Getting A Grip On Grip Training
Having a strong set of hands can take you a long way in the weight room. In my eyes, having a strong set of hooks is a good indicator of overall strength as well as a prerequisite of attaining freaky strength. I also have to say that grip is a component of lifting that provides a lot of frustration as it has the tendency of being the one thing that keeps people from hitting max lifts or adding volume to a workout. I can say that I have been one of those people on numerous occasions and I don't know how else to describe it other than it downright sucks. To combat this I do incorporate some carries and some fat grip training and can say that it works and works well. Observation has gotten the best of me however as I have become more and more fascinated in the way the hands work. This has stemmed from a lot of studying and observing the effects on the leg by ground force being applied from the feet.
Eric Cressey nailed in Kansas City this past weekend where he highlighted the idea that the hips and shoulders have the same job description for the lower and upper extremities. I couldn't agree more with that statement and believe that principle can be carried over to the hands and feet. The ability to have crystal clear communication between your feet and hips is essential for lower body lifting progression. When looking at a one legged RDL, it is the responsibility of your feet to transmit the message through the back line of the leg to charge up the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and erectors. A red flag for me with this exercise is when the foot cannot stay grounded and the lateral portion of someone's calf begins to light up. This to me means that there is a break in the communication between the foot and the hip that has the potential to take away the true purpose of a one legged RDL. The solution is generally soft tissue work, hip/ankle mobility, back/lateral leg length, and glute strengthening.
Coincidentally when it comes to grip failure, the hands and shoulders tell me a similar story. The most common grip failure that I see is the loss of contact between the baby and second digits on the hand followed up by the muscles of the lateral forearm wanting to rip out of your skin. While this is often looked at as grip failure, the ability to visualize the hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder in a way similar to the foot, ankle, knee, and hip will tell you that there is a lot more going on than just your grip failing. There is a very similar break in communication going on in my eyes, and while the lower body gets the preferential treatment, the common call to action when it comes to improving grip is more grip training. As a result of this, I still see a lot of over reliance on the thumb, trigger, and middle finger. The result being increased internal rotation of the shoulder, over-reliance on the traps, as well as the same fore arm burn and loss of grip that pissed you off to begin with. If this sounds familiar, I suggest a different path and begin to look at what is going on beyond the hands and forearms. The biggest improvements in grip that I have seen has come from a path quite similar to addressing lower body function. A combination of soft tissue work and lengthening, mobilizing the wrist and shoulder, and integrating strength/hypertrophy work meant to restore the relationship between the hand and shoulder. Sounds Familiar.
When it comes to restoring this relationship these have been some of my favorites. The intention being to restore optimal movement of the shoulder and unlock the strength potential of the mid back. Side effect? A grip that can do some damage. Sounds like a good deal to me.
These two have been favorites of mine for bringing internal/external rotation to the shoulder and opening up the thoracic area. Lack of range in both are common characteristics that I see in grip inefficiency.
The deadlift will always be king in my eyes, but when it comes to understanding the relationship between the hands in the shoulders with the big lifts there is nothing like it. The ability to set yourself in a well extended position and drive your thumb forward into the bar and push back with your bottom digits should have your shoulders screaming before you even get the bar off of the rack.
The Row And Reset
Vertical and horizontal pulling are must have exercises, but when it comes to grip it is often how they are done that determines their effectiveness. For me I have become a big fan of the row and reset. Similar to the rack pull it gives you an opportunity to try and bend the bar around yourself by way of the hands. This ensures full use of the hands and shoulders for each repetition versus burning out the grip and reverting back to just worrying about getting the bar to your chest at all costs.
Angled Neutral Pulldown
The ability to alter joint angles during vertical pulling has become a gem in my program. Chins will always be my preference but when the angles don't work in your favor or you're working with someone looking to build the criteria required for a solid chin you need to work with what you have. Use your thumb to angle the handle as it will transfer the workload to the bottom end of your hand. Rather than pulling straight down on the handle, I prefer pulling down with a bit of an angle on the handle as if you are trying to break it in half. Take a moment at the midpoint to feel what needs to be felt and start controlling your way up.
I wouldn't call this a grip training protocol, but if you are looking to improve the way your hands are working I believe that integrating some of these exercises will help you out considerably. Integrate the shoulder mobility work into your usual mobility routine. If you are deadlifting then I would say give the rack pull a shot to get a true feel for what is meant to be used with the lift. The same can be said with the vertical and horizontal pulls shown above. Incorporate them in you upper body pull days and get a feel for how the mid back and shoulders should be operating. The forearms will be taking far less of the load but I can assure you your mid back will be talking back at you. When it comes to reps and sets, I would say stick to rep ranges according to what you're looking to get done.
Strength = 1-5 reps
Hypertrophy = 8-15 reps
As for the set load, I usually let the body's feedback be the judge of that. As the grip begins to falter, I do my best to correct it, but eventually fatigue does set in whether it be muscular or neurological. Depends on the individual. The trainers that I work with will sometimes be fried after 2-3 sets. Not because their work capacity is low, but they have such great body awareness they know exactly what they need to feel and have the capability of amplifying it. A classic case of less is more.
Get A Grip
By no means is grip training a bad method of training. In fact I enjoy it. However I do look at the hands similar to the foot in the sense that the more of it that you have working for you, the more that you will get in return. This may mean complementing conventional grip training with mindfulness of what the hands are doing and how they are doing it.