Right to the point today – Let’s talk grip strength.
Without grips, you have nothing – Simple as. If your grip fails, all your experience, techniques and control go out of the window. Grip is where it all begins. It’s the first point of contact with an opponent and remains pivotal in your success throughout the duration of the fight.
What defines Grip Strength?
The fingers, hands, wrists and forearms together make up your grip. The term grip then encompasses acts of grabbing, holding and pinching.
In life, the grip strength is constantly called upon. Actions, even the most mundane like writing, holding groceries and carrying children are all grip based. In sports, specifically here, the grappling arts – sambo, bjj, wrestling, submission wrestling – the grip is vital for controlling opponents, manipulating them, pulling them, takedowns, submissions and the like.
Some will argue that sport alone is enough to develop an iron grip and while there is merit to that argument, as long as it doesn’t take away from the practice of the sport in question, supplementing it in the gym is only going to help.
In my mind, my practice and my coaching, grip is a vital component to being a stronger, better athlete.
The answer to this question is threefold.
Firstly, the obvious answer, the stronger your grip is, the longer, the stronger and the more control you’ll have over your opponents. Makes sense right?
The second reason is a little less obvious, but by strengthening your fingers, hands, wrists and forearms, you’re helping prevent future injuries. Look through a list of common BJJ injuries and a few will keep popping up – Tweaked fingers, sprained thumbs and wrists… And while strengthening the grips isn’t going to make you invincible to injury, it’s certainly going to help in the long run.
On a side note, neck injuries are pretty prevalent in the grappling arts, so do take the time to mobilize and strengthen your neck safely and effectively. If you want some further neck training reading then check out these previous three posts on the matter here, here and here.
The third reason is the most obscure and morbid of the bunch. It turns out that grip strength is a better indicator of cardiovascular disease, cancer and pneumonia than blood pressure. To save this article being insanely long, you can read about the study here.
Training Grip Strength
Luckily training the grip in an effective and efficient manner doesn’t need to be time consuming. My ethos on training is always to keep things simple and make them savage, grip strength is no different.
Not that there are many rules I follow, but there are three I like to abide by in terms of training the grip.
I. Try to Mimic the Grips used in your Sport
While gripping the bars and handles in the gym tighter is an effective way to train your grip, it’s lacking in sports specificity. By adding and implementing training using a gi, or even a towel, the exercises and training is then closer to the demands of the sport.
II. It can’t take away Mat Time
I’ve said it countless times before, but at no point should your gym time take precedence over mat time. Technique, sparring, drilling and learning is first and foremost for any athlete, especially ones in such an intricate sport like bjj.
Training the grip with the exercises in this piece doesn’t require a special trip to the gym. They can be added into your current routine without taking away from the mats, or your time conditioning or building strength. Consistency, simplicity, intensity coupled with the phrase a little goes a long way sum up training grip strength.
III. It can’t Effect your Ability to Train your Sport
Once again, much like grip training should never take away from mat time, it should also never affect your ability to train at a high level.
There are plenty of studies that indicate grip is a great indicator of over training and under recovery. A grip dynamometer is a very cheap investment and with literally 30 seconds of use in the morning can determine your level of recovery. When you’re over trained/under recovered, your central nervous system, peripheral nervous system, muscular systems and hormones suffer high levels of fatigue. Grip strength is a quick, low risk and effective means of measuring the body’s fatigue. While it’s not 100% perfect, it is a quick, cheap, fairly effective indicator.
When training the grip, hit a couple of sets of a couple of the exercises listed and save the rest of your energy for training. Like I said before, a little goes along way.
The Top 5 Exercises for the Grip
1. Farmer’s Walks
The farmer’s walk is a movement that I’d argue, with every fibre of my being, should be in everyone’s training program regardless of age, sex, weight, goals or sport. It’s simply that damn good.
The farmer’s walk has been described by some as a moving plank, which for lack of a better description is spot on. Not one muscle from head-to-toe can be off during the walk. For those who love the term “functional”, the farmer’s walk is king of the list. Lifting a weight from the ground, carrying it over a distance and returning it to the ground is honestly as functional as it gets in a training sense.
In terms of the age old question “what does it work?” well it’s a hard question to answer with an answer other than “everything”. Like I said above, every muscle in your body will be stressed. Your upper back, traps, obliques, hips and glutes will be hammered. Your lungs will burn, heart will pound, body-fat will be torched and your work capacity will be undoubtedly increased to new heights. If that’s not enough to convince you, here’s a quote from the coach of coaches, Dan John:
“The loaded carry does more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I’ve attempted in my career as a coach and an athlete.”
The reason I’ve listed farmers walks on a grip strength list is because the grip will be the first to go during the carries. More often than not in the farmer’s walks, the grip is the limiting factor.
Train farmer’s walks hard and you’ll not only reap the benefits listed above, but your grip has no choice but to improve.
As far as implementing the farmer’s walk into your training, the options are almost limitless. Heavy implement in hands, short distance – Lighter implement, longer distance – Carries for time rather than distance – Max distance covered in a given time – Race against a partner – Medley using different weights and equipment – Like I said, limitless. Use your imagination, train hard and get that grip stronger.
Honourable Mention… Static Farmer’s Hold
The honourable mention is the farmer’s walk without the actual walking. Simply, lift the weight from the ground and hold for time. The stresses on the body are lessened somewhat, but the grip remains a challenge. This is a great option for a crowded gym or a test of mental toughness.
2. Gi/Towel Grip Pull-ups
Pull-ups themselves are the king of upper body exercises, not the bench press like some would tout. The pull-up taxes the middle and lower traps, the rhomboids, pec majors, deltoids, lats, subscaps, biceps, full core, forearms and you guessed it, the grip.
The addition here is adding a gi or a towel to the demands of the movement. By simply throwing a towel or gi over the pull-up bar and gripping it throughout, you’re forcing the body to recruit more muscle fibres, work the fingers harder, bring the thumb into the movement more and infinitely make the movement more bjj specific.
When training the gi/towel grip pull-ups, make the reps slow on the descent, fast on the way up and controlled throughout. No kipping and no half reps,
My personal preference for pull-ups is greasing the groove from Pavel Tsatsouline. Check out his words on the matter here.
If you get to the point where you’re struggling to finish a rep, as a finisher, simply hang from the gi/towel until your grip is fried – Quick, simple and very effective training.
Honourable Mention… Rope Climbs
Rope climbs used to be a staple in schools gym training, but the problem now is they’ve been deemed too dangerous, too demoralizing and simply too hard. It’s a shame. The rope climb is incredibly beneficial for most athletes, in particular the grappling ones. The grip demands are unilateral. The core is forced to stabilize throughout.
The rope climb is a daunting task and often, it’s too demanding at first. There are plenty of progressions to utilize to still reap the benefits, while building up the strength for full climbs. Recline rows using the rope – Pull-ups using the rope – Full climbs using the feet – Footless rope climbs – L-sit rope climbs…
3. Single-arm Roped Rows
More work with the rope, this time in a single arm row. For this in exercise in particular, while the standard single arm row can be done with a dumbbell, a kettlebell is the better option here due to the handle. Loop the rope through the handle of the kettlebell and perform the movement utilizing the doubled rope as your grip.
The single arm row is one of those movements that so many get wrong. When correctly performed, the single arm row is an incredible movement that works numerous muscles throughout the upper body. The scapula will go through retraction and depression. The core will have to brace through anti-flexion and anti-rotation. The lats, rhomboids, erectors, the lower traps will get hammered and all the while the rotator cuff will be called in to stabilize.
The addition of the rope looped through the kettlebell handle is another way to recruit more muscle fibers, make the movement more sports specific, all while reaping the benefits of the traditional movement. Loop the rope through the handle and as you grip it you’ll be gripping both sides of the rope with one hand. This is a mega challenge for the grip and forearms, but persistence with the movement and progressively moving up in weight and reps will build unstoppable, unmoveable grips.
The set-up for the single hand row is down to personal preference. Some like one hand, one knee on a bench. Some like to lean the non-working hand on the non-working side knee. Others like to hinge and set the non-working hand onto a bench or rack for support. Which should you do? Like I said, it’s a mater of personal preference. The first option, the knee and hand on the bench, will keep the movement the most honest, preventing excessive movement in the hips and back during the actual row, but like I said, it’s personal preference that’ll determine your set-up.
As far as sets and reps go, I like to build up in a ladder format. For these rows, making jumps in fives seems to do the job nicely. Start with five reps each side, then 10, 15, 20 and finish with 25.
Honourable Mention… Fat Grip Kroc Rows
No rope? Get yourself a set of FatGripz, throw them on a dumbbell or kettlebell and get rowing for high reps. What are high reps? 20/25+ reps will have your forearms screaming.
4. Sled Rope Pulls
For this, you’ll need a prowler or dragging sled and a length of thick rope. I like 100’ long and as thick as possible. The task at hand is to then find a solid footing, a stable body position and hand-over-hand pull the rope until the sled reaches your feet.
The hardest part of the pull is getting the thing initially moving. All I can say is, once you do, keep pulling and do not stop. The pulls should be fast, with long reaching arms. The grip needs to be quick and when it’s on the rope, vice like. As you’re pulling, get the elbows back on each row, making full use of your lats.
The rope pull is a phenomenal exercise that honestly will smoke your arms, upper back, lats, core, hands, forearms and even legs as they’re called in to stabilize.
I can’t give you a weight to use because everyone is different. I’d suggest starting on the lighter side as you get a feel for the movement and work on from there. Just like any other exercise, you want to employ a couple of warm-up sets increasing in weight and then move onto your working sets at your heaviest weights. The other consideration is the ground you’re pulling on. Concreted, newly paved surfaces are the best. Indoor turf works well and grass is a nightmare, so the weights will have to be adjusted accordingly.
Honourable Mention… Roped Sled Drags
Want a horrendous workout?
First you complete the hand-over-hand rope pull, and then as the sled reaches your feet you turn, take a tight grip on the rope and walk backwards dragging the sled to its original starting position. This pattern repeats through the warm-up and working sets.
Full body strength and cardiovascular hell… four rounds or so of this and you’ll be done.
The deadlift stands proud as the single biggest and best exercise for building raw strength. You’ll strengthen your entire back, upper and lower. You’ll strengthen your hips, glutes and hammies while strengthening your hands, forearms and fingers.
There is a caveat to the deadlift though. Like I said, it’s an outstanding exercise for full body strength, there is, however, a ceiling to it for combat athletes.
Mike Boyle famously said:
“It isn’t easy to deadlift heavy loads well. It’s much easier to deadlift heavy than to deadlift well.”
But, what constitutes heavy?
Well, numbers I like to follow, conjured up by people much smarter than I are 2x bodyweight for men and 1.6x bodyweight for women – Lofty goals for most.
If you’re not at those standards, well get deadlifting!
The strength you’ll gain from them will set you apart from the rest on the mats. Your grip will become machine like and unlike squats, the deadlift isn’t a huge mass builder, making it perfect for those in weight classes who want strength, without the size.
Oh, and it should go without saying, but don’t use straps! The purpose is building up grip strength…
Honourable Mention… Different Bars
If you have the option, utilize different bars in the deadlifts. Thick bars (or a pair of FatGripz), an axle, trap bar, whatever, there are plenty of different kinds available and all will challenge the hands, fingers, forearms and grip in different ways.
Look, you’re not training to win a grip strength event. You’re supplementing your grappling art by building strength, endurance and adding in injury prevention.
Build up slowly like you would with any strength endeavour and never take your time or intensity away from the mats with supplemental training.
As always, train your body and mind hard.