Weak Grip Strength = Weak Body

September 16, 2008

I am sure you have heard the phrase – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

If you believe that is the case, then many muscles in your body are only as strong as your grip. If someone lifts a weight with the use of straps, did they really lift the weight?

Sorry, but if you can’t hold the weight you are trying to lift, then I don’t think you truly lifted that weight. I preach functional fitness, and grip strength is a huge part of being functionally strong.
a chain is only as trong as its weakest link
[Weak grip strength with strong muscles is like having a 510 HP Aston Martin Vanquish V-12 with cheap tires…much of that power will be wasted and won’t be transferred in a functional way. Man…James Bond knows how to chose cars!]

Why I Don’t Believe in Using Lifting Straps

I train for health, to look good, and actually get in shape. A lot of people just train for looks, which to be honest is a big motivator…but I like the feeling of being in outstanding shape and building true ‘real world’ strength.

I also like to know I can run a mile or two without coughing up a lung (I’ll save that for another article). Bottom line…if every muscle in your body is strong, but your grip is weak then you will never reach your highest potential.

In the real world if you need to move a piece of furniture or lift large objects, you will need adequate grip strength.

The Old School Lifters Had the Right Idea

I don’t believe 100% in old lifting techniques, because these guys did Zero cardio and mainly focused just on being strong with no care about overall conditioning. They did have a strong emphasis on grip strength, which I think is overlooked these days.

Bodybuilders brought in the wrist straps in the 70’s (if memory serves me correctly) to be able to do heavy prolonged sets without worrying about gripping the bar.

Eventually it became a popular way of lifting. These days, I see guys walking around the gym and using wrist wraps for everything. Heck, the other day I saw a big guy using straps while doing barbell curls!

The “I Lift Heavy Weights” Excuse

Again…if I see a guy deadlift 600 pounds with wrist straps, I’m not impressed. I don’t think that person lifted the weight.

Back in the days when I used to deadlift (I don’t anymore), I worked up to reps with 405 with no straps. I realize that serious lifters can do much more than that, but it is all relative. If a person is strong enough to pull 600 off the ground, then they should be strong enough to hold that weight!

A Strange Thing I’ve Noticed About Grip Strength

Here is an odd thing I’ve notice about grip strength. Whenever I improve in grip strength, the muscles in the rest of my body get stronger shortly after. I’m not just talking about pulling lifts like rows and chinups that require grip strength…

I’m talking about pressing movements as well. Whenever I reach a sticking point in a major lift, I focus on improving grip strength and it helps me break through that lifting plateau.

A Strong Grip Does NOT Equate to Big Forearms

I’m sure the women reading this want to avoid building large forearms and are hesitant to work on their grip. This is understandable, but grip strength won’t necessarily build large forearms. It seems to build density more than size.

I don’t think my forearms have grown an inch since developing forearm strength, but they are extremely defined. One of the big reasons that bodybuilders have big forearms is their focus on wrist curls and reverse wrist curls to pump up the forearms and build volume (that along with their genetics, anabolics, and massive protein consumption).

The Suitcase Lift for Functional Grip Strength

The best exercise I know of for functional grip strength is the suitcase lift. Basically the suitcase lift is lifting a barbell in one hand like you would lift a suitcase. Here is a video demonstration of a guy doing this outdoors. This shows the basic form…

A Slight Tweak to the Suitcase Lift

We are focusing on grip strength, so the focus is just on holding the weight…no need to do the full range of movement (which will tweak your back if done wrong).

I like to put the Olympic bar in the power rack and set it to where the bar is resting on the rack slightly lower than knee level. I also like to do a light weight and hold the bar as long as possible instead of going heavy for short reps.

Grab a weight you can hold for at least a minute, then face the other direction and do it with the other arm. Do three sets on each side for at least a minute per side. Oh yeah…in this version of the suitcase lift please keep your shirt on 🙂

The Importance of Using a Barbell Instead of a Dumbbell

A big reason why I love this lift is that you are forced to not only grip the weight, you have to balance the weight as well. When you first try this the bar will tilt forward or backward.

As you build up your functional grip strength, you will be able to balance the bar better.

When lifting objects that don’t require as much balance, they will seem lighter. Another side benefit to this lift is that your obliques have to contract a bit to stabilize your body…over time your mid section will benefit as well. Give them a try!

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

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Sam September 16, 2008 at 10:54 pm

Great article, thanks Rusty!

I’ll have to give this a shot, carrying groceries was probably the closest thing I was doing to an exercise like this haha.

Love the site, so informative and addictive at the same time.

Wazzup September 17, 2008 at 2:06 am

How do you feel about farmer walks ? I do them with DB’s and I like the fact that I have to correct for the movement when I walk around the gym with them. (and you can hold 2 at the same time, saving me half the time :))

nodietneeded September 17, 2008 at 3:06 am

Hey Rusty,
Thanks for the post. Grip strength is very important in sports such as climbing or some martial arts too. And the typical body type of a climber or a martial artist is pretty much in line with the body shape you have been promoting. I came across a paper suggesting that increase in fatty fish consumption increases grip strength, (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2493054).

Also, grippers were pretty popular till a few years back
(or may be they still are but I don’t see them around as often). And I remember reading that they are not as useful as they are thought to be. I’d love to hear your input on this.

Thanks

Yavor - RelativeStrengthAdvantage September 17, 2008 at 5:52 am

Rusty, thanks for reminding me of the exercise. I used to do it and maybe I should give it another try.

By the way Bruce Lee was a grip training fanatic

He would many different exercises for his forearms:

Underhand Wrist Curls
Overhand Wrist Curls
Leverage Bar Curls (flexing your wrist with a handle that’s heavier at one end)
Reverse Curls – just like barbell curls but with hands over the Leverage Bar Twists

Squeezing a tennis ball to improve grip strength

I trained with a tennis ball for a few weeks. I would squeeze it all throughout the day whenever I had a chance. The strength from this exercise carried over very nicely. I was able to climb the pole at the local playground MUCH easier AND faster.

-Yavor

eric September 17, 2008 at 7:16 am

great post, you always give new inspiration to me!
speaking of inspiration…i take you as a role model for my own fitness goals. as far as body composition and body “look” goes you said that you are around 185 pounds (and about 6 feet tall). i am at 5″11`and weigh 152 pounds..but your body seems to look much better than mine!is it possible to reach about 8% body fat ( iam at 10 now) without losing weight? i improved my nutrition (followed most of your eating tips (warrior diet, if, and try eat stop eat now). i have also done cardio like you suggest (your low body fat course) and follow your strength training advices..is it the body fat or the lack of muscles which let me still look sort of skinny!? i know you are very busy these times and dont answer comments most of the time..but it really starts to demotivate me… what do you think is my rough goal weight for achieving my best”look? perhaps i am just too impatient…if this is the case can give me a realistic apraisement how long it would last to get in a comparable shape like you? perhaps you can outline sort of a “personalized” plan including the single periods (and their length) on the way to a lean, slim and toned body like yours..i appreciate any piece of advice, rusty…but i understand if my concern is too special!
warm greetings from germany!

DR September 17, 2008 at 7:42 am

I rue the day that I picked up a pair of wrist straps.

In my university days, I could deadlift a little over 700 pounds. Big weight, right?

Until the day my straps broke and I had to go it “au naturel”.

I could barely budge Rusty’s 405 off the floor without my grip busting open.

Nowadays, I am less concerned about moving the big iron, but my grip is no longer the weak link.

There are many different ways to train the grip. (head over to http://www.ironmind.com/ironmin…griptrain1.html for lots of good info)

Rusty’s suitcase lift is a killer not just for the grip, but for your core strength as well. The off-balance nature of the lift forces your core to absorb the downward force of the barbell with your own muscular strength.

It’s an ass-kicker

Bill September 17, 2008 at 10:02 am

Great site. I came across it searching for info on Laird Hamilton’s workout regime. The other guy to take a look at would be Chris Chelios. 46 and still playing pro hockey. Does a lot of functional and HIT cardio in order to keep playing. Excellent point on the grip strength. Makes me think of older guys and their “old man strength” when it comes to opening jars and etc.

Caleb Lee September 17, 2008 at 11:49 am

Rusty,

You’re so right man, grip training will definitely make your other lifts/presses stronger.

You know what I’ve noticed absolutely works my grip? High-rep Kettlebell lifting. I guess it’s the thickness of the handle…

Also, Rack Pulls are really good for your grip because you are only deadlifting from your knee height so you can use a LOT of weight… and my grip is always the first thing that wants to give out!

Great article!
Caleb

Oz September 17, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Hey Rusty,

Wanted to get your opinion of hand grippers. I read on another website (about a guy who incorporates his regime with gymnastic type of training) and said he trains with captain of crush/ironmind grippers. I just wanted to hear your thoughts.

Oz

Yavor - RelativeStrengthAdvantage September 17, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Eric,

I have a few pointers for you. As far as weight goals go, I’d say you may need to be. 160-165 in order not to look skinny. Also, the muscle groups that need to be developed are upper back and traps, shoulders and arms (especially forearms). If I were you, I would NOT try to get big fast. You will only gain fat and lose the lean look of your figure and face (this is very important, although it may not seem so now for you. Trust me on this).

Assess which is your weakest muscle group. For example, you might be lacking in trap or neck development, or you may have small arms, chest or back, etc. Pick one and attack it, while training the other muscles in moderation.

If you lack overall muscle development, concentrate on a few lifts (weighted chinups and dips, bench presses and barbell rows) and master them – this means systematically increase the weight you are working it.

Hope this helps.

-Yavor

Helder September 17, 2008 at 2:09 pm

It’s so true Rusty, many people don’t progress because their grip strength doesn’t allow it to happen. It’s very important to develop strength in every muscle to avoid those weak links. I personally only did one exercise to improve grip strength, and it was only for a short while, it was the farmer walk, or simply standing still while holding the weights as long as i could, i improved a bit with those exercises, but i always felt that training with heavy weights made my grip strong. I think that’s because i hold the weights doing a lot of strength with my grip, i close my hands hard on the weights, some defenders of isolating body parts usually say not to do that because the forearms take a part of the work from the other muscles being worked, but i don’t agree with that, and i always hold the weights with a strong grip, and that alone always have given me a good grip strength, the chins and pull ups are also very good exercises to develop grip strength. I also never liked straps, and many physiologists are now saying that straps and other acessories that help lifters will cause injuries, it has something to do with unbalances created by lifting with that stuff.

joggs September 17, 2008 at 3:21 pm

hey rusty I want to get you opinion on some stuff. I am 6 fet and I went from 180 to 160 because Ive been following your info on getting the hollywood look but ever since Ive droped this weight all people tell me is that I am so small that I should go eat at buffet. do you think I should gain weight and do you think I should stay around the weight I am

Adam September 17, 2008 at 3:49 pm

Ha! Alleluia. Great point…

I read this post yesterday, then between clients today I had a few chuckles at some of the uses that were being made of wraps around the gym where I was coaching today… It made me think of your post and smile.

I use Clubbells and Kettlebells extensively in my training and find that since adopting them I have had little need to do any specific grip training. Swinging things just seems to naturally build the grip. 😉

Farmers, lumberjacks and others who work hard lifting and swinging all sorts of things have the strongest grips I’ve ever run across. For city slickers, tools that simulate this type of movement in 6 degrees can at least keep us in the game.

Cheers,
Adam

grip_boy September 17, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Hey,

Another great way to train the grip intensely is to make a thick handled dumb-bell, very simple to do just slide some PVC piping over the handle, you can do this with a barbell as well. Lift everything with a 2.5″-3″ thick bar for a while, your training poundages will drop a bit but your grip will be much stronger in a couple of months.

The simple thick handled (3″) dumbbell can be used for lots of exercises and will build unreal grip strength.

Finish every session with bar hangs from a 2-3″ bar, for a timed hold.

Another favourite of mine is to set the bar on pins in the power rack so you can only lift it a couple of inches. This is known as the “hand and thigh lift” you can move incredible poundages in this lift. Do holds for time once you’ve lifted it.

All kinds of things can be done, wrist rollers, wrist curls, all kind of reverse curls, isometrics, spring grippers, squeezing stuff, doing most labour with manual tools rather than power tools helps, pullups on fingertips as well as pushups.

There really is loads, just be sure to warm your hands up before a grip session, and cool them down too, it’s worth it. Keep your hands in good health generally by shuffling playing cards or rolling a pen round your fingers, this keeps the joints mobile. Buy some elastic bands, place them round your fingers and open your hand out, this is working the opposing muscles. Put another elastic band round when it’s easy.

I would purchase some Captains of Crush grippers:

#T – An ideal starting purchase, unless you lift regularly.
#1 – Some weight trainers won’t close this.
#2 – If you can close it you have a certified strong grip.
#3 – Very strong grip.
#4 – One of the strongest grips in the world!

jessica September 17, 2008 at 10:23 pm

Hey Rusty!
Just commenting to say that a bunch of us posted up questions in the “about” section of this blog. Not sure if you have seen them yet, so just letting you know in case! Thanks!

BurritoKid September 18, 2008 at 2:05 am

Hey Rus,

noticed that you dont do any of the popular power lifts, like squats/deadlifts etc. I hear these are really good in terms of working a lot of muscles and building strength because they work a lot of the bigger muscles. You dont think these are good for fat burning and building a lean body? Even when following your 5 rep range protocol?

Iris September 18, 2008 at 10:44 am

Hi Rusty,
It is a very interesting article. I would like to ask you about running technique. Do your foot position landing should be different during HIIT/cardio and Steady cardio.

Tom Parker September 18, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Great post Rusty. Although I do work on my grip I think overall it is one of my weakest links. I usually do dumbbell hammer curls, reverse grip cable curls and reverse grip z bar curls to work my wrists. Never heard of the suitcase lift but it looks intense. I will have to give it a try.

By the way, what’s your opinion on Powerballs? I got one quite a while back but haven’t used it for ages. However, when I first got it and it still had the novelty appeal I was using it every day and it did feel like my grip was getting better.

Gators September 18, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Rusty, still loving the site…been a while since i commented. aren’t we due for a ‘style tips’ post? some of us are heading into summer!

admin September 18, 2008 at 9:31 pm

Sam,

I so the same exercise. Holding on to a dozen bags of groceries at a time instead of making a bunch of trips to the car.

Wazzup,

I still thing you get a slightly better workout with a long barbell, but dumbbells are a way to mix things up.

“nodietneeded”,

Those grippers help, but not as much as this exercise. Squeezing a gripper and holding a weight are slightly different in the way they work the muscles.

Yavor,

I haven’t tried squeezing a tennis ball, but I imagine it would be an effective way to learn how to generate strong contractions in the forearm. I like increasing strength in most lifts by generating strong contractions beginning with the forearms.

Helder,

Good point about straps…the best idea is to never begin using them in the first place.

Joggs,

Stay around that weight, but now concentrate on increasing strength. As you ge stronger and more functionally fit, your physique will begin to show a lot of detail.

Adam,

I took a look at your site and your innovative club-bell workouts. Pretty cool…I must say this is new to me, but certainly makes a lot of sense. I like the opening paragraph on your Squidoo lens…”The most inefficient tool is the most effective.” What a great approach to build functional fitness!

grip_boy,

I have seen those captains of crush grippers and heard that very few people can close the two toughest ones…I guess it takes the equivalent of 365 pounds of pressure to close the #4. That is nuts!

jessica,

I’ll head over there and respond. Over the next 3-4 months my time will be a bit more limited when answering questions, but I’ll do my best 🙂

BurritoKid,

I do think that squats and deadlifts are extrememly anabolic exercises…they can build a lot of muscle. If extreme caution is followed and the volume of lifting is low, then deadlifts can be performed with very little gain in muscle size. I would avoid squats altogether, due to how quickly they make the thighs grow. Again…my outlook on these exercises is not a popular one. I just think that you can build a better looking and better functioning physique if tough cardio is the way that you work your legs.

Iris,

Yeah…when I do steady state running I typically land on my heal and roll my foot a touch as I jog. When sprinting the foot just makes a split second contact with the ground…your heal doesn’t realy touch the ground, but you aren’t running on your toes either. Somewhere in between is ideal.

Tom,

I have never used a powerball. It looks like a great therapeutic way to work your wrists and forearms. Definitely can’t hurt to supplement this along with the suitcase lift…plus you could do while watching TV.

Gators,

Good reminder…style is extremely important and NEVER discussed on most fitness sites. The style in Health and Fitness magazines scare me to death. What is up with the spandex and bandanas? Seriously disturbing!

Cheers,

Rusty

Yavor - RelativeStrengthAdvantage September 20, 2008 at 3:53 am

Rusty,

you gave another good tip in your answer to me and I just want to make sure that people reading this get the tip and it does not get lost among the many useful comments on this post.

Rusty wrote that he starts lifts by generating strong contractions in the forearms. I would like to emphasize this and also elaborate on it.

Let’s say you are doing dips. If it is possible, grip the handles as hard as you can even before you have jumped or positioned yourself on the parallel bars. If it is not possible this way, as soon as you are in position for the dip, grip as hard as you possibly can and only then begin descending.

The same applies for other lifts too – grip the bar on the bench press as hard as you possibly can even before you have taken it out of the rack, etc.

–Yavor

eric September 20, 2008 at 5:03 am

thanks yavor!
i think my weakest body part is the chest. i don`t want to get a too massive chest but it should look “fuller” and defined in the upper area. what about training this muscle? bodybuilding type (6-12 reps) or more sensible like rusty recommends (low reps but higher volume of sets)? how often should i work out my pecs per week? one last question: you speak about a goal weight of 160-165 ..these extra pounds should all be muscle , right? how long would i last to put on these muslces?

Santiago September 20, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Hi Rusty
Ok, so I’ve been reading your blog and I’m helluva confused, I am going for the fit “model” look, and I have been lifting 3 12 rep sets for two weeks and I am about to move into 4 10 rep sets, but from what I am reading I am doing this all wrong.

I am 19, 5’8 and 148 pounds, I am not sure what my fat index is though. I have access to a pretty full gym, so i go there every day but saturday and sunday. I am looking for the nice line down my chest and toned abs and body, what exercises do you suggest I do. I know this is kinda demanding but looks like I have been doing this all wrong and I am very confused.

Thanks

Yavor September 21, 2008 at 3:59 am

Eric,

It really is not possible to predict how fast or how much weight you will gain. How much strength you can gain is easier to predict (probably 10kg on your lifts in an 8 week period).

One of the methods of achieving your goals (in everything) is to set things up so that it is inevitable that you are going to achieve them. This is a clear benefit of strength training. If you get stronger (i.e. lift more) you will no doubt get somewhat bigger.

(I guess you are a younger guy eager to get big fast. Take a look at guys like Shia LaBeouf and Daniel Radcliffe – check out his new buffer physique. Young and lean and definitely not big guys, but still looking great. So take your time achieving your goal. Make sure you don’t get fat. Getting fat will make your face look worse. Also it will mess up your proportions – the ratio between your waist and shoulders. Also make sure you enjoy your life outside of training.)

If i were you I’d alternate 8 week blocks between strength training as Rusty has described it (you can do weighted dips 3 times per week for the chest) and bodybuilding style training.

The strength training phase will be weighted dips and chinups for 3 to 6 sets of 3-5 reps 3 times per week. You goal here is to increase the weight when possible. This phase will make you look compact and powerful like a wrestler for example.

The bodybuilding phase will be 2-3 exercises per bodypart, 6-9 sets total for the bodypart per workout, 8-12 reps per set, each bodypart is trained once per week. The exercises for the chest will be incline bench dumbbell presses, flat bench dumbbell presses and flat bench flies. This phase will make your muscles stand out. You will begin to look much more like a muscle and fitness cover model than a wrestler. Rusty has given nice workout tips on the site for defining the upper chest =>> Best Chest Exercises to Build Masculine Square Pecs

Just keep alternating these 2 phases and you will be getting bigger.

Bear in mind that being leaner will make every bit of muscle gain make you look even better. This is not true if you are not so lean.

Hope that helps.

-Yavor

MarkFu September 21, 2008 at 4:53 pm

I couldn’t agree with Rusty more about high rep kettlebell work improving grip strength as well as the entire tone of the posting. Grip is an integral part of lifting and you are consistently using straps, you don’t “own” what you have lifted, IMO

Trygve September 21, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Hello Rusty and other models at this site
i was just wondering how you guys eat. ive read alot of this blog and i find it amazing. Im have the same goal as rusty and many other people here. To get the hollywood look. Im around 14% bodyfat and want to move down to around 6%. I was just wondering how you guys eat and what. Would be great if you gave me some days where you tell what you eat. And about fat and how much etc. etc. 😀 thanx

eric September 22, 2008 at 5:17 am

thanks yavor, this helps me a lot!
what about nutriton? i follow eat stop eat now which helps me to stay lean at the moment as far as i eat rather responsible the days i am allowed to eat. should i eat more during the bodybuilding style training phase? and what about cardio…also back it off a bit in order to get mass?

Yavor September 23, 2008 at 2:24 am

Eric,

Eat so much that:

1) you have energy for your weight training workout
2) you are able to progress in some way from workout to workout (you can check out the post I wrote called Are You Sabotaging Your Gym Progress. Progress is crucial in training.
3) don’t eat so much that you start getting fat.

About cardio – keep it if you can PROGRESS. Cut it out if it hinders your goals. If I were you I’d keep it.

Cheers,

Yavor

Grant September 26, 2008 at 10:43 am

Question about grip strength and deadlifts. If a person is doing hvy. deads, wouldn’t be better to use straps since grip strength will give out before most other muscles involved in deads? Then the person could do grip-strength spefic exersices.

chuck April 8, 2009 at 8:37 am

questions: you talked about the importance of the barbell. but what if i alternate the weight of a dumbbell? for example i would make the weights on the left heavier than the right. does that work also?

harald April 22, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Hello Rusty, and others. I’m pleased to have stumbled across this site, lots of good stuff.

Grip training is important. In my training I use the following for strengthening of my grip:

– HeavyGrip 100, 150, and 200 (a series of grippers akin to Captains of Crush series)
– weighted deadhang from a chin bar
– plate pinching (take a few metal barbell plates and grab with a pinch grip with one hand only, hold until grip failure)
– reverse grip barbell biceps curl
– weighted pull-ups

Other exercises which also work my grip effectively include
– rope climbing
– barbell deadlift
– weighted chin-ups
– barbell clean & press
– barbell upright row

Biff July 28, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Your thoughts on grip strength are on point however… lifting without straps ALL the time will mess up your elbows and tendons in the forearms. What your suggesting is damaging to the arms. You’ll notice as you continue to lift without straps tendonitus increases in many people.i hear very often from the pros to NOT grip the bar hard at all when lifting..

ferndog September 23, 2009 at 3:26 am

ain’t no doubt that having a strong grip is extremely important to powerlifting. the stronger your grip gets the stronger your whole body becomes.

Joe March 22, 2013 at 5:39 am

I was born with amnietic bands syndrome.My hands look really messed up and my grip with the left hand mainly is pretty bad , because my fingers can’t bend.
In your honest opinion shall I still not exercise because my left hand is weak? I can hardly do 5 chinups without a strap on before my hand starts giving up but I can do 10+ with a strap on.
I want to make my grip better but there is no grip in the first place, no joints or whatever, except for the thumb.
Am I training only for the looks ?
Of course you are probably talking about ”normal” people in the article but then again what different is my normal than your normal,when I see it through my own eyes and not the eyes of a third person ?

John September 11, 2013 at 2:06 am

Grip can be trained separately, one doesn’t have to rely on “incidental” grip training from whatever bars they happened to be holding during the rest of their workout. Straps are used routinely by Olympic lifters, powerlifters and strongmen and they’re very useful for a number of reasons. The concern that their use will result in reduced grip strength applies only to people who don’t/won’t do any other grip work.

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