One of my all time favorite movie lines is, “I’d better use my strong hand,” from Scary Movie 3. The rest of the movie is just okay, but the creepy butler always referring to his mutant hand as his “strong hand” just cracks me up. In fact, that line has been a running joke around my gym for some time now.
My goal with this article is to explain how you, too, can “use your strong hand.” Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:
- How bodybuilders and physique athletes can use grip strength techniques to improve forearm, biceps, and shoulder size.
- How to use grip strength to improve the intensity of your strength training.
- The one flaw with most current grip training protocols.
- How MMA/Grappling athletes can develop a bone-crushing grip.
- Some new, battle-tested grip strength techniques.
Traditional Grip Training Needs a reality Check!
Many strength coaches and hard-core lifters don’t believe in specialized grip training because they feel they get enough strength through simply lifting heavy weights. I used to feel the same way, until I started a form of rock climbing called bouldering.
After my first bouldering session (which only lasted about 20 minutes), my forearms and biceps were pumped up like balloons and my fingers were sore at every joint. I had trouble holding a fork for days!
Since then, having trained some top pros in the bouldering competition circuit and bouldering at an advanced level myself, I’ve learned that in order to make significant gains in grip strength and forearm muscle size, you need to do specialized grip training exercises.
I’ve also come to realize that, 1) many of the traditional grip training methods are not only incomplete, but also limited in their overall applications and, 2) the extra strength and muscle gained from specific grip training is well worth the extra effort.
Of course, traditional grip training methods do work, and I use many of them in my programs. But there’s always room for some common sense and creativity.
Grip Training and Muscle Size
I don’t know many bodybuilders that perform specific gripping exercises. This is probably because they don’t understand the impact these movements can have on hypertrophy and on overall physical appearance.
Strictly from a looks perspective, having big, ripped-looking forearms is very impressive and makes you look somewhat imposing. However, having big biceps with disproportionately small forearms looks bad and unbalanced.
As I mentioned earlier, just lifting heavy will develop some forearm size, but it may not be enough to measure up to the other proportions of your body. And, in a sport where symmetry is everything, even the little things like forearm size and vascularity become important.
Stronger Grip + Heavier Weights = More Muscle
Anyone who understands strength training will tell you that intensity is one of the keys to building muscle. They’ll also tell you that one of the best ways to increase intensity is lifting heavy.
However, you can only go as heavy as your hands can hold. You don’t want to become dependant on wraps. Put simply, the stronger your grip, the heavier you can lift. And more weight generally means more muscle.
Often you’ll see guys with big biceps but small forearms. But, you’ll never see a guy with huge forearms and little biceps. So, if you want big arms, do your grip work.
Now that I’ve established the importance of grip training for overall muscle and strength, let’s take a look at the functional and sports performance implications of proper grip training.
Just about every grip training exercise you see is performed with a neutral wrist position.
That’s okay, but it’s fairly unrealistic because we rarely use that position when we’re in situations like rock climbing, grappling / MMA, strongman lifting, manual labor, etc.
Instead we end up using bent wrist positions in many various angles, such as in the flexed position shown to the right.
Similarly, when a strongman is performing a stone lift, his wrists are in a flexed position around the stone.
This flexed wrist position is also used in every day life, such as when you’re carrying an air conditioning unit in front of you.
Grip Training for MMA / Grappling
I’ve been training fighters since 2001 and know very well that the very same wrist position described above is ubiquitous in MMA, Thai boxing, and grappling sports.
Another common wrist position, of course, is the extended position. This occurs when you’re in the classic push up position or when bracing for a fall.
Training both the flexed and extended wrist positions through a full ROM can yield some nice gains in muscle size and strength, and I’ll get into a few of my favorite exercises for that later in this article.
Along with flexion and extension, there’s also a less noticeable, yet very common and very important side (lateral) wrist movement called ulnar deviation. This is when the wrist bends toward the pinky finger (shown at right).
Ulnar deviation occurs a lot more that one may think. It happens every time you shake someone’s hand and in most cases when you pick up and/or carry an object.
In MMA/grappling, it’s what happens when you grab your opponent’s wrist or forearm.
Whether you’re a fighter, power lifter, bodybuilder or exercise enthusiast, you need to be strong from this position because it happens so often and it’s so important to muscular development and overall grip strength.
Put simply, if you’ve never trained in these positions, you won’t have developed any strength for when you actually encounter them due to what’s called neural inhibition.
Neural inhibition is what happens when your brain senses that you lack the strength to support a certain position. It’ll actually cause all the muscles involved to shut down to protect you from injury.
If you don’t want this to happen, you simply need to build strength and stability using non-neutral wrist exercises such as the ones displayed in the article.
Traditional grip training protocols are very time efficient because they’re so specialized. Because I like “bang for your buck” type training, you’ll see that most of the protocols I provide actually integrate grip training along with other movements.
Beyond Grip Training
Now that I’ve provided you with a solid rationale for the importance of grip training as it relates to bodybuilding and function, it’s time to provide you with a multitude of smarter, more effective grip training exercises.
The Fat Bar
Fat Bar reverse curl
If you’re a bodybuilder or just an exercise enthusiast looking to get bigger arms, try doing biceps curls with a fat bar. These will have your forearms pumped and ready to explode after a few sets. Keep in mind that there’s a link between your forearms and your biceps, so the harder your forearms are working, the harder your biceps are getting worked.
If you have a fat bar, I recommend alternating an overhand and underhand grip each time you do fat bar biceps curls. I usually use a rep range of 8-20 reps for 1-3 sets.
Additionally, if you don’t have access to a fat bar, simply wrap a thick towel around a normal sized bar and you’ll have made a “ghetto fat bar.”
Using old boating rope is a very cheap and effective way to get a sick grip and build huge forearms. The fatter the rope, the harder it is to hold.
Rope Pulls ups (vertical pulling)
This exercise is great for injured folks because it’s very shoulder friendly. It’s also similar to the pulling motion used in grappling and combat sports, so rope pull ups are also great for fighters.
I like to use max reps on this one. Just jump up, do as many as you can, and then rest. Repeat 2-4 sets.
Recline Rope Pulls (horizontal pulling)
Using a TRX for this exercise is very popular these days, but using a rope is a cheaper and more effective option for this particular motion. The lower you grab onto the rope, the closer you are to the ground and the harder the exercise.
You can use a weighted vest for additional load. I also like to perform 10-30 second isometric holds for my fighters here because it simulates holding onto an opponent.
Rope Pulls (Alternate Grip)
The added bonus of the rope is that it automatically places your wrist in ulnar deviation (side flexed position).
On occasion, I will mix it up with my fighters and grapplers and have them grip the rope in this manner shown at right.
Man, do I love these things! They allow you to turn any cable exercise into a serious grip challenge.
I use them just about every time I do chin-ups and various cable rows. The larger diameter really fries up your hands and forearms.
You can also get creative with these fat handles and train with some different wrist positions. This way you build strength from multiple wrist positions and avoid any possible neural inhibition.
Like the fat bar curls, I alternate normal grip with underhand grip each workout. I’ve had better luck using higher rep ranges on fat grip standing rows. I usually go for reps of 12-20 for 2-3 sets.
The Fat Wrist Roller
We all know about the old school wrist rollers. Most of us either made our own or perhaps bought one back in junior high school. But today, most folks never use them.
Too bad, because the wrist roller is great for building your biceps and forearms and developing a crushing grip.
I personally prefer to use the Fat Grip Roller developed by my good friend and colleague, JC Santana.
Not only does the wider handle make it better for your grip, but as you perform the rolls, your wrist moves in and out of multiple positions. This way, you develop strength in every possible wrist position, not just from the neutral position.
You can use both hands over the top, or use a mixed grip.
Again, I like to alternate grips with each workout session.
This is another drill I tend to use for a time frame of 1minute for around 1-3 sets. I normally would throw these in at the very end of a workout.
The Grip Sled
What’s really cool about JC’s Fat Grip Roller is the extra long strap. This gives you the opportunity to do exercises like the roller sled drag.
As you roll, the sled moves toward you.
You can also hook the JC Fat Wrist Roller up to a cable column for both concentric and eccentric arm loading.
The versatility of this product makes it one of my favorites!
Towel Grip Training
If you don’t want to buy any extra equipment like I’ve described above, no worries. A towel can give you a sick grip and monster forearms.
Towel pull ups are familiar to some folks yet I don’t see many people actually doing them. You can go for reps, time, or isometric holds.
A less familiar version of towel work is to wrap it around a cable handle as shown. This allows you to turn traditional pulling exercises into insane grip builders!
Finger Gripper Biceps Curls
Here’s an awesome grip/biceps curl combination move I’ve learned from my longtime friend Marc Spataro, owner of Moto Pro Training. Marc works with pro motocross riders so he understands the importance of grip training. This biceps curl variation is another one that requires no specialized equipment. (Plus, it just looks cool and all your friends will want to try it.)
Use 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
Grip Strength and Conditioning
For a real test of grip endurance and overall GPP, try 100lb plate farmer walks. The plate handles are very wide and tough to hold onto; tough in a good way!
Go for 150 yards (just don’t drop the weight on any small animals or some huge son of a bitch’s toes!).
MMA/ May Thai Clinch Grip Training
As the long time strength & conditioning coach for Team Ground Control MMA and former wrestler myself, I’m passionate about the grappling arts.
One of the positions that often requires some specific grip strengthening is the Muay Thai Clinch, also known as the plum position. I’ve developed some very effective exercises using a kettlebell to train my fighters specifically for this position.
With this exercise, you can rest assured that when one of my guys grabs your arm or head, you’re not getting it back!
The Kettle Bell Clinch Pull Up
To begin, hang a kettle bell from a chin up bar.
Now, wrap your arms around the kettle bell similar to the clinch position. Then pull yourself toward the kettle bell so that it touches your chest. Repeat the movement as you would a regular chin up.
I have my fighters do 5 reps and then a 5 second isometric hold without dropping to the floor. We repeat that 2-4 times. That’s 1 set. Perform 2-3 sets.
Putting It All Together: Program Design Tips
- Isolated grip training is best left to the end of a workout.
- For the average Joe Bodybuilder, do grip work on an upper body day. Emphasize the biceps curls variations and the fat wrist roller shown to the right.
- If your goal is to gain muscle size, do at least one grip exercise on your upper body days.
- Don’t perform grip training before a heavy deadlift day because you won’t be able to grip the bar, which of course will ruin your workout.
- For MMA athletes, almost all of our pulling movements use an enhanced grip challenge.
- Grip strength work makes a great active recovery between conditioning intervals.
- Grip strength has been linked to shoulder health. Strong grip = strong shoulders! So, if you have shoulder problems, do your grip work.
- If you’re using TRX rows, go get a rope and use that instead!
Give these techniques a try and you’ll be tossing out your wrist straps in no time!