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In his classic Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger shared a golden little gym nugget that I’ve taken to heart and used with my training since I was in high school. Arnold advised lifters not to use straps with pulling exercises, because you want your grip strength and forearm strength to progress along with your ability to pull big weights when you deadlift and perform lat exercises like bent rows, dumbbell rows and weighted pull-ups.
After twenty years of playing contact sports, lifting and coaching, I’ve realized that Arnold was, and still is, absolutely correct. Sure, there’s a place for straps in your training – particularly when you’re deadlifting or rowing ridiculous amounts of weight like professional strongmen do – but most of us simply don’t train with heavy enough loads on these exercises to justify the use of straps and an avoidance of the benefits strap-free training will offer your forearm and grip development.
I’ll tell you something else interesting. After twenty years, on and off, spent as a nightclub and bar bouncer in some of the biggest trouble spots in New York, I learned to watch out for guys with big forearms. Why? Because if everything else was equal – his ability to fight, state of inebriation, etc – the guy with the big forearms generally did something physical for a living and had a level of strength I needed to be wary of. If a guy with a good grip gets his hands on you, it’s definitely an advantage…for him.
Having a decent grip can potentially be a deciding factor in just about any sport, too. Coming at this from a football perspective, how many times have you seen a tackle made where a defender simply “grabbed cloth,” hung on for dear life, and actually made a play? That happens every Friday, Saturday and Sunday on every football field in America. Baseball, lacrosse, hockey…with a few notable exceptions like soccer and running, you’re called upon to use your hands in virtually every sport, so paying attention to grip strength now will certainly pay dividends down the road.
With my clients, I’ve had terrific results training grip strength every other day – which, with a conventional four day split, would entail doing this sort of work on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If you’re currently working with a bodypart split, you can use this “every other day” approach any way you see fit. With one exception (fat bar holds, which we’ll address later on), grip training – which usually takes place as an end-of-workout finisher – shouldn’t have an adverse effect on anything else you’re doing, provided you approach your programming with a little bit of common sense, i.e., don’t train your grip thirty seconds before taking a one-rep max in your deadlift.
Training grip every other day is ideal for a variety of reasons. Your forearms aren’t a major muscle group, relatively speaking, and you’ll be able to work them hard every 48 hours or so. We’ll also be rotating exercises quite a bit, so the way you’ll be hitting your forearms will change from workout to workout – keeping things fresh and enabling you to go all-out on these sets.
Here’s a little tip I use to figure out whether I’m ready to train grip on any given day. I have no idea what “research says” regarding this method, but it’s highly effective. It’s been working for me and my clients for well over 20 years, so I’m going to keep rolling with it until someone shows me something better. I’m not holding my breath until then.
When you’ve developed some calluses on your hands, what usually happens after a heavy “pulling” day where you’ve deadlifted or done something that severely stresses your grip? Your calluses hurt. Sometimes they even turn red. They’re raw, they sting, and it makes holding barbells, dumbbells and cable attachments very uncomfortable.
The solution is simple. Don’t train your grip when your calluses hurt, because your central nervous system hasn’t recovered enough for you to get the optimal benefit out of a grip workout at this point. When you can push on your calluses and they don’t hurt, you’re ready to train grip again. Try it this way, and I guarantee you’ll make progress.
Wrist Roller: These are available commercially, or you can make your own by cutting a piece of PVC pipe, boring a hole in the middle and attaching weight by stringing through a length of clothesline with a knot at one end. Set up a spotter bar on one side of a power rack to chest level, and lean your forearms on the bar. Raise and lower the weight in one direction, then reverse the spin and raise it the other way. Rest for one minute, then repeat.
Hex Dumbbell Holds: If your gym has hex dumbbells, simply grab two at their ends and hold them for as long as you can. Rest one minute, then repeat for a total of three sets. Pick a weight you can hold for about 30 seconds on your first set.
Plate Pinch: Put together any combination of conventional Olympic plates – smooth side out – squeeze them together with your fingers and hold for as long as you can. Ten pound plates are very effective when used this way. See if you can perform this exercise with four ten pound plates in each hand. Rest one minute, then repeat for a total of three sets.
Fat Bar Holds: If your gym has a fat bar – a wider circumference barbell – throw a couple of plates (or more) on the bar and see how long you can hold it. Rest one minute, then repeat for a total of three sets, taking care to hold the bar away from your body to avoid cheating.
Grippers: A few different companies manufacture high quality grippers that come in various tensions. An investment in a “trainer” or “#1” level gripper is well worth it, since these products are virtually indestructible. The tensions on these grippers can run so high that they’re a challenge even to World’s Strongest Man competitors. Try three sets of as many squeezes as you can manage, with a minute’s rest between sets.
Perform grip work as a finisher at the end of your workouts on these days.
Monday: Fat Bar Holds
Friday: Wrist Roller
Monday: Plate Pinch
Wednesday: Wrist Roller
Friday: Fat Bar Holds
Monday: Wrist Roller
Wednesday: Hex DB Holds
Friday: Fat Bar Holds
Wednesday: Wrist Roller
Friday: Plate Pinch