In Part 1, I picked the brain of Jedd Johnson, Diesel Crew founder, grip master, competitor and all around badass. A former training partner and grip protégé of Jedd’s is our very own Power Athlete ambassador, Bobby Goodfellow. Bobby is a D-List celebrity, and grip training enthusiast to the core. Many of you may remember his viral video where he folded frying pans and tore shit in half followed by his subsequent podcast appearance to prove that it wasn’t a David Blaine stunt or the magic of cinematography. I had the chance to talk with Bobby recently about his love of grip strength and what role it plays in things like CrossFit and sport training. With the CrossFit Open right around the corner, I couldn’t think of a better resource than the Director of Strength and Conditioning at CrossFit Praxis in Washington, DC.
A few years ago, Bobby introduced me to the idea that “the hands are the end of the kinetic chain”. This is a fascinating concept for so many reasons. It helped to connect the dots in terms of applying maximal force on an object, as well as the psychological effect that grasping something could have on the brain. Working to adjust an athlete’s squat set up so that they can grasp the bar throughout the set (assuming flexibility allows) will pay dividends as it relates to his ability to apply maximal force during the lift. Have them think about squeezing and pushing up on the bar while coming out of the hole and you’ll find that it sparks an aggressive “UP” mentality.
Even more simple, perform virtually anything with maximal exertion with hands open and then hands closed. Power Athlete HQ’s friend and medical resource, Dr. Craig Buhler, who works with Olympic and professional athletes alike including the Utah Jazz, demonstrated the gravity of this concept to me firsthand. Applying maximum force and muscular contraction is more effective when the kinetic chain is closed, as in creating a fist. In addition to pushing, pulling, and the mental fortitude that is gained from an aggressive grip, it’s a necessary part of virtually every athlete’s training. This is particularly true when your sport dictates holding onto a barbell or pull-up bar for tens or even hundreds of repetitions.
Building on the knowledge dropped during Part 1, Bobby will now create a base understanding of grip components, discuss some general guidelines, and proper implementation protocol in an attempt to eliminate grip as a limiting factor in yourself or your athletes. According to him, there are several components to establishing grip:
- Flexion – wrist curls (bar or plate) – barbell dumbell, plate, band
- Extension – reverse wrist curls (bar or plate) from neutral, barbells, plate curl
- Ulnar Deviation – sledge hammer lever lifts (from the face), sledge hammer strikes
- Radial Deviation – sledge hammer deadlifts, upward sledge hammer lever lifts, sledge hammer strikes, pulling a hammer up, band work shakeweight, broomstick of dowel
- Pronation – sledge hammer rotational lifts, macebell swings, indian club swings
- Supination – sledge hammer rotational lifts, macebell swings, indian club swings
Ulnar and radial deviation in a nutshell.
- Crush – grippers, squeeze something, pick up a rock, palm a slam ball
- Extensors – bands (like a produce rubberband), rice bucket, outer limit loops, jar lifts
- Pinch – block weights, plate pinches
- Fingers – fingertip push-ups/pull-ups, eagle loops, hub lifts
- Support Grip – thick bar work, rolling thunder lifts, fat gripz, towel pull-ups, towel kettlebell swings, battle ropes
Bobby’s Grip Guidelines
First, get your priorities straight. Grip training should be an important part of your overall training program, but it should not limit your overall strength gains. i.e. If you want to improve your deadlift don’t limit your gains by imposing an added grip challenge (like an axle or fat grips or dual overhand grip). If you’re going to invest in grippers, get good grippers. You get what you pay for – that $5.00 plastic handled gripper at Sports Authority might seem like a good idea, but it won’t last. Start out with good grippers, take care of them and they’ll last you a lifetime of training. Captains of Crush, Beef Builder, Robert Baraban grippers are all top-notch. Wade Gillingham is now manufacturing grippers as well under the name, Gillingham High Performance. Block weights are one of the best tools for grip strength. Find old broken hex head dumbbells, cut the handles off and voilá, instant grip tool. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to the old York cast dumbbells, you can create blobs. They’re harder than hex heads to lift and really valuable.
As a general rule, performing most of the movements particularly the wrist exercises will be easier using two hands. If you want to identify imbalances and work towards filling the gap, it’s necessary to do unilateral work. Don’t hide your weaknesses- find them and eliminate them. Also, when it comes to tempering intensity and resistance, understand how and why the object is making the exercise challenging. Choking up on a 10lb hammer may seem like baby games for a lot of the wrist work but choking to the end and creating a longer lever will increase the resistance and achieve a higher intensity. The same rule applies to utilizing plates of various sizes. The diameter will challenge the movement in ways that a simple increase in weight may not.
Second, don’t be an idiot. Believe it or not, you can really injure yourself doing any of the above exercises. A good rule is to not go too heavy too fast, particularly if you are new, and take plenty of time to warm up. Pinching movements can be dicey, but gripping is where most careless injuries are incurred. Have a warm up gripper (something you can confidently close for reps), a goal gripper (something you’ve closed only a couple of times), and a beyond-goal gripper (ambitious PR). I like to warm up without any resistance- just opening and closing the hand with increasing pressure, then using a cheesy little stress ball, then my first gripper.
And finally, remember that grip work should be completed after the workout. As I said before, grip accessory work should never ever inhibit the efficacy of a program, particularly for a person whose performance is heavily reliant on strength gains. At the very least, athletes should be regularly including extensor work to create muscle balance and prevent injury.
This program focuses on three areas of grip: crush, pinch, and wrist development. The design is based on a few assumptions; you have grippers (and know how to use them), you have barbells and plates, you have a sledgehammer and something to hit with it (a strongman tire is perfect for this), and you have undergone a thorough warm-up and movement prep prior to.3-day Program: 1-day On/1-day Off; 4 weeks. Ideally performed on 2 “pushing” days and 1 “pulling” day.
Day 1: Crush
Work up to 3-5 heavy attempts on your heaviest closable gripper L/R
Volume work, back down the ladder to failure
Extensor volume 3xmax reps no more than 15-20 reps
Day 2: Pinch
Plate pinch farmers walk
AHAP for distance
5 attempts at set distance without failure
Extensor volume 3xmax reps no more than 15-20 reps
Day 3: Wrist
Sledgehammer tire strikes
1-min On/1-min Off Max Effort
Extensor volume 3 x max reps no more than 15-20 reps
At the completion of this program, a volume reduction will be seen in grippers, block weights should take the place of the plate pinches, and a different lever lift should be swapped in for the sledgehammer tire strikes.
As you can see, a firm grip isn’t just about impressing your friends with “cheap parlor tricks”, it’s a rapidly growing competitive sport and provides an undeniable advantage to virtually any athlete. Why allow your lack of grip strength to limit you from weight room gains which will only equate to potentially sub-optimal on field performance? Or, if you find yourself struggling to hang on to that 2 pood kettlebell mid WOD, that also does not bode well for your weekend warrior competition. Incorporate the above program into your existing training and benefit from the innumerable applications of strong set of paws.
Functional movements performed at a high intensity, for instance.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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