Grip is a pretty underrated strength capability. You rarely see grip worked into training programs or set aside for dedicated improvement, yet it’s such an integral part of lifting in general – especially Crossfit!
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my own grip strength, and how it’s currently affecting my performance in the gym – all this was brought on by two very bad, very painful palm rips in the past few weeks. Besides the obvious reasons, why do I keep ripping? To me, it comes down to two things:
- Speal bar + chalk overuse, due to lack of grip strength in my hands, which I compensate for by using the textured bar for better grip (which doesn’t get me stronger in the long run).
- A death grip on the bar, due to lack of forearm strength, which I have to make up for in my hands (which we’ve already established aren’t that strong).
I talked to my coach about this last night for ways to improve grip, and his answer was simple: grip heavy things. Grip them til they literally fall out of your hands.
Exercises for training grip
There are many ways to train grip, but the advice I’ve been given is to not over-complicate things and just GRIP stuff. Here is what you should try, if you want to improve your grip strength:
- Farmer’s carry / hold: Pick up, in each hand, the heaviest kettlebell you can currently carry. It should be heavier than what you typically do in your WODs, but you should also be able to get it off the ground into a standing position! While you can do a traditional farmer’s carry and walk a given distance with the weight, we’re not worried about mileage here – just grip. Stand upright and just hold the kettlebells, working up to an accumulated 5 minutes of holding. Don’t set them down!
- Plate pinches: Grab 2 sets of plates at a manageable weight (not as heavy as the kettlebell – this exercise is more about pinching than holding something heavy). While standing upright, pinch the plates together in each hand so that they are hanging parallel to your legs. Hold onto this as long as you can (not letting the plates slide / fall apart), working up to an accumulated 5 minutes of holding.
- Dead hangs: Often something you do to help stretch out your shoulders and lats, a dead hang can be great for working up your grip strength! Hang from the bar (preferably NOT a speal bar), making sure you’re hanging more from the top of your hand than the center (you want the bar where your fingers meet your palm). Work up to about 2 minutes of hanging, without dropping down.
Why grip strength is important
We’d all love to stop wasting time chalking up between sets (every second counts) so let’s face it: grip is a HUGE part of Crossfit and is just as important to improve along with the other muscles in your body. Among the many things to benefit from strengthened grip are:
- Pull-ups / chest-to-bar / muscle-ups / toes-to-bar all need good grip strength in order to stay on the bar longer, unbroken. Half the reason I end up dropping back to the ground is because my grip is sliding! Then I chalk up, hop back up, and run into the same issue a few reps later. This vicious cycle costs me valuable seconds in my workouts.
- Kettlebell swings get pretty deadly once your grip begins to slide. Especially if you are competing and aren’t allowed to “elevator” the kettlebell up, the momentum of the swing will start to wear out your forearms rather quickly!
- Cleans & snatches when lightweight and in high volume require exceptional grip strength. While hook grip can be used to pull heavier weight with more force, quick repetitions don’t allow for easy turnover quite as smoothly using hook grip. If you’ve ever had a WOD that combined high rep power cleans with pull-ups, you’ll know how quickly your forearms can burn out!
- Deadlifts don’t just rely on the posterior chain to move heavy weight – you need a good grip on the bar to keep things moving! I used to overly rely on straps to hit a one rep max before starting Crossfit – where there was no longer time to set up straps during a WOD! Little did I know this was hindering my progress by limiting the amount of strength I could build up in my hands and forearms. Ditch the straps and pull what you can without – your grip will only improve with your overall strength.
What about hook grip?
Hook grip is ideal for heavier weights, or lower reps, of Olympic lifts like the clean and snatch – and is used most frequently when hitting a particular rep max or in a competition setting where you only make a few key pulls.
The hook grip is where, rather than wrapping your thumb around the bar to go over your fingers on the other side (like for a deadlift), you actually wrap your fingers over your thumb to really “lock in” the bar. This helps alleviate some of the wear on your forearms during heavier movements, so you can focus more on the technique rather than getting caught up in trying to pull the darn thing high enough with what energy you have left in your forearms.
The caveat – hook grip is perfect for the initial pull of a snatch or clean. But, most people release the hook grip when finishing in the front rack position (especially if they are going straight into a thruster or jerk / shoulder-to-overhead movement). The snatch can finish with the hook grip still intact. But if you’re going straight down into another rep, the hook grip will be hard to maintain and reset every time – and remember, every second counts.
Train your grip strength for high rep movements, so you don’t burn out before you’re really finished. Not only will your endurance improve during a grip-intense WOD, but you may actually find you can lift a heavier load on certain lifts – because your grip is no longer limiting you!