The phrase “functional fitness” gets thrown around all the time, but what does that actually mean? At its root, a functional movement means it has an everyday applicability.
For example, people are always going to get on and off the toilet, so you might as well squat (and get good at it). People are always going to pick things off the ground, so it’s smart to train your deadlift. Basically, put yourself though the load and posture of a movement and ask yourself if you’re going to mimic that pattern in your everyday life. Biceps curls standing on a Bosu ball? Not so much.
Just the same, we talk about grip strength and its many advantages in everyday life. Improving grip strength is, in my opinion, far more functional than curling and pumping up your biceps.
When it comes to functionality, grip strength is the key to so much: climbing, gymnastics, a monster deadlift, wrestling, barbell rows, hanging leg raise, pull-ups, and basically the entire sport of strongman. Grip strength is key to building strength. Not to mention, no guy ever wants to let a girl down by failing to open a tightly sealed jar. Seriously, that’s embarrassing. Don’t ever do that.
Now that we’ve established that grip strength is important, let’s figure out how to improve it. First, do not use that stupid stick with the rope attached to a weight. The damn wrist roller is more of a shoulder workout than it is for your grip. And with what little grip strength it might give you, good luck keeping up with the people using the exercises I have described here.
Grip strength largely is about verity: heavy weights, high volume, and time under tension. Explore all three modalities in order to improve all aspects of your grip. Here are a few exercises that develop crushing grip strength and will help make your life easier as your grip strength improves.
• Heavy Deadlifts: The first rule of developing a strong grip is never use straps when training with a barbell. If your back or legs are failing on a max-effort pull but your grip is okay, then decrease the range of motion (through the use of rack pulls) and continue to increase weight until your grip gives out.
• Farmer Walks: There’s two different ways to approach farmer walks to improve grip strength: max distance or max weight for a determined distance. (Note: Although it is a strongman event, racing through a determined distance for time does not necessarily yield grip-strength improvements.) Max distance means spick up a challenging weight and testing how far you can carry it without putting it down. If you’re running laps (down-back-down-back), brace yourself for the rebound of momentum upon the turns. Alternatively, you can set the distance—let’s say 20 meters— and carry the implements with as much weight as possible. For example, start with 250 pounds for each arm, then move to 300 pounds, and finally max out at 320 pounds in each arm. Continue to increase the weight until you can pick up the weights but still find it very difficult to walk them down the allotted distance.
• Pull-Ups: It doesn’t get any more basic than pull-ups. I am referring to strict pull-ups, of course, although I believe that CrossFit-style kipping pull-ups have their place in regards to grip strength, but not necessarily overall strength gains. Volume is the key here as well as a full range of motion (fully extended elbows at the bottom and chin over the bar at the top). I try to attack pull-ups with as many reps as possible. At the very end of my sets, when I’ve exhausted all the strict pull-ups I can do, I’ll crank out as many kipping pull-ups as I can before dropping off the bar. This is really the only time I’d recommend training with kipping pull-ups (unless you compete in the sport of CrossFit, in which case it’s effective and necessary for your “game”). Only after you reach failure for strict pull-ups should you explore snagging a few extra reps through the use of kipping your body over the bar. At the end of the day, you’re holding onto the bar longer and that means increased grip strength.
• Rock Climbing: This is probably the single best sport or activity I’ve ever competed in that improves strength in your hands. Grip strength is everything in rock climbing. The pinches and holds are enough to dislocate your fingers if you’re not adapted to the stress. I was fortunate to go to a school with a rock-climbing wall, which introduced me to this incredible sport. Since college, I’ve ventured to numerous rock-climbing gyms to keep up grip skills that really can’t be tested anywhere else with such volume and variety of challenges. Get out of your element and venture into something new. If you have a decent base of fitness, rock climbing is a cool sport to try.
• Rolling Thunder: I know I recommended that you avoid that rope-and-stick forearm device. And although this looks similar to it, I can assure you that it’s worse, in a good way. Rolling thunder is a strongman event in which you pick up weights, held by a special vertical collar, and hold for as long as possible. Usually, the grip is about two inches in diameter. The thick revolving handle makes lifting even a quarter of your deadlift max nearly impossible. Rolling Thunder is usually completed for maximum weight picked up or for the most time holding a determined weight.
Hopefully these exercises are some movements that you can implement into your training program to improve grip strength. I usually work my grip on back/deadlift days or whenever we go out of the gym and do strongman training. In the pursuit of being the most versatile and functional athlete that we can, grip strength shares a consistent relevance through its numerous athletics. Don’t neglect or undervalue its importance.
By Eddie Avakoff, owner MetroFlex LBC