But the kind of grip work they did wasn't what you typically see today. In the land of towel serviced, spa-like commercial gyms, you'll witness wrists curls being done that a undernourished kitten could probably do for 20 reps.
Worse yet, for most gym-goers, grip work is neglected all together (gotta save those reps for some iso curls).
Related: Move Beyond The Bench Press With These 5 Killer Chest Exercises
"Why grip strength?" you ask. It's a valid question. Heck, it seems like a waste of time in the gym to train your grip when it consists of less than 5% of your total body - plus, you get bogged with all the advice that you should do compound movements like squats and presses.
But after this article, you'll walk away with ad advantage that lifters who are not only big, but also strong, have used to build their muslcebound physiques.
That advantage is knowing how to build a crushing grip.
Powerlifters have always known that there isn't a chance to pull a heavy bar off the floor without a crushing grip. When you shake a bench press behemoth's hand, it makes you feel like you're in 4th grade again. Strongman competitors have a grip akin to steel bear-trap.
Strong hands and fingers provide a indiscriminate advantage in combat sports too. Imagine a grappler or football player who possess tremendous hand and forearm strength against an opponent who neglects grip strength - who would you bet on?
While there are few left who still attack grip work like a hungry-dog-on-the-back-of-a-meat-truck, the goal of this piece is to bring grip work back to the mainstream.
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3 Benefits of Grip Strength Training
#1 - Bigger liftsWhen you have a strong grip, you're able to move daddy weight in the gym. The big hitting movements like deadlifts, rows, bench pressing, weighted pull-ups all go up when you're grip strength improves. More strength equals more muscle.
#2 - Better enduranceThe stronger your hands, fingers and forearms the better your endurances becomes. Have you ever lost a deadlift becomes your grip gave? Have you ever had to let go of the pull up bar because your grip went before exhausting your back muscles? Have you ever had to put the kettlebell down before you completed all the reps? Have you ever had to put the dumbbells down in a farmer walk before you were gassed?
If so, your grip is the limiting factor. By bringing your grip up, you'll be able to move more loads over longer period of time. When your hands are strong, you can perform more reps and sustain under a load longer than someone whose weak hands are the liability.
#3 - Better quality of life (in your later years)Studies show that those who have a strong grip later in life provides an indicator for a better quality of life as they age. In a study done in 1999 this was revealed:
"Among healthy 45- to 68-year-old men, hand grip strength was highly predictive of functional limitations and disability 25 years later. Good muscle strength in midlife may protect people from old age disability by providing a greater safety margin above the threshold of disability."
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Why Grip Strength Gets The Short End of The StickFor any lifter, these benefits almost feel insulting - as if it's not obvious enough that the benefits of a strong grip aren't worthy. But, it's important to highlight these undisguised advantages simply because a domineering grip doesn't get the attention it deserves.
Possessing a grip that could terminate a small fox with one grasp isn't as impressive as bulging biceps, the feathered quads, or the abs cut from granite. The reality is that having a strong grip isn't going to make headline fitness news - people will scroll over your Instagram post if you share something about grip strength.
You could be hiding in plain sight with a set of steel claws and nobody is going to stop you in while you order your coffee and say, "Gee, how do you build a strong grip?"
This is why grip work gets neglected.
Grip Strength RedefinedIn a study done in the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, it states that a muscle will contract harder if the surrounding muscles are also contracted. Meaning, if you're doing hammer curls, your biceps will contract harder if your forearm muscles are fully firing. The same can be said for tricep training.
Taking this concept into execution, this translates into the fact that if the thickness of the tool being used increased, so does the neuromuscular response. This concept has popularized thick bar training.
Charles Poliquin is an outspoken thick-bar training advocate. He advises that with thick-bar training your hands and forearms are in a constant state of contraction - especially during the eccentric portion of the lift. Thick bar training also induces a higher stimulus to the hands and forearms - thus leading to more neuromuscular stress leading to greater strength and muscle gains.
When asked once about building bigger biceps, Poliquin's answer was, "Work your forearms." As for how to work them, he wrote in 2010, "If nothing else, using thick implements takes care of grip and forearm training."
Moreover, by brining up your grip, you'll be able to move bigger loads for a longer period of time in all pushing moments, thus, helping you build a musclebound upper body.
Building your grip not only yields strong fingers, hands and forearms - it sets the stage for impressive upper body development too.
It's like tucking the broccoli into the cake.
Now that we've unpacked the benefits and established the fact that grip training yields more potential than just strong hands, let's take a look at five movements to include into your training to build a strapping grip.
How to Increase Grip Strength - 5 Movements
#1 - Thick Bar DeadliftsThick bar deadlifts are painfully simple to do, yet enormously effective for hand and forearms strength. David P. Willoughby who was one of the most prolific writers in the iron game and authored articles and books for over 50 years said this about thick bar deadlifts:
The simple act of doing deadlifts with a bar that measured at least 2" in diameter is the very best exercise a man can do for his forearms and grip.
A baseline for doing thick bar deadlifts is as follows:
- Deadlifting 200 pounds with a 2" bar is good.
- Deadlifting 250 pounds with a 2 1/2" bar is better.
- Deadlifting 300 pounds with a 3" bar turns your hands into a weapon.
#2 - Power HoldsUse a power rack and position your thick bar so it is racked about an inch below the knees. From this position, you'll deadlift the bar into extension in your hips and knees. This is where the movement begins - at the top.
You'll hold it at the top position for as long as you can with an overhand grip. The key in executing a power hold is to make sure you're not leaning back and allowing the bar to rest on your thighs. Your thumbs shall not come in contact with your legs during the hold, either. Your fingers, hands and forearms will be screaming in protest.
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#3 - Towel Hammer CurlsThese make you feel barbaric.
Hammer curls are a long time staple in the strength world. It's been relied upon for upper arm strength and hand strength for decades. But with a slight tweak we can turn this classic into a potent lower arm builder that will send your forearm and grip strength through the roof.
For the towel hammer curl, all you need is a weight plate and a thick towel. You'll begin by placing the plate up right and then running the towel through the hole in the middle. Bring the two ends of the towel together and squeeze them together as hard as possible.
From here, while keeping a death grip on the towel, you'll hammer curl the plate up to your chest. Remember, the thicker the towel the harder this movement becomes.
#4 - Plate PinchingPlate pinching is a simple exercise for the forearms and grip. They are easily scalable too. To start out all you need are two plates that are flat on each side so that you can pinch them together. If you're completely new to grip training, start with two 10 pound plates for timed holds. Once this becomes too easy, move your weight up by adding another plate.
Once you level up, you can do plate pinch holds with four 10's. Then, move onto to two 25's - if you can hold two 25's for a few sets of 30 seconds, you've got a solid grip. If you continue to train your grip and arrive at pinching two 35's, you've got a grip that few posses. If you level up to pinching two 45's, you're bordering mutant status.
#5 - Farmer's WalkThe farmer's walk is deceptively potent. If you've built a baseline of grip strength and you can load a heavy carry, then farmer's walks are a must for grip strength and overall physical capacity. It will work every part of your body - from your brain to your toes - every corner will feel the load of the farmer's walk.
Although it's a simple move, there are a few cues to live by:
- Center yourself rather than "gripping and ripping." Starting the farmer's walk out of position will cause an imbalance of loads on each side.
- After you've centered yourself between the loads, tighten up like you would in a deadlift. Create some intra-abdominal pressure and lock your back into place before lifting.
- Don't overextended the back once you get the load off the floor. You want to go forward not backward. And, this isn't good for the low back. Engage the glutes and turn your abs once you have the loads off the floor.
- Take small steps. But, small doesn't mean slow.
- Have an attack mindset. If you approach the farmer's walk with anything else, you'll walk away feeling like you just got dominated by the school yard bully.