Always ask for help when you need it. I sure do. I’m not stubborn in that way, and if someone is better than me at something, I want their help and I want to learn. But you would be hard pressed to find me calm and not annoyed if I have to ask you to help me open a jar of pickles. I want to open that jar by myself, dammit, and I might just put them away and decide I don’t really need to eat pickles that bad … and then I’ll try to open it again later ... in private where I can scream swear words about it if I can’t.
That is a true story ya’ll. There was a time when my joints were really bad and my hands couldn’t do too much and it affected everything I touched - literally. I’m past that for the most part thanks to patience, training, and healing. My hands are not my little sister’s delicate pretty violin playing hands - they’re on the meatier side, and I prefer them strong. But no matter your hand size and shape or what you use them for - your grip is something you absolutely need to think about. If you open jars, throw balls, carry groceries, deadlift or bench press, do pullups, want to do pullups, travel with a suitcase, swing rackets, practice self defense, swing kettlebells, want healthy shoulders, or open heavy doors - you must read on and take notes.
Grip is undoubtedly one of most under appreciated components of being strong. And that’s too bad because it can affect everything. Maybe it’s been under the radar because it’s not glamorous? It's under-evaluated? Because it’s intimidating? Because it’s instantaneously more gratifying to have a sore butt versus having sore hands? Because nobody discusses the carryover to other skills? Could be all of the above. Whatever the reason, I want to call attention to it and change your mind. Research has told us declining grip strength can mean more injuries later in life and possibly predict longevity. You might be wondering by now what grip strength really is and how to begin to incorporate things that will help. I’m going to give you some ideas of how to start working your grip. Let’s break it down.
Types of Grip Strength
Crush Grip - Think of crumpling a beer can, squeezing a hand gripper or ‘crushing’ someone’s hand firmly in a handshake. The grip between your fingers and your palm.
Support Grip - Picture pullups, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, or carrying heavy bags to your door from your car. This is about being able to hold something for a while - the fingers might be very open if for example, a large handle (open hand support grip), or more tightly closed around something smaller.
Pinch Grip - Visualize a crab or lobster pinching something … or yourself pinching a sibling when you were little.This is the grip between your fingers and your thumb. It can also be just one, or a couple of fingers, and your thumb.
All of the above ‘types’ of grip strength are important. I like to train all three types of grip so that I can be well rounded. I’ve actually found that pinch training has helped my fat bar deadlift (support grip) because of the thumb strengthening benefits. However, it’s up to you what you want or need to focus on. If you drop deadlifts because of your hands and not your legs, you might want to focus more on support … if you want to close grippers and dominate handshakes you might focus more on crush … if you want to pinch people and snap loudly, pinch focus is your game … if you can’t open jars, a combination of pinch exercises and crush will help … if your shoulders are weak and you have rotator cuff stuff, support grip in the form of farmers carries will often do the trick. There are even more types of grip and I've left out forearm, extensor, and wrist stuff and plan to do an additional post about that stuff later.
Some Simple Ways to Get Started
Start light - don’t go overboard - and just pick one or two of these things to try - you can add more later. There are many ways to train grip. Below is just a list of a few of my favorites that I’ve found beneficial for me or for my female clients that have come to me with weak grip strength.
Farmer Carries: Grab something in your hands and walk with it. I like to use dumbbells or kettlebells here, but your options are endless. Fill up water jugs, suitcases, or buckets - make sure it’s heavy enough that your grip will give out eventually - walk fast. You can walk for time and aim to increase your number over the course of a couple weeks or aim to increase the load carried for let’s say, two minutes. Do these twice per week and probably towards the end of your workouts if you need your grip for other stuff.
High Volume Assisted Smith Machine Chin Ups: Set a smith machine bar low enough that you can stand tall grasping it with your chin over the bar. Drop into a squat position - use your legs to help get your chin up over the bar. Focus on not using your legs and really squeezing the bar and using your back and hands to pull up. This video shows a couple variations - though I like to have people keep their heels down on the ground so they are also working a nice deep squat at the bottom. But either way will work. Try 3 sets of 12 - 15 twice per week. You will feel it in your hands and forearms. Use your legs to help you get your chin over the bar every single time.
Hanging: Simply hanging from a pullup bar with your feet off the ground can be very hard for newbies. If you can only hang for a few seconds, aim to increase that each workout. If you can’t hold on at all - that’s ok. Try the above listed Smith Machine pullups - or do an assisted hang. Put a box underneath you and drop down into a ‘hang’ - take one foot off the box but leave the other on. Or hang with just your toes touching box until you feel comfortable to lift them up. It will get easier. Patience.
Hand Grippers: The Cannon Powerworks site has some good info for beginners. They even offer a ‘starter’ pack for women. However, I’ve found that the “S” or Sport level gripper is too heavy for most women that are just starting. It was for me when I had injured hands. Sometimes even, the Guide, lighter than the Sport is too much. I have most of my female clients buy the Zenith Agility Gripper and the Guide. They start with higher volume on the Zenith (think 3 sets of 10 if it’s doable for them) and then slowly increase reps until they are able to switch to and close the Guide easily. Close means handles touch and clack together. Try adding grippers twice per week. 2 or 3 sets of 5-10 is enough for newbies. If you have a gripper you can’t close, get one that’s easy to shut and don’t practice by straining to close one that’s too hard for you. That's like doing partial squats or dropping a bench press on your chest because it's too heavy. You’ll get there.
Pinch Plates or Books Together: Try pinching two 5lb plates together in your fingers and thumb like a lobster. Easy? Try two tens. Hard? Try two or three 2.5lb plates. Try pinching one 25lb plate between your fingers and holding. Do two sets of 5 or so lifts with each hand or pinch and walk around with them til you get tired. Don’t have plates? Try finding two books, fairly thin books about the same size in your house. Pinch them together, squeeze, and lift or walk around with them. When this gets easy find bigger, thicker, or heavier books.
I could keep going on and on with exercise ideas but I think that’s enough for now. My formerly dislocated shoulders are more stable from having added grip stuff and I don’t ask for help or hide pickle jars anymore that I can’t open. If you’re still feeling confused as to how and what to incorporate for your specific needs - reach out via my website contact form - I’m happy to answer questions if I can. I like talking about strength stuff. Don’t do nothing. I’m tired of only the boys getting accolades for their handshakes. Who says you can't have pink nails and squeeze a hand like you mean it? Get working on yours - the pickle jar and your hands can thank me later.