by Bret Contreras March 18, 2014
Let me tell you from personal experience – having a weak grip sucks! If you’re genetically predispositioned to having a strong grip, then chances are, you cannot relate. Your grip most likely grows stronger from simply holding onto heavy dumbbells and bars when performing dumbbell bench, dumbbell incline, one arm rows, pull-ups, and of course deadlifts. Sort of like the guy whose calves grow huge from squatting and deadlifting without doing any special calf work, if your grip never fails you despite never training it in the gym, then consider yourself lucky.
However, if you’re like me, and you’ve dropped numerous maximal deadlift attempts, then you know how frustrating inferior grip strength can be. Many lifters resort to using wrist straps. While I have nothing against wrist straps per se, you can’t use them on the platform if you ever compete in a powerlifting competition.
Therefore, I recommend building an internal set of wrist straps by strengthening the hell out of your grip musculature. I never thought that I’d one day be able to bring up my grip strength to where it didn’t hamper my training. I was wrong. I speak from experience when I tell you that it’s actually quite easy to turn the tables on a weak grip and take your grip strength from a weak link to a strong link.
Before I discuss how I went about building my grip strength, allow me to teach you some grip science. Grip experts generally tend to categorize grip training into 5 broad categories as follows:
1. Crushing Grip – The grip closes off and crushes down on the implement. Think deadlifts, shrugs, rows, cleans, chins, etc. Also think hand grippers and gripping machines.
2. Pinch Grip – Brings the thumbs into play. Think of putting two plates together and picking them up, then holding them for time
3. Open Hand Grip – Hand is open but fingers aren’t clenched. Sometimes only the fingertips are touching the implement. Think thick bar holds, fat gripz, etc.
4. Extensor – The fingers can extend too, which is the opposite of gripping. This is often ignored and neglected. Think of rubber bands wrapped around the fingers and other webbed tools that allow you to extend the fingers against resistance.
5. Wrist Strength – The wrist joint is a stabilizer for the finger joints, so the wrist can be strengthened in all directions. Think wrist curls, wrist extensions, wrist roller, lateral lever maneuvers, etc.
With that said, here’s how I went about strengthening my grip so that my deadlift is finally limited to what I can pull and not what I can hold onto.
To perform the one arm static hang, all you will need is a pull up bar or a squat rack. Set up as you would for a double overhand pull up. Once you’re set, drop one hand and hang there as long as you can. You want to maintain some tension in the shoulder and upper back muscles of the working arm; don’t just hang freely.
If you find that you are swinging too much during the hold, you can stabilize the body by holding onto one of the posts of the squat rack with the free hand. Just make sure the working arm is holding the vast majority of bodyweight.
I like these because they don’t load the spine like farmer’s walks and db shrugs, which can be valuable when already deadlifting twice per week. I could do a one-arm hang for 30 seconds in my prime, but be aware that the material and thickness of the bar dramatically influences your hang duration.
Grippers consist of two spring-loaded handles that you hold in your palm and squeeze together. Most lifters have used these at one point or another, or at least seen them.
To use the gripper, hold it in one hand so that one handle rests under the fingers and the other handle rests in the palm of the hand. Squeeze the gripper as far as you can, ideally until the handles touch. If you find that you can barely move the gripper, then you need to regress to a lighter gripper that provides less resistance. Just as with every exercise, range of motion is a big component.
I’m still not very strong at these, but I can do 30+ reps with the trainer (Ironmind Captains of Crush) and 6-8 reps with the #1, which is a lot more than I could do when I first started.
When you see lifters going for big pulls, they almost always rely on the over/under grip since this style allows for the heaviest loads to be used. Going to double overhand significantly increases the grip challenge.
There’s nothing wrong with using a mixed grip for the heaviest sets of deadlifts. However, I recommend utilizing the double overhand grip for your warm up sets on deadlifts. Basically, you want to use a double over hand grip while you’re working up in weight, and once the weight becomes too hard to hold on to, switch to a mixed grip. This will bring your grip up to par in due time.
The double overhand grip applies to bent over rows as well. If you’ve experimented with both overhand and underhand rows, you’ll know that you can lift more weight using an underhand grip. By programming more double overhand rows, your grip strength will benefit much more so than if you were to use heavier weights with an underhand grip.
I do my double-overhand bent over rows with 185-225 lbs, and I can double overhand deadlift around 365 lbs.
Bench squeezes are very simple yet effective. I got this exercise from my powerlifting and strongman friends, and while it may look like not much is going on, the benefits have spoken for themselves.
Simply stand or kneel over a bench so that you are perpendicular to it. Grab along the side of the bench with both hands. Grip the padding (avoid using the thumbs), squeeze down as hard as you can, and hold for time.
I will typically hold my bench squeezes for 15 seconds in duration.
As mentioned before, a double overhand grip is good for the sets of deadlifts leading up to the heavier working sets. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t build any grip strength when using a mixed grip on your heavier deadlifts.
Once you’ve reached your last working set and you’ve switched to a mixed grip, a static hold at the top for time is a great way to build additional grip strength with loads greater than what you can hold using a double overhand grip.
On your last rep of heavy deadlifts, once you’ve locked out up top, stand there and hold onto the bar for max time. Remember to squeeze the glutes and maintain a neutral spine. Don’t let the bar down until it begins slipping out of your hands or you start to bend forward. I learned this from watching Konstantin Konstantinovs deadlift. He’s pulled well over 900 lbs, so clearly this strategy works well for him! I’ll generally hold onto my last rep for an extra 10 seconds at the lockout.
The farmer’s walk is a classic strongman exercise that has carryover sports and is excellent for developing grip strength and core stability. You may carry heavy dumbbells, heavy kettlebells, a trap bar, or farmer’s walk implements if you have access to them.
Grab the dumbbells in each hand, stand tall with the upper back muscles engaged and a neutral spine, and start walking. Don’t let your posture erode, and don’t rest the dumbbells on your sides.
Take small, controlled steps and maintain good form for 30 to 40 yards. Grip the weights firmly without letting the implements hang in your fingertips. I like using 150 lb dumbbells for these, but not many gyms go over 120’s, which is where a trap bar or farmer’s implements come in handy.
Dumbbell shrugs are another simple yet effective tool for strengthening the grip, plus it gives you an excuse to perform a targeted trap exercise to help build your yoke (I don’t have female clients perform shrugs). Hold onto a dumbbell in each hand and stand tall with a neutral spine. Grip the weights firmly and use your upper traps to pull the shoulder blades upwards as high as you can.
Avoid allowing the head to jut forward during the movement and don’t go too heavy to where you can’t achieve proper range of motion. Just as in the case of the last rep of deadlifts, you may perform a static hold for time if you find that your grip strength supersedes your trap strength. I like to perform 20 reps with the 120-lb dumbbells.
Now that I’ve provided you with the exercises and methods I used to turn my weak grip into a strength, let me give you some program design tips as this is equally important as the exercises.
A good program will already have you using your gripping muscles. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll be grabbing a hold of dumbbells and bars throughout the training week. Therefore, you don’t want to overdo your grip training, which is very easy to do. A VERY common mistake I see lifters do is adding in a ton of grip training to their routines, which can backfire on the lifter in two ways. First, it can fatigue the grip excessively so that performance on deadlifts is limited on subsequent training days. Second, it could lead to injury. Do not make this mistake.
All you need to do is add in 2-3 sets of extra grip work 1-2 days per week. I performed just 2 sets of grip work twice per week, in addition to the double overhand warm-up strategy and deadlift isohold strategy discussed earlier in the article. Usually I’d perform one or two sets of the gripper or bench squeezes, then perform one set of static hangs, farmer’s walks, or shrugs. That’s it! Just a couple of sets. It builds the grip without overly fatiguing the grip muscles.
For the first time in my lifting career, I can adequately hold onto anything my posterior chain is capable of hoisting. I pulled 565 lbs the other day and my grip wasn’t phased – I hand onto it for an additional 10 seconds at the top. Had I been told this two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. Not only does my grip strength exceed my hip hinge strength, but chins, pulldowns, and rows also aren’t limited by grip strength, which is an added benefit. And I did it all with low volume and consistency – only performing a few sets of extra grip work per week. I never need to use wrist straps in my training unless I’m lifting at a commercial gym when traveling and I have to use a cheap, smooth, un-knurled barbell without chalk.
You may have noticed that I only performed crushing grip exercises. Since I was primarily interested in strengthening my deadlift grip, I stuck to the specificity principle. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel that pinch grip, open hand grip, extensor, or wrist strengthening is valuable. If total grip strength is a priority, then these forms of training should each be incorporated into the mix. However, if deadlift grip strength is your priority, then just 2-3 sets performed twice per week will do the trick. Once your grip is up to par, you’ll notice that you tend to greet friends in the same manner as Arnold below – it’s a natural consequence of grip strengthening.
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