Grip strength is very important in most traditional sports, like basketball and baseball, and absolutely vital in combat sports and competitive weightlifting. All grapplers—wrestlers, Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners, and mixed martial artists—must possess a crushing grip in order to manipulate their opponents’ bodies to their liking and impose their own wills en route to victory. Professional boxers and K-1 fighters must also possess the same level of dexterity in their hands in order to continually punish their opponents round after round without fatiguing and injuring their joints. Professional bodybuilders and power lifters must too maintain this intense grip, or their most important compound lifts will suffer as a result; a common mishap occurs when an individual is physically strong enough to perform another repetition when deadlifting but is incapable of doing so because his or her grip has failed them. For the everyday individual, building a high-level of grip strength will aid in endurance during physical labor and home improvement activities, as well as promote joint mobility, which can aid in preventing arthritis and joint injuries.
Nothing builds a solid grip for the competitive athlete like simply doing what he or she wants to excel at—for a combat athlete this would be thousands of hours of hard drilling and sparring, and for a bodybuilder or power lifter, this would be spending the same laboring hours perfecting the compound lifts that are the most essential to physical growth and performance. While there is no substitute for simply doing what it is that you are striving to be the best at, by supplementing additional training techniques and secondary exercises you can greatly assist the progress of these primary routines and improve your competitive performance.
Depending on your personal goals, the amount of sets and reps, as well as the frequency of these supplementary exercises, can be altered. For instance, it may be more ideal for a martial artist to focus his or her primary attention on grip endurance, while a power lifter would likely want to improve his or her grip for explosive output. I personally recommend mixing high volume and low volume training for optimal improvement in athletic performance, no matter what your goal is. Find a balance that is most suitable to your needs. I generally recommend that these grip strength exercises be performed after all max-effort primary lifts, or at the conclusion of training or practice: this will prevent you from wearing yourself out and hampering performance during your primary training, and these supplementary exercises will also now become more physically and mentally challenging as you will already be fatigued. If your schedule and routine permit, an entire session can also be devoted to grip-centric exercises and this is something I highly encourage doing once or twice weekly if practical.
Plates—Barbell Plates are a readily available resource for building a solid grip, and a multitude of exercises can be performed with them. I personally utilize plates more than any other object for building grip—both for convenience sake and their versatility. Find a weight that is comfortable for you. As these are supplementary workouts heavy weight is not a priority, and attempting these exercises with more than you can handle can quickly result in injury.
One-Handed Series—The following exercises are to be performed with just one hand at a time. The grip utilized for these exercises requires you to scrunch your pinky, ring, middle, and index fingers together and place them on one side of the plate, and place your thumb on the opposite side. In every exercise performed, you will then lift the plate using only your fingers. Because you are now being forced to bear the weight of the plate with just one hand, while only using the fingers of that one hand, these exercises quickly become much more challenging then when done conventionally with two hands and a standard grip.
One-Handed Dead-Lift—Squat down in front of the barbell plate in a standard dead-lift stance—chest out, back straight, and knees bent. Grab the plate overhead with the grip described above, and slowly rise with the plate, just as you would a standard dead-lift, until you are standing fully erect, with the plate hanging in front of you. Repeat for desired repetitions and switch hands. Repeat for desired amount of sets. Just as if you were performing a standard dead-lift with heavy-weight, safety and technique are of the utmost importance when utilizing this lift. I cannot emphasis enough that weight is not important here. Take your time and lift properly.
One-Handed Delt Raise—Not all that different from a standard delt raise performed with one hand using a dumbbell, this is essentially the same exercise with a much tougher grip and surface to hold. Grab the plate at waist level and slowly raise it out directly out in front of you until your arm is pointed straight out, at about chest level. Repeat for desired repetitions and switch to the other arm. Perform as many sets as desired.
One-Handed Upright Row—Performed exactly like a standard upright row, with the difference being you are only utilizing the grip of one hand, and only using the fingers of that hand. Pick the plate up, holding it at waist-level. Slowly lift the plate until it reaches just below chest level, with your elbow pointed up. Repeat for desired repetitions and switch to the other arm. Perform as many sets as desired.
One-Armed Bent-Over Lat Row—Much like the one-handed delt raise, this exercise varies very little from its original counterpart, the one-armed lat row performed with a dumbbell. Place one knee and hand on a surface, such as a bench, while your other foot is planted on the ground. Allow the plate to hang by your side. Bend over and slowly row the plate back while keeping your elbow tight to your side until it has gone back as far is will contract. Squeeze your lat muscle while rowing back. Repeat for desired repetitions, and switch arm to the other arm. Perform as many sets as desired. For a greater challenge, perform the exercise while balancing on a ball instead of a grounded surface. This will force you to engage your core in order to maintain balance and change the exercise to a full-body lift.
The exercises listed above are all effective means of building grip strength, and when done in succession they are particularly challenging. A great workout can be done by keeping your eye on a clock or setting a timer for 30 second intervals. Perform each exercise for as many times as possible within those 30 seconds and switch to the next one. This could mean taxing one arm for an entire 30 seconds or alternating half way. Repeat this process for five minutes and take a minute to rest. Repeat for as many sets as you desire. This is a great way to burnout after a tough workout or practice, and as you get into the deeper minutes and rounds you will have to dig very deep mentally and physically to push through.
There are plenty of other excellent exercises that can be utilized with barbell plates for building grip and core strength, as well as muscular endurance and cardiovascular conditioning. These are just a few of your options, and I encourage you to experiment and see what challenges your body the most.
Nathane Jackson provides an excellent example of a very challenging core exercise performed with a barbell plate, which you can check out right here on SunWarrior News.
Ropes & Chains
In addition to the plate exercises listed above, performing many standard exercises with a chain or rope substituted in place of a conventional grip makes them much more challenging and beneficial to building a stronger grip. Exercises such as tricep push-downs, lat pull-downs and rows, and pull-ups are all great examples of exercises that can be adapted for building increased grip strength. One very creative thing I have seen utilized is Jiu-Jitsu players harnessing their gi tops around a pull-up bar and pulling themselves up while clutching the fabric of the uniform- a much more challenging and taxing grip than a standard pull-up requires.
There are a myriad of options to improve grip-strength, and if you are a serious competitor or goal-oriented individual, I highly encourage you to explore them. Get creative and see what works best for you.
The exercises listed above are just a few options to explore, and some of the best means to improve grip strength can come from simple, plain hard work. It is no mystery that many elite athletes have come from laboring in the workforce or tending farms, and these real-life labors most certainly give added weight to athletic performance and mental toughness. If you do not work a physically laboring job, get active in your own backyard—plant a garden or start a new home-improvement project. If you live in an urban environment and are unable to do that, try to get involved with a community gardening project. You will help the environment by harvesting organic crops, bond within your community, and build yourself up physically in the process.
Get out there and get a grip!
baseball image: Adam Klepsteen
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