Do me a favor right now and make a fist. But don't just curl your fingers in and gingerly wrap your thumb around them. I want you to make a fist like you're preparing to punch some bastard square in the face. Make a fist like you're squeezing the hell out of something soft and cuddly. I'm talking white knuckles, on the verge of shaking. You need to feel this.
Keep tight and notice how your arm feels. Your wrist is straight and rock-solid, right? Your forearm is tense. You can actually feel your elbow, can't you? Notice how your biceps, triceps, and deltoids are tight and engaged. Can you feel your upper back twitching?
Every time you grab a barbell or dumbbell, you're faced with a choice you probably never think about: you can grab that sucker as hard as you possibly can–activating muscles and motor units you didn't even know existed–or you can just pick it up and lift it.
If you want to instantly boost strength and muscle recruitment, Jim Smith of Diesel Crew suggests you do the former. And he's here to teach you how.
(You can relax now.)
"You can tell a lot about a guy from the way he shakes your hand," says Smith. "Does he give it to you or does he lay it in your hand like a dead fish?"
Not only can Smith tell what kind of man you are, he can tell what kind of weightlifter you are, too.
"The hands are the weak link in nearly every strength athlete, bodybuilder, and weightlifter, and grip training is the missing piece in most strength programs," he says. "Everything we do is expressed through the hands, so it's beneficial for us to develop them like any other muscle."
And grip strength doesn't just mean working on your hands. As you just felt, making a fist activates everything from your hands to your arms, shoulders, and upper back.
"The stronger your hands, the more weight you can lift and the more muscle you can build," says Smith. "You can call it the theory of radiation or co-contraction or whatever. The message is clear: the more muscle groups you can contract, the more stability you have, the more motor units you engage, the stronger you get."
Smith breaks grip into five different categories, all of which will help to increase your strength.
Crush: "This is the one everyone knows," says Smith. "It's when you grab something like a gripper and squeeze it." You can also train crush dynamically by using towels and sandbags.
Support: Any exercise where you're supporting the weight with your fingers like deadlifts, rack pulls, and pull-ups.
Pinch: A static contraction that focuses on building strength and endurance in the fingers.
Wrist Posture (or Wrist "Strength"): "Many athletes do this and don't even realize it," says Smith. If you've ever swung a sledgehammer, baseball bat, or held a hockey stick, you've used wrist posture.
Hand Health: Soft tissue work like massaging the forearms and elbows with a lacrosse ball, or using two golf balls (or something similar) and rolling them around in your hands to increase the dexterity of your fingers.
The beauty of grip training is that it's easy to stick in your program and make very quick gains.
Smith recommends building a foundation of grip strength by picking one or two isolation movements and doing them after your regular workout session. You can also use an integrated approach and do grip work where your hands have to adjust, thus activating even more motor units. Here's a sample week to get you started.
Isolation exercises done at the end of the workout:
Grippers* – 3 x 10 reps on each hand
Dumbbell Crush** – 3 x 10 on each hand
* "Grippers" are those squeeze things your older brother bought from K-Mart that he eventually threw into his closet. Modern versions are much more sophisticated. (See photo at right.)
**To perform the dumbbell crush, grab a dumbbell and hold it in your hand. Let it roll to your fingertips. Wrap your fingers around it and squeeze your hand to bring the dumbbell back to your palm. That's one rep.
Dynamic exercise to be done during the training session:
Towel Chin-up* – 3 x AMAP (As Many As Possible)
*To perform the towel chin-up, simply wrap two towels around the pull-up bar, grab them, and go. This is much harder than it looks.
Isolation exercise done at the end of the workout:
Plate Pinch* – 4 x ALAP (As Long As Possible)
* According to Smith, the plate pinch can be done a few different ways. To start, take two 25-pound Olympic plates and place them together so the smooth sides are facing out. With your thumb on one side and all four fingers on the other, squeeze the plates and hold for as long as possible. To work on your weaker fingers (the ring and pinky), grab the plates, but instead of placing all four fingers on one side, place your index and ring finger on the top of the plates, allowing your thumb, ring, and pinky to hold the plates in place.
You can also take two 45-pound plates and use both hands to pinch them together.
The key, says Smith, is total upper body tension. "You're going to feel your traps and shoulders light up," he says.
Dynamic exercises to be done during the training session:
Rack Pull to 10-second hold: 3-4 x 5 reps.
Dumbbell Farmer's Walk*
*Grab and squeeze some heavy dumbbells, squeeze your back, and walk for distance or time. For an extra challenge, add some Fat Gripz.
Isolation exercises done at the end of the workout:
Plate Wrist Curl* – 3 x 10 reps on each hand
Dumbbell Reverse Wrist Curls – 3 x 10
*Grab a 25-pound plate and hold it face up in your hand. Hook your thumb over the rim of the plate and fix your arm at 90 degrees. Extend your wrist, then pull it back up. That's one rep.
"In my experience, most guys will see a huge jump in forearm hypertrophy after adding in some wrist posture exercises," says Smith. "The forearms are usually slow-twitch muscles, so the more volume you do the better your chances of muscle growth."
But it's not all just squeezing the shit out of metal. This tip is so simple and ingenious you're going to wonder why you never thought of it before. "Some guys get into grip training and don't realize that the muscles in their hands and forearms are like the rest of your muscles: they need balance. For every flexion exercise, you need an extension exercise," says Smith. "This exercise creates a balance of strength and musculature that helps realign carpal bones."
To do it, simply grab a handful of rubber bands and loop them around all five of your fingers. Now splay your fingers to create tension in the rubber band. Hold it open for a count of two and return. Smith recommends carrying them in your pocket and doing a couple hundred reps per day.
At least you now have something to do while you wait in line at the bank.
Unless you're a competitive powerlifter, Smith wants you to forget all about the mixed grip. "It's so dangerous for the biceps on the supinated arm that I never recommend it," he says.
That's why he makes all of his athletes use a double overhand grip. "What you'll find is the more you pull double overhand, the more weight you can use. If you're used to failing at 225, give it a few weeks and you'll be up to 315." A few more months and you'll be close to your current max with the mixed grip.
And while it seems counterintuitive, Smith recommends using straps after the weight becomes too heavy to hold. But just don't get too antsy. "Guys are quick to jump to straps. Give it some time and focus on building up your grip strength, then use the straps if you still need 'em."
"When you grab the bar, I want to see white knuckles," says Smith. "I don't care what movement you're doing. White knuckles show me that you're squeezing the bar as hard as you can. It's going to increase tension and you'll be able to lift more weight."
A strong grip translates to more tension, more strength, and more muscle. But only if you actually use it.
So grab the weight like you mean it. It's all in your hands, now.