Get a grip — but remember to use your whole hand

In high school I had one of those hand springy things you squeeze to improve your grip. I thought it would build my forearms. My friend had one with a built-in counter so he could track his reps.

As cool as that piece of equipment was, I still found myself struggling to hold onto a bar when lifting. Exercises such as pullups and bent-over rows were limited to my ability to actually grip the bar.

My dad always said that it’s one thing to have muscles, but a different thing to know how to use them.

Big forearms didn’t necessarily mean I had a strong grip. I was missing something in my training.

I have since learned to challenge my grip during workouts. I purposefully throw in an exercise or two that taxes the grip more than normal. This way I get functional strength out of my hands and forearms instead of just some cool wrist veins.

Before I get into movements, let’s start with how you should hold the bar. Many people grab a dumbbell or barbell with a “suicide” grip. This is a hand grip where the thumb is not around the bar. This grip works OK for some movements but if you are looking to improve your hand strength during training, there is a better option.

I am a fan of holding the bar with the entire hand; four fingers over the top and the thumb around the bottom. I teach athletes to hold the index finger down with the thumb and squeeze the bar.

Along with a strong grip will come a straight wrist. Do this experiment. Hold your forearm in front of you. Now bend the wrist upward and try to make a tight fist. Then straighten the wrist and make another tight fist. Finally, bend the wrist down and make a final tight fist. I’ll bet that your fist felt tighter when your wrist was straight. This is no fluke. The body is stronger in correct positions. Pressing and pulling with a straight wrist will let you apply more strength in your grip than if the wrist were bent.

Without even getting into the exercises, you now have two things to improve your grip. The first is to grip using your whole hand by getting the thumb involved. The second is to put your body into an optimal position by straightening the wrist.

Challenging the grip during training is another way to build functional strength. Today’s exercises will definitely challenge your grip. I like to use a basic “farmers walk.” It conditions the entire body to carry heavy loads. Although this exercise is normally done with dumbbells, today’s modification is done holding plate-style weights. This is because there are generally no handles on barbell plates.

You’ll find that even light weights will prove menacing. I like the plate “farmers walk” because it forces the entire hand to get involved. The four fingers and thumb squeeze opposing sides to suspend the weight as you walk. Holding that vice grip for the duration of your walk will do wonders for your strength.

The towel row is another go-to movement. This one you can do almost anywhere. Just wrap a gym towel around a pole and perform rows with your own body weight. I like to use this exercise because the row is simple but the hands fatigue fast. Using a workout towel is the perfect stimulus. It is odd-shaped, and there is no way to cheat. The whole hand needs to be involved so you don’t fall backward.

If you are a person whose grip fatigues fast, then there may be another issue to consider. Overactive forearm and wrist muscles will fatigue fast. This is because they are in a shortened and tight state. This can come from repetitive hand movements at work or home. If you work with your hands regularly, grip may be an issue for you. Today’s exercises can help but you may need some additional work to stretch the top and bottom of your forearms to assist those muscles to relax. When you get those muscles to relax, your strength should drastically increase.

Other issues such as arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome can make holding onto things difficult. Follow your doctor’s advice about weights and movement.

Chris Huth is a Las Vegas trainer. He can be reached at Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.

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