I know we’re not proponents of the ‘W’ word, but I’m using it to illustrate a valid point: You are only as strong as your weakest link, and many of us find far too often that our grip, or lack thereof, is the limiting factor within a given WOD, as well as in our overall training progression.  In this case, I’m referring specifically to grip capacity in all its aspects: technique, strength, and stamina, and as it relates to soft tissue quality, shoulder, elbow, and wrist biomechanics and joint stability.

Having the opportunity to observe our awesome athletes who recently competed in the 2012 CrossFit Winter Games in Bend, OR was a tremendous learning experience for me as a trainer (thanks to our very own Lindsay Hardison, relentless trainer of CFH WODkillaz). Training to expect the unexpected and for the (somewhat) unknown was a key element in their programming. While putting these athletes through all manner of hellacious WODs in preparation for the Games, learning how to get a grip on both their mental games and on the torture tools du jour, the matter of grip always took precedence.

If you can’t grip it, you can’t lift it and keep lifting it. In formal competition, having the mental and physical edge, particularly not letting go of a kettlebell or talking yourself out of dropping the bar, could be the difference between moving forward or setting a new PR or not. Whether we engage in formal competition or merely for the love of  WOD, it still holds true that WE are our very own toughest competitor. Any of us can and should practice finding and improving our mental and physical edges, and playing around with grip capacity is a perfect place to start since it’s such an integral part of safe training and overall progression.

One of my favorite trainers, Eric Cressey (whom I reference often, for he too owns a pair of Awesome Pants) makes a great point about the importance of grip training:

“A firm grip does so much more than connect you to the bar; it turns on more proximal muscles and gets the nervous system going, as we have loads of mechanoceptors in our hands (disproportionately more than other areas on the body). As an example, physical therapist Gray Cook often cites a phenomenon called “irradiation,” where the brain signals the rotator cuff to fire as protection to the shoulder when it’s faced with a significant load in the hand, as with a deadlift. Just grabbing onto something get more muscles involved in the process.”

There is so much to appreciate about this perspective because it reiterates what CrossFit and any other solid training methodology is founded upon: whole body, functional movement that emphasizes integration of the entire kinetic chain (body) rather than isolation of parts. It’s about training movements, not muscles and grip strength can be an indicator of overall strength. Whether it’s for improving WOD performance, sports performance, or every day functional capacity, “a strong grip is the key to transferring power from the lower body, core, torso, and limbs…,” states Cressey. This applies to a 135# clean & jerk, blocking an opponent on the field, or deadlifting rambunctious 5-year-olds.

The number one step in developing and maintaining grip strength is taking care of the soft tissue quality of the muscles and connective tissues in the neck, chest, shoulders, arms, and forearms. Working out the tension, trigger points, and tissue adhesions in these areas must be addressed as they have a direct effect on joint alignment and mechanics, presence of muscular imbalances, and likelihood for injury. Following soft tissue work, mobility in the neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists must be evaluated. You guys may have noticed we’re including Functional Movement Screens as part of our pre-WOD preparation which is a valuable tool in uncovering various limiting factors that affect grip capacity (i.e., poor range-of-motion in the neck and/or shoulder, asymmetrical alignment or range-of-motion from one side of the body to another, or experiencing pain due to previous injury).

Once it’s been determined that minimal risk for injury exists, accounted for by healthy soft tissue, joint mobility and stability, and pain-free ranges-of-motion, then it’s time to focus on refining technique and gaining strength. There are probably 1,000 ways to approach training for grip strength and endurance but I’ve included below the suggestions which I felt most accessible and reasonable for you guys. If you find your grip giving out on a regular basis or always seeming to be the first thing to go during a grip-intensive WOD, it would be worth your time to experiment with the following exercises, excerpted from an article on T-Nation.com, geared toward improving grip capacity.

  • Towel Chin-up

If you’ve never felt soreness in the muscles of your hands and fingers then you haven’t tried towel chins. All you need is a towel, a chin-up bar, and a high tolerance for pain. Now, without tying any knots in the towel, throw it over the bar. Wad up each side into your hands and hang on tight. Now perform as many chin-ups as you can. (Obviously, this a great arm and back exercise, too!) After a few sets, when you can no longer pull yourself up, just grab the towel and hang off of it. Then call a cab, because you won’t be able to steer your car home.

  • Plate Pinches

Grip strength isn’t all about crushing power. It’s also about finger power, or what some call “pinching” power. To improve finger strength, try doing plate pinches. Grab a pair of dimes (newbie translation: ten pound plates) and place them together, smooth side out. Hold them with your finger tips and keep them pinched together. That’s probably easy, so now move up to a pair of quarters. Keep track of how long you can hold them and each time you try it, see if you can squeeze out a few extra seconds. You’re a certified bad ass if you can do it with 45s!

  • Power Hold

The best way to do this is in a power rack. Set a barbell up at just above your knees. Load it up heavy and pull it off the pins. Now it gets technical, so pay attention: Stand there with it as long as you can. And then, uh, put it down. Then do it again. That’s it. Use an overhand grip, not a mixed grip (palms facing different directions), and keep your hands outside of your legs. Again, have your partner time you and try to beat your time each session. Note: If the dumbbells in your gym are heavy enough, you can use them as well. (Just watch your toes.) **(You can also try power holds overhead (i.e., using a bar, kettle bells, both arms, single-arm, and in different positions such as squatting while holding for time) as Lindsay had our competing athletes train for hold time. Just make sure you’re using a weight that’s safely but appropriately challenging for your capabilities)**

  • Bar Hang

Jump up to a chinning bar and hang there until you fall off. If you can hang over a minute, add weight using a dipping belt or by holding a dumbbell between your ankles. [Or] hang with only one arm. (This is a great stretching exercise, too.) Ignore the monkey jokes and wear deodorant.

  • Fat Bar Training

Here’s a favorite of guys like Charles Poliquin and Ian King. Do your usual exercises, but where ever possible, fatten the grip. While there are specialty companies out there that make fat barbells and dumbbells, those things can get pricey. We suggest you simply wrap a towel around the bar. Try fat grip bench presses, rows, deads, curls, extensions, wrist curls and chin-ups. You’ll notice an extra pump in your forearms after the first set. Just keep in mind that you may initially have to lower the amount of weight you use. Another option is to use EZ-Grips, which we reviewed here.

Keep in mind as well that in movements we train for in CrossFit like push-ups, pull-ups, Olympic lifts, kettlebells, and using the rings or TRX, and heavy ropes, we can practice grip variations in an effort to create a well-rounded approach to grip training. This means hand placement can be overhand, underhand, neutral (like gripping a hammer), opposing/alternating, wide or narrow, single-arm, stable or unstable, or isometric or power-driven, to name a few. No matter what your training goals are for 2012, it’s a safe bet that improving grip strength and regularly employing soft tissue work in the neck, shoulders, and forearms  will pay off tremendously in regards to performance and injury prevention. Train smart, train hard people. Now, go lift some heavy stuff!
~1RM.
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