Friday, July 10, 2015

Your Grip Strength is Limiting Your Other Lifts

Have you ever played that game at an arcade where you squeeze these metal handles as hard as you can and it determines how strong your grip is?

One of the most understated elements of training is, in my opinion, grip strength.

Whether you're gripping a baseball bat, holding onto the pull-up bar, or picking up a heavy deadlift, you need to have strong forearms.

I find it so unfortunate that many people use and abuse straps for their lifts. Yes, straps have their time and place, but as I've said before, I'm a minimalist when it comes to lifting. I believe the more you are able to learn to create tension, and the stronger you get, the better off you will be. You can deadlift more weight with straps, but you are using a crutch. If your forearms are the limiting factor in a deadlift, then maybe you just need to strengthen them!

The muscles in the forearms connect all the
way up to the neck and shoulders.
According to Thomas Myers's Anatomy Trains, the whole arm and shoulder functions under one fascial web. The fascia is a thin, protective layer of connective tissue that surrounds the muscles. When one part of this fascial web is activated, so too, is the rest of it. With this, we can deduce that a better grip on the bar will allow for a stronger press.

Let's take, for example, a strict press. This is a shoulder exercise, right? Well, yes, but that doesn't mean we don't need to recruit other muscles in the body! Creating tension from the feet, all the way up through the hands, will activate more muscle fibers, and thus, make the weight fly up faster! One cue in particular that helped me was to think about actively squeezing the barbell as hard as possible.

Charles Poliquin notes,
"when your grip strength improves, less neural drive is needed for the forearm and hand muscles to perform other exercises. That is why many trainees report breaking training plateaus in a host of lifts, ranging from dead lifts to curls, after doing a grip specialization routine."
All of the big lifts require you to create a tremendous amount of tension in your body. The "tighter" you get, the better. Any areas of weakness will make a lift that much more difficult. Strengthen your forearms, and you will be able to get a better grip on the bar, which can result in more weight. A+!

Aside from improving total body strength and motor control, training the forearms may prevent pain in the wrists and forearms.

"There are 35 muscles involved in movement of the forearm and hand, with many of these
involved in gripping activities," notes Jason Shea, CSCS. He then continues on to talk about how inadequate grip strength may result in injuries like tennis elbow, UCL tears, and other elbow and wrist-related issues. If the forearms are weak, you will place an unnecessary amount of stress on your tendons and ligaments around the elbow and wrist joints. Charles Poliquin also mentions that
"these ailments are often caused by improper strength ratios between the elbow muscles and the forearm muscles. If the elbow flexors, like the biceps and brachialis, are too strong for the forearm flexors, uneven tension accumulates in the soft tissue and results in elbow pain"
Therefore, if you're spending a ton of time strengthening the muscles in your upper arm (biceps, triceps, etc.), but minimal to no time strengthening the muscles downstream, you're setting yourself up for injury.

Additionally, some studies have linked rotator cuff health to the integrity of the forearm muscles. When your grip is activated, so too are the muscles of the rotator cuff (teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and subscapularis).

You need to have some strong freaking forearms to pull that kind of weight!
Now, for the exercise portion! Here are eight of my favorite ways to make you a pro at grabbing things:
  1. Plate pinches
  2. Farmer carries (unilateral and bilateral)
  3. Plate flips
  4. Hangs from the pull-up bar (for an extra challenge, try unilateral)
  5. Rock climbing (no video necessary)
  6. Fat bar deadlifts or pull-ups
  7. Heavy kettlebell swings
  8. Finger board (used for climbers)
Note that grip strength is going to be positional, meaning that your forearms may be very strong holding a very small or narrow object, and weak holding thicker objects. It's important to vary the width of the equipment you use every once-in-a-while.

You may have noticed that wrist curls and extensions are absent from this list. I'm not much of a fan of training the grip in this way, because it has less of a carry-over to other activities. We want to train for function, not necessarily for size!

Now go find some heavy objects and grip them! Open pickle jars for your friends, or swing from branches like Tarzan. Build your forearms and reap the tremendous benefits from all of this newfound strength.

Works Cited:
  1. Czitrom, Andrei A., and Graham D. Lister. "Measurement of Grip Strength in the Diagnosis of Wrist Pain." The Journal of Hand Surgery 13.1 (1988): 16-19. Web.
  2. Dhutia, Maitri, Tara Ruttley, and Sudhakar Rajulu. "Elbow Strength in Reference to Various Shoulder Positions." (2001): n. pag. Web.
  3. Myers, Thomas W. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2001. Print.
  4. Poliquin, Charles. Winning the Arms Race: The Ultimate Training Program for Arm Size and Strength. Place of Publication Not Identified:, 2001. Print.
  5. Shea, Jason. "THE IMPORTANCE OF GRIP STRENGTH." (2011): n. pag. Web. 8 July 2015.

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