Luke Tipple M.S., C.S.C.S., USAWS., SCCC, RKC
Grip strength is sometimes thought of as just hand strength, and while hand strength is certainly included, there are many other things to consider when thinking of grip. Grip involves everything from the musculature near the elbow down to the fingertips. It has to be thought of this way because many of the forearm and hand flexor muscles actually begin above the elbow, and anytime a muscle crosses a joint, it will in some way influence it. As we move downward, the gripping muscles pass through the forearms, the wrists, and into the hands, fingers, and thumbs and not only through the front of the forearms, but also the back of forearms. Looking at grip we start to see that there are many movement patterns that are realized by the lower arm musculature.
As we train the lower arms, we must then remember to train all of these movement patterns in order to maintain a balance between the antagonistic muscle groups, such as the flexors and extensors. Many cases of inflammation related forearm pain such as tendonitis and epicondylitis (tennis elbow) can occur to improper training of the forearm muscles or neglecting certain muscle groups or movement patterns.
Types of Grip Strength
There are many defined forms of gripping. Some involve mainly the hands while others involve action from the wrist and forearm as well.
Hand Specific Movements
Crushing is the action of closing the fingers against a resistance. Similar but often over looked are clamping (wrapping the fingers around something and squeezing it toward the palm) and crimping (directing force with the fingers toward the callous line).
Pinching involves grasping something with the thumbs in opposition to the fingers. This can be static (no movement, such as gripping a board) or dynamic (such as squeezing the handles of a clamp).
Supporting grip entails lifting something with the fingers taking the brunt of a load normally in an isometric fashion, like deadlifts, rows, and kettlebell work. It should be noted that true support grip entails the fingers wrapping well around the bar. If the handle is large enough that there is a space between the fingers and thumb, it is referred to as open hand support.
Extension Hand extension is the opening of the fingers and thumb (antagonistic action to flexion of the fingers and thumb).
Wrist & Forearm Postures
Ulnar / Radial Deviation is angling the wrist toward the inside or outside edges of the forearm.
Flexion / Extension is the bending of the wrist so that the palm moves toward the front of the forearm. Extension, is the antagonistic movement pattern and involves moving the wrist so that the back of the hand moves toward the back of the forearm.
Pronation / Supination are the terms given to forearm rotation. Pronation is the turning of the forearm so that the palm faces down (similar to prone, as in lying face-down), while supination is turning the forearm so that the palm faces upward.
Circumduction is a combination of all of the above movement patterns, where the hand moves in a circular fashion about the wrist. It can also be done holding something, such as a softball to include finger flexion.
Elbow Movement Patterns
Flexion (with Pronation) is bending the elbow so that the forearm nears the bicep with the palm facing downward, like a reverse bicep curl motion.
Flexion (with Supination) is bending the elbow so that the forearm nears the bicep with the palm facing upward, like a normal bicep curl motion.
Extension is straightening the elbow, such as in the bench press. Any weakness in the surrounding musculature can decrease your numbers on the bench and other movements.
Grip Training Guidelines for Beginners
While everyone can benefit from including regular grip training in their workout routines, not everyone is at the same level of strength and some may be more at risk to injuries. Start out light, begin by modifying some of your regular lifting so that it is more grip intense and then from there add more work. For instance, you can use a towel as the handle on rows for a couple of weeks to get the hands used to working harder, then you can begin adding other implements and techniques into the training as well.
Move up slowly, for those just starting out, I suggest one or two grip intensive lifts per session once per week for two weeks. After two weeks, move up to two workouts where you include grip specific lifts. After a month, do workouts where you train the grip serious up to 3 times a week. Watch the volume when performing grip lifts separate from the rest of your routine. Think of training volume as the number of sets and reps in a workout. Most people progress very well with grip strength if they stay in the 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 repetitions range when performing grip lifts like. Train the extensors to keep progressing, make sure to include training for the muscles on the back of the hand. You can do this easily and on the cheap by using the large rubber bands found on heads of broccoli. Wrap the rubber band around the fingers and thumb and then open them against the resistance of the band. This is a surprisingly effective way to work the extensors. If you can do more than 20 repetitions, then try adding another rubber band in order to increase the resistance or hold the opened position for 2 or 3 seconds before doing the next repetition.