I'm obsessed with grip strength.
While I won't be walking into Grip Strength Anonymous anytime soon, know that my obsession comes from a good - but embarrassing - place. As late as last year, whenever I shook someone's hand my wrist and hand would pop. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal - until you're on the receiving end of that handshake.
"Did I just break your hand?"
"Are you OK?"
"Was that you?"
Yeah, I heard ALL of that. It's not the way you want to start a conversation or a professional relationship. But I've learned a lot since those days. First, that my wrist popping and pliable fingers are a sign of my hypermobility. Second, that a firm handshake is central to the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness.
I jest, but there really is more to grip strength than needing to assert your presence with authority. Grip strength is indicative of rest and recovery and there's a ton of evidence illustrating how it has a link to a healthy, longer lifespan (here, here, and here.) Further, there's nothing that translates to real life better than a strong grip.
How do you improve your grip strength? For starters, you need to dedicate part of your training specifically to grip strength. So get ready to spend an extra 10-15 minutes of your training sessions on grip strength and changing a few exercises around to help. That's really all you need.
1. Captains of Crush Grippers
I have a big ego when it comes to certain activities (cough coughdeadliftingcough cough). So when I first heard about Captains of Crush, I thought "they can't be that hard. After all, I can deadlift 500 pounds regularly."
These grippers are not the type you can pick up at your local sports store. They're industrially made and after reading the book about them - because of course I would read that book - I gained a new respect for how hard they are.
That said, I originally ordered the #1 CoC gripper which is estimated to be 140 pounds of pressure. I was humbled. I could barely close the #1 with my left, and was nowhere near closing it on my right. Realizing this glaring weakness (pun intended), I immediately ordered the Trainer, listed as 100 pounds of pressure. Since then, I've graduated to the #1.5 (167.5 pounds) gripper and have come oh-so-close to closing the #2 (195 pounds).
But I'm all about results. As my grip strength improved, my overall strength improved greatly as well. I could make the connection in my head that better grip strength would help certain "grip" exercises like deadlifts, chin-ups and presses. But I also noticed that my front squats, back squats, and core work notably improved too. Why?
Besides having a strong grip, the CoC grippers help teach the two main tenets of lifting heavy things - tension and relaxation. Which brings me to my next point..
2. Practice tension....but also relaxation
While I absolutely adore my grippers, the biggest lesson they taught me was how to produce more tension. Just like a strong handle will help you use a slingshot, we'll be able to move heavy things - or crush a tough gripper - much more efficiently the tighter we get. The CoC grippers are a phenomenal tool to hone that skill.
As the ability to get tight is a skill, so too is the ability to relax. And it involves much more than pulling a Frank Costanza and yelling "Serenity Now!!" But why is the ability to relax so important? Because unnecessary tension is going to limit our skill, power and strength.
Ever notice that basketball players can hit free throws at will during practice, but how few do the same in the waning seconds of a game? Or how most golfers can sink a 6 foot putt in practice, but how they get a case of the "yips" when the pressure is on? The same thing happens to us when we're training. If we can't completely relax, we're putting a cap on what our bodies can do. The ability to relax and then get tense helps us maximize our efforts. How you accomplish it is up to you.
Don't believe me? That's cool. Ask anyone that's studied martial arts for an extended period of time and they'll tell you that "fast and loose" is where it's at.
3. Emphasize grip work on other exercises.
If you're looking for better grip strength, engineering your current exercises to be more "grip heavy" is merely a natural progression - that is, to insane people like myself.
Grip work can simply be trying the fatter handles on a barbell or dumbbell. It can be holding the top of a deadlift for an extended period of time. Or, it can be holding the very bottom of a chin-up or pull-up for as long as you can.
One of my favorite grip strength exercises is Bottoms Up Kettlebell work. The ability to keep a bell upside down takes the tension-relaxation spectrum to a whole new level. Suddenly, you NEED to focus and get as tight as you possible can. As far as what exercises to do when you're doing bottoms up work? I'm partial to carries and presses.
Below is a video of myself from August doing a bottoms up press with a 36 kilogram (79 pound) kettlebell. Not shown in the video? Sitting for a good 3 minutes before this attempt, telling myself to "relax." :)
It won't surprise you that I got into the world of grip strength in my search for a heavier deadlift. But now? I won't be leaving anytime soon.