Long gone are the days of incorporating isolation style bodybuilding techniques into sports performance training. Think about it, is there any time in competition out side the congratulatory handshake where you would need crushing grip strength in complete isolation without any other body action or movement? No, of course not, so why train it that way?
The majority of exercises chosen for this article were chosen over others because they train the hand, wrist and forearms muscles in conjunction with the entire body.
Training the system with emphasis on weak points and form is the essence of sports-based strength and conditioning. It is what we will focus on here.
Quick review of anatomy
The hand wrist and forearm are made up of a conglomerate of muscles that work simultaneously to flex, extend, and deviate the wrist side to side. In fact, there are 33 muscles in the forearm alone. These muscles also contract and extend the fingers while adding a unique level of dexterity. These muscles all work in conjunction to make our hands truly unique instruments. To give you an idea how reliant all the muscles are on each other, we have two muscles in the anterior compartment of our fore arm ( the flexor digitorum superficialis and flexor digitorum profundus) which are powerful wrist and finger flexors which become almost useless when the wrist is passively flexed beyond their range. This means we have to be just as diligent in training the back side of the forearm ( the extensor muscles) to make sure we can use our forearm and finger flexors. With all this said, our hands end up becoming one of the main ways we communicate with everything around us.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the homunculus. This picture shows us how our brain views our body according to neuro-sensory distribution. Notice how big the hands are! That’s a lot of brain space dedication to such a small area. Needless to say, there are many benefits to increasing hand performance and stimulus.
Its easy to conclude that proprioceptive stimulation of the hands is pretty important.
Three types of grip strength
Crushing – The crushing grip is arguably the most applicable grip to grapplers. This grip is used when the hand is trying to squeeze tightly around an object that is slightly bigger than what it can fully close around. You can train this grip with crushers or fat grips and immediately make a normal workout a crushing workout. This grip is important for wrist control as the opponent’s wrist is usually bigger than what we can close our hands around so an engaged crushing concentric contraction is needed to keep hold. It will let you latch on tight and control position on objects that are of unusual size and shape.
Static Closed – The static closed grip has a lot of practical application in the grappling arts as well. More endurance based than the crushing grip, this grip requires the hand to be fully closed and locked into position before being challenged. The fingers are challenged less here as they are in an isometric contraction. This grip is our strongest athletic grip and is applicable for latching onto a GI or fabric we can easily close our whole hand around. Be sure to train this grip aggressively and in conjunction with the crushing grip.
Pinch – This grip requires that the distal pads of the fingers and thumbs approximate each other and close tightly. Anatomically the flexor digitorum profundus is the only forearm muscle that controls flexion of the DIP (distal interphalangeal joints) or the last finger joints. This grip is great for rock climbers and people who need to carry things the can close their hands around, like a carpenter carrying and large board. This grip plays a lesser role in grappling but should still be trained aggressively none the less.
Add these exercises in at the end of a workout to bring your grip training to the next level. For each exercise you can increase the challenge by adding fat grips, towel grips or a pinch grip block.
Single kettlebell swing
The single hand kettlebell swing is a hugely diverse exercise that demands strength and endurance from the fingers and hands all the way through the core to the ground. Few exercises challenge the full body in such a safe yet ballistic manner. With elements of hip power, core stability and grip strength, the single hand kettlebell swing is one of the best options for any grappling athlete.
As you swing the kettlebell to the chest be sure to pack the elbow into the rib cage engaging the lats and scapular muscles. This creates a tighter technique and helps recruit more muscles for a better workout and stronger swing.
Double pronated deadlift
The deadlift is one the foundational movements for all sports performance training. There are numerous ways to perform this exercise but since this article is limited to grip strength we will stay with the technique that provides the best return on investment.
The double pronated grip does just that. We are going to want to choose a bar that allows for rotation around the weights. Most standard 45lbs Olympic style bars will do this. The reasoning is that with a double pronated grip the bar will constantly try to rotate towards the fingers and slip out. To prevent yourself from losing the bar you have to grip tighter and harder. This constantly challenges your hand to stay closed around the weight.
Once you grab the bar and set up you’ll want to do a few things. First, once you establish your grip pull you shoulders down away from your ears and try to supinate your grip while holding the bar. This corkscrew motion will help engage the lats and scapular muscles and tie the whole motion together.
Kettlebell Farmers Walk
By far one of my favorite exercises. The farmers walk is a full body conditioning tool that will challenge you head to toe.
The brilliance of the farmers walk is in the simplicity of it all. Grab two kettlebells, set a distance or time and take them for a walk.
Keep the shoulders down and back and squeeze the handles as hard as you can. The faster you move your feet the more conditioning benefit you will derive. On the same note, the harder you squeeze the handles the better your grip will become. This exercise can be a great finisher or stand along workout. Be sure to choose a weight that is challenging. Build up to ½ bodyweight in each hand for 100 yards at a time and you are guaranteed to get stronger everywhere.
Towel Pulls are a great tool that develop the grip along with the forearms, biceps and pulling muscles of the upper body posterior chains. They can be done with a towel or a GI jacket and will challenge your grip in a very unorthodox pattern. With a fabric grip you will notice increased demands placed on the intrinsic hand muscles (lumbricals) and the forearms muscles that control the fingers (flexor digitorum superficialis and profundus). This is especially important for grapplers who compete in a traditional GI as there are the muscles that make the hands and fingers strong.
Simply take whatever rope or cloth you chose and throw it over a pull-up bar and start pulling. Some people may have to start with simple hangs for time with this grip, which is ok too. Use the static hangs to build endurance until you can add more dynamic movements in.
2 inch battling rope
Our closed grip is by far the strongest out of the three types of grip strength. There is a reason most lifting bars are 1 inch in diameter, because that’s the size that most people can easily close their hand around. However, when training grip, just like grappling, we don’t want easy we want effective.
Choose a battling rope that prevents you from fully closing your grip. I prefer the 2-inch rope as it seems to mimic the size of a wrist and ankle more closely. Next choose an exercise format. Alternating pulse is the most common and is a great way to finish a workout. It can also help keep your heart rate up between sets if conditioning and weight loss are goals.
The rope will challenge your upper body endurance while demanding core stability and grip endurance. Choose a time interval or go for total reps. Either way squeeze the rope as hard as you can throughout the duration of the exercise. As with grappling, technique is key here. Keep the elbows tight to the body and pulse fast and deliberate.
Half kneeling bottoms up kettlebell press:
The half kneeling bottoms up press brings a lot to the table. First off, if you are like most people you will have a side that is much more stable than the other. This is good to know since we would like to eliminate balance / stability asymmetries is athletic performance.
The half kneeling position is similar to a lunge position at the bottom. Choose a placement with the front foot that challenges balance and stability, but also allows you to complete the movement. If in doubt error with a wide stance then progress to narrow stance as time goes on.
Next, grab a kettlebell that allows you to maintain the bottoms up position. With the kettlebell bottoms up you will need to focus much more on your grip, but also on shoulder and neck position and stability. If you don’t own your grip and stability the kettlebell will fall back to the regular grip position on your forearm.
Squeeze hard, demand stability and you will reap huge benefits from this exercise. Use caution in pressing as any loss of concentration can cause injury with a kettlebell overhead.
The rice bucket is an old school forgotten tool mainly used by baseball players and wrestlers to increase wrist strength. The rice bucket will increase blood flow and movement based strength to every muscle in the forearms and hands and puts a nice finishing touch on our program. It will also make fighting off wristlocks a lot easier.
To begin, fill a 5-gallon bucket halfway with dry rice. With both fists clenched, drive your hands as far into the rice as possible. The goal now is to keep the fists clenched then flex and extend the wrists repetitively. Twenty to fifty reps is a good start.
Next, we are going to work clockwise and counter clockwise circles for the same number of reps. You should start to feel a significant forearm pump by this time. Finally, we want to open the hands up and finish with crushing hand fulls of rice in a gripping fashion until our grip is fatigued.
By training each movement listed you will hit nearly every muscle in the forearms and hands creating a monster grip.
Grapplers and combat sports need string hands and grip, it’s that simple. And while this article is in no way a comprehensive list of grip and forearm training tools, is does provide a solid addition to any training program to help further develop strength and endurance in the lower arm, an area often neglected in traditional strength and conditioning programs.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, don’t let yours be grip strength.
Be sure to visit the video post Jordan Hix and I did on the topic here at :