How “Thick Bar Training” Will Greatly Improve Upper Body Strength

June 2, 2010

I have to admit, I have only been exposed to thick bar training on a few occasions. I simply have never trained in a gym that had many thick barbells or dumbbells. My guess is that 99.9% of the people reading this article don’t have access to thick bars either. I do have a solution for this, but first lets talk about how thick bars can significantly improve upper body development.

thick bar training


[If you can develop a vise-like grip, weights that once felt heavy will now feel lighter in your hands. This strength will transfer over to your entire upper body. I'll discuss why this is the case in a second.]

How Does a Strong Grip Help With Pressing Movements?

I think most people understand the idea of grip strength helping pulling movements like chin ups and rows. It makes sense because if your grip is too weak you won’t be able to hold the weights. This is just part of the overall picture. The think you rarely hear about is a principle called “irradiation”. I talk about this principle in full detail in this post: The Strength Training Rep Dissected and Explained.

A Quick Outline of “Irradiation”

Did you know that you can contract a muscle much harder if you also contract the muscles surrounding it? I learned about this principle called “Irradiation” from Soviet Special Forces Trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline. Here is how he explains it.

  1. Try flexing your bicep as hard as possible without making a fist.
  2. Now try and flex your bicep as hard as possible while making as tight as fist as possible and squeezing.
  3. You should be able to contract your bicep much harder when making a tight fist.
  4. This is called “irradiation”…what is happening is that the nerve impulses of surrounding muscles can amplify the effect of that muscle.

Surrounding Muscles “Borrow” Strength from Your Forearms

Make a fist as hard as possible and try not to also flex your biceps or triceps. This is pretty hard to do. As you flex and generate tension in your forearms, you will also generate tension in your biceps and triceps without even trying. Gaining strength is simply the skill of generating more tension “on demand” to the muscles being worked. If you flex your forearms hard enough you will begin to feel tension not just in your arms, but in your shoulders, chest, and back.

Gripping the Bar Hard Helps, But There Are Issues…

Gripping a bar hard while doing something like bench presses or curls and you will begin to feel the effects of irradiation. The problem is that it is hard to grip a thin bar hard, especially if you have large hands. I have freakishly large hands, even for a tall guy. The problem with having large hands is that it makes gripping a regular width bar really easy. My fingers can easily wrap around the bar and It doesn’t even feel like my forearms have to work at all when doing a lift. I had a workout partner who was 5’6″ and his forearms would burn badly when doing curls or rows. As a result, he had some very impressive forearms and mine were just average.

thick bar hand strength
[This is the width of a typical thick bar. The red one pictured here is sold over at FunctionalHandStrength.com]

Using Thick Bars Force Your Forearms to Generate Tension

If you have access to thick bars, you are one of the lucky few. The great thing about thick bar training is that you have no choice but to grip the bar hard for a lot of lifts. If you use a weak grip doing curls for instance, the bar will slip out of your hands. When you do pressing movements, you will be able to generate a better squeeze and more tension onto the bar compared to a thin bar. This will allow you to use the irradiation principle to the max! You will be able to lift more in the military press, bench press, etc.

How Getting Stronger at Rows Will Increase Your Bench Press

You will get stronger in the pulling movements like curls, rows, chin ups, etc. The pulling movements will be harder at first, because it will demand serious grip strength to hold onto a thicker bar…but the stronger your forearms get from these pulling movements, the more you can use that strength to help your pressing movements. The stronger grip will translate to better irradiation in the pressing movements when you do squeeze the bar hard.

For Those Who Don’t Have Access to Thick Bars

I found a nifty solution for those who don’t have access to fat bars. A guy named Matt commented on one of the posts on this site where I was discussing grip strength. I was reading his comment and liked what I read. His name was hyperlinked so I knew he must have a website as well. I clicked on his name, which lead me to his site: FatGripz.com. He invented a really cool solution to turn any bar or handle into a thick bar. Here is a picture…

thick bar workout

[I had one of those "why didn't I think of that" moments when I saw this product.]

These Can Be Used on Almost Any Bar or Handle

They work well on chin up bars, home or gym barbells, home or gym dumbbells, etc. At first I thought that they would only fit Olympic bars, but they work on almost any width bar. For those of you who want to increase upper body strength and definition this is a great tool. One thing I forgot to mention is lifting straps…don’t use them! Lifting straps seem like a good idea on paper in that you can use more weight for pulling movements, but they weaken your ability to generate tension in your forearms and get the full benefit of irradiation.

profileNote:I blog less these days & save my most up-to-date info for my free exclusive newsletter.

Click Here to Subscribe.

Rusty Moore

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Nate July 19, 2010 at 2:21 pm

You could also just wrap a long and narrow towel (maybe cut it to shape) around a bar to increase the thickness. This is what i sometimes do.

Leonid July 20, 2010 at 5:19 am

It’s incredible. I have been pondering over how to blast my upper body strength without adding mass to my torso and adding size to my arms, especially biceps.

And, lol and behold, at work we have pull-up bar, THICK pull-up bar which I have always been avoiding!

1 week of Pavel Tsatsouline’s ladders of pull-ups on this bar (it was really tough!) and suddenly I was able to press cleanly 32 kg (70 pounds) kettlebell which I had been trying to do for a long time before but seemingly was in a plateau phase!
And this 1 week injected 1 sm (0.4 in.) into my arms. Though it gave me some size also on torso which is not what I want but nevertheless, it’s great.

I wonder how this simple concept is so freakishly effective.

Thank you very much for the top-notch information!

Tara Schultz December 24, 2010 at 2:24 am

Rusty addictive reading as always, discussing points that are so easy to relate to. It explains exactly why the contraction i feel while doing exercises, particularly barbell curls, is far greater when using an olympic barbell or thick barbells. Im certainly going to buy those grips asap,even if the site selling them does look a little bit how do we say ‘roid-esque’ , such a handy piece of equipment though.

buying shares for beginners January 30, 2011 at 8:23 am

The improved grip of the thick bar should also improve safety while weight training, reducing the chance of the bar slipping.

carl womack April 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I’m 60 this May, 2011. For years, since I was knee high to a ‘hopper I’ve used a FAT bat handle. Your control and aim for an in-field shot was so sharp it was weird! And power, you felt like you could knock down a brick wall, and the 3rd baseman wanted a 1st baseman’s glove.

Chop wood with a big round handle. Your foreman-arms were on fire, blazen!! Gordie Howe has a famous pic of himself pitchin’ hay. His fore-arms looked 12″ across the top. Still got that pic, inspired me as a kid. By 22 I was kiddingly called Popeye, all because of your technique that I didn’t even new existed. From the games I played, I’m pretty stoved-up now, but can hold and on not let go (your tech.). I give about as good as I get now. Thanks for the memories. 5’6″- 220. Keep happiness in your heart and ride with the Great One. Apache Carl

Tim @ Behind The Workout December 4, 2011 at 7:25 pm

After seeing Jay Cutler using them, I finally got my pair of fat gripz last week. I can definitely feel my grip failing near the end of the set, especially on back exercises. The soreness (and pump) is quite satisfying too. This forces me to use less weight but I am not so worried because this is one of those things where you take one step back and two steps forward. With greater forearm strength and irradiation, I should be able to further activate my arm muscles!

eequipfan June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm

i just starting using these myself (the fatgripz), and i’ve never had such a pump in my forearms! i can’t wait to see the difference this makes for me in the next few weeks.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: