Between the ergo rower, pull-up bar and Olympic barbell, chances are good that grip was a key player in your last Workout of the Day. Not that you thought about it, of course. Your focus was probably still on major muscle groups — your chest, back, hips and legs — because these are the key components that help you pull and push stuff better than the competition. The tendency is to think of forearm musculature as ancillary, but if your grip strength is subpar, you can forget about crushing any personal bests and instead prepare to live a squalid and shameful existence near the bottom of the whiteboard.
“Most of us take grip strength for granted in everyday life — until you need it and lack it,” says Aush Chatman, coach and owner of CrossFit San Diego (crossfitsandiego.com). “It just so happens that for most of us, it’s while we’re on the pull-up bar. The truth is, grip can be a limiting factor for your performance, or lack thereof, on many exercises.”
What’s a driven, dedicated CrossFitter to do? We’d argue that you should snuff out any and all weak links — real or imagined — until you become the bulletproof, firebreathing monster that you were born to be. To do that, all you have to do is make your grip a commodity rather than a liability.
“Improving your grip strength can make you about 75 percent more productive as a CrossFit athlete,” Chatman says. “If you list all the exercises we do in CrossFit and then highlight all the exercises where grip plays an integral role, it’s going to be about 75 percent of them, with many of them our staples. How many other things can you work on to instantly gain efficiency across nearly every exercise we do? Not many.”
THE PHILOSOPHY OF GRIP
Before your mind starts drifting toward slow-mo visions of grunting meatheads performing wrist curls at Globo Gym, consider the functionality of grip. “You first need to understand what grip strength really is,” Chatman says. “There’s crushing strength, where you’re squeezing something in your hand. There’s support strength, which involves just holding objects. And there’s pinch strength, which involves holding or squeezing an object with your thumb and fingers. The first two are integral for CrossFitters, while the third is more rare.”
Chatman cites dynamic pulling movements like the deadlift, clean and snatch, and more static tests of grip strength like rings, parallel bars or farmer’s walks as examples of exercises in which a vise-like grip is essential. “But hand strength is also critical for moves with hand balancing, like handstands,” he says. “To be good at handstands is to be able to balance with small variations of the flexors and extensors of the hand. It’s when you’re not that great at balancing that shoulders, core, hips and legs get involved.”
Still, Chatman cautions against making strength your sole focus — overall grip conditioning is important, as well. “These are all smaller muscles, some of them extremely small, so endurance is key,” Chatman says. “This is especially true in CrossFit where you may be asked to be on the pull-up bar for long stretches and then mix that with other grip-intensive moves like deadlifts, cleans or rope climbs. Ever do a rope climb/knee to elbow couplet? Evil!”
READY, SET, GRIP
So clearly, grip strength is important. But when do you introduce it and how do you go about building it? “In my opinion, a CrossFitter doesn’t need extra grip work until he or she is competent with the deadlift and pull-up,” Chatman says. “To me, that means you can do four to five strict pull-ups and can deadlift one and a half times your bodyweight.” This ensures your grip work isn’t going to inadvertently hinder your primary compound strength exercises. Once you reach those milestones, specific grip accessory work would be fine to introduce, just do it slowly. There isn’t much of a need for a CrossFitter to work a crush grip: “You’re much better off starting your accessory grip work with support work, then adding pinch work, and then if you’re interested, crush work can be added,” Chatman says.
Your grip is strongest when your hands are closed in a fist. As your fingers open, your grip is compromised. And unless you train in these more “open” positions, your grip can begin to compromise your performance.
Train: Every other week, perform your deadlifts using a 2-inch thick-handled bar. If you don’t have one at your disposal, you can wrap a training towel around the bar. Start with a weight that is slightly less than your normal 10-rep maximum and aim for 10 reps. You also can do these one-handed using dumbbells or kettlebells. Farmer’s walks can be performed similarly using a towel.
Hand grippers, whether of the plastic or metallic variety, are simple implements. Grasp, close and release. That’s fine if you’re trying to show off to the resident gym hottie, but if you’re trying to build crush strength, then it’s going to involve a bit more calculation.
Train: Find a gripper that is challenging to close and perform five attempts with each hand as prescribed, then invert the gripper and make five more attempts with each hand. Follow this with negative work by using two hands to close the gripper, then letting go with one hand and resisting with the other it as it opens. Perform three negatives with each hand. Do this routine once or twice per week. Find your own heavy gripper at leehayward.com/blog/heavy-grips-hand-grippers/.
How strong are those fingers? You’re about to find out. Part of what makes CrossFit cool is being able to do stuff that most people can’t. Muscle-ups and handstand push-ups are impressive physical feats, but so is pinch-grip cleaning two, three or even four weight plates.
Train: Place two equal weight plates together with the smooth sides facing out. If you’re new to pinch-grip training, start with a pair of 5-pounders. Set the weights on the floor, reach down and grab them using only your fingers and thumb, which should lay flat against the weight on either side. Begin as you would at the start of a clean and explode the weight off the floor, elevating it to the “catch” position. Lower it to the start position and repeat. Perform three to four sets of five to six reps with each hand.
COMING TO GRIPS WITH BALANCE
All things in balance. CrossFitters are nothing if not obsessive when it comes to snuffing out weaknesses. But in a sport where so much of what you do requires pulling, squeezing and holding on to stuff, why wouldn’t you also train to have a Hulk-like grip? Follow the sage advice laid out here, and you’ll be putting up monster-plus times and totals on the whiteboard in no time.
BALANCE YOUR BRUTE STRENGTH
Don’t ignore your forearm extensors in your quest for a stronger grip. “In grip work, most of the exercises work the flexors, so ensure you are doing some extensor work,” Aush Chatman says. “Rubber bands around your fingers or opening your hands in a rice bucket work nicely. So this month when you’re at the CrossFit Games and Reebok is handing out those free rubber bracelets, grab a few and start putting them to use.”
“Grip-enhancing tools are meant to allow you to lift weight that you otherwise wouldn’t have the grip strength to lift,” Aush Chatman says. “Is that cheating? Maybe in an alternate reality where we lost World War II! Thankfully, that’s not the case. Use these tools, but sparingly, particularly if you’re trying to build grip strength.”
Product Rating1 Comments
Wrist Straps * Greatly reduces the contribution from your hands
Chalk *** Enhances tactile grip on a bar, comes in handy
Mixed Grip ***** Increases hold on a bar during deadlifts, keeps your
grip in play
1 On a scale of one to five stars, with five stars being best.
Aush Chatman is a CrossFit coach and owner of CrossFit San Diego (crossfitsandiego.com). He has been certified since 2007 and also works as a gymnastics coach for multiple CrossFit affiliates.