prime mover of this exercise doesn't cross the wrist joint, so there's not much transference into grip strength.
When it comes to functional hypertrophy of the arms, the slight angles for both hand and shoulder positions are far more advantageous than the common fully pronated, fully supinated, and neutral grip positions with a neutral shoulder. Why? Because the body functions in spiraling groups of muscle, fascia, and neural connections. These create tension. So limiting this irradiation reflex doesn't make sense. Instead, train it directly.
The hybrid hammer reverse curl places the hands in a slightly pronated position, which still recruits the brachioradialis and biceps, but also the wrist extensor group. The wrist extensors stabilize the wrist and elbow joints in order for the bigger flexor group to fire hard and recruit more fibers into isometric actions... like your grip.
Doing this exercise with the wrist in slight extension and gripping the dumbbells as hard as you possibly can will create force up the kinetic chain of the arms, increasing activation in the big movers while challenging the small intrinsic muscles.
Chase the pump for this. Think high reps, slow movements, and hard squeezes at the top. Make these hurt. Your forearms will grow and your grip strength will go through the roof.
The barbell suitcase iso-hold isn't fancy, but that's its beauty. It's one of the simplest ways to increase total body strength from the grip and core position.
This is an "anti" position. Any time you can train the core in one of these positions while challenging grip strength and full body tension, consider it a catch-all movement: something worth prioritizing.
Here's how it works. Step into a rack or set up where the bar is slightly elevated. Grab the middle of the barbell. Pick it up. Keep it at your side and hold it for 20-60 seconds at a time.
Your body should be in a neutral position with the feet under hips, glutes squeezed, core engaged, and the opposite arm squeezed with a fist and held out to around 45 degrees to build even more tension. From there, you simply hold.
What makes this movement so tough? The length of the bar and the end loading that takes place when weights are added to the collars. Can you just use dumbbells instead? Not if you want all the benefits. The barbell is what makes this so awesomely challenging.
By grabbing in the middle of the bar, your grip is produced globally from the entire upper extremity. It dictates whether or not you can hold the load and stabilize it equally from front to back. If your wrist position isn't perfect the bar will drift. If your thumb and index fingers are firing hard and your other three digits are lacking, the bar will fall backwards. It's self-limiting feedback, which is priceless for improving grip force recruitment.
If you've never experimented with this, you'll be blown away at the sympathetic response. In just a few rounds on both sides, your heart rate will be skyrocketing, your core and glutes will burn, and you may even get a little bit of a shake. Perfect. That's the type of response that builds grip and full body strength.
For building maximal grip strength motor recruitment, get heavy loads in your hands near your maximal capacity. Grinding away hundreds of reps on shrugs using a half-inch range of motion isn't the best way to build grip strength. It's not a good use of time.
The deadlift is. And for most iron addicts, the deadlift is their strongest absolute lift. So why not train this movement and milk it for all it's worth instead of letting hundreds of pounds of iron drop to the floor?
The trap bar deadlift with a shrug at the top will build full body strength plus overload the grip in the process. You can do this with conventional and sumo barbell deadlifts as well.
On the last rep of each set, stay in the top position, then shrug. Pause for a full second at the top and control the load slowly down through a full range of motion. The shrug challenges your grip more than anything in this position.
You're accelerating the load down as you let the shrug descend towards the floor. That will make your grip recruit even more force to stabilize the load, hence overloading the movement from the hands up. Get in as many good reps as you can and you'll be surprised at what just a few reps of shrugs at the end of a top-end deadlift set can do for your grip strength.
The row and pull-up improve grip strength, but add an isometric hold at the end of a set and you'll blow up your grip strength while sparing your elbows and shoulders.
Do the iso-hold at the bottom position of the last rep of a set of pull-ups. This is one of the simplest ways to challenge grip strength and endurance from an overhead shoulder position. You can do this hold with any hand position: supinated, neutral, or pronated grip. I prefer the traditional fully pronated (overhand) grip with a medium width between hands. This position is the most natural.
The shoulder blade mechanics and gleno-humeral position is more neutral and easily executed with a proper position, tension, and torque maintained through the entire shoulder and arm complex.
Control the descent of your last rep on the pull-up bar and maintain the tension and the position at the shoulder while squeezing the bar as hard as you can. Stay in that position fighting the urge to go lax at the shoulders.
Don't hang out on the capsule and ligaments. If you want to take your full body strength to the next level, assume a hollow body position with your legs straight and slightly flexed at the hips to engage more of the anterior core. From here, hold as long as you can.
Do this on your last working set in every workout and your grip will develop, your shoulder mobility will improve, and your pull-ups will feel easier. This is a great way to self-treat cranky shoulders, too.
For long-term orthopedic and functional success, you should be able to pick up a heavy object, stabilize, then walk with it. The inability to do so is a sign your grip is fragile and that you're susceptible to chronic issues in places like the lower back, shoulders, and elbows. So don't neglect these.
Not many gyms have dumbbells that go up into the 200's, so don't think carries are limited to dumbbells. If you want to train grip with continuous progressive overload, the trap bar or farmers-carry handles which can be loaded with weight plates are your best bet.
How heavy should you go? Test your grip strength. If you're using a trap bar, get two times your bodyweight on the bar, deadlift it up, and walk with it in a slow and controlled manner for 20 seconds. Can't do that? You have some work to do.
Use a variety of timed sets and distance-based sets. Challenge yourself and stay fresh by altering training parameters. You can probably do more than you think. If the load doesn't scare you a little before you pick it up, you aren't going heavy enough.