I hope somebody besides me thinks my title is funny. Well, except for you, Mom. I’d rather believe that you find it confusing.
Anyway: Grip strength. It’s probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve had clients face when they want to increase strength. You see all sorts of ideas about grip strength on the internet, aimed towards men or at least women who’ve been lifting a while. And some of the information is great, whether you want to hold 45 pounds or 225 pounds.
But, as it turns out, grip strength ends up being an issue for women pretty frequently, and can gum up exercises and programs sooner than will happen for men. For instance, I may want to have a superset for a client involving dumbbell lunges and dumbbell rows using the same set of weights, but hand fatigue will get in the way of what would be an otherwise bangin’ set for getting the heartrate up. When you get into heavier lifts, like deadlifts, a weak grip can pull the hands and arms downward, forcing the upper body in a rounded position, thus putting more shearing forces on the spine, compounding an issue that many women already struggle with because of tight chests and weak scapular stabilizers.
Why does grip strength matter? Well, there are practical purposes: carrying groceries home from the store, lugging kitty litter or garbage, and the aforementioned bedroom antics (ahem). In the gym, I see the amount women can lift with their lower bodies limited time and time again by the amount they can actually hold in their hands (or on their shoulders: another post, another time.) Think about it: if you can single leg squat, you can produce the same amount of force as a two-legged squat where you’re holding weights that equal your body-weight. Read: It’s like a 150lb woman squatting with two 75-pound dumbbells (I know, biomechanics buffs– not exactly. Stick with me here. I’m just talking overall force production). What 150lb woman can hold a 75lb dumbbell in each hand while she does a full set of squats? Not a lot.
I like grip exercises that encourage an open chest posture, because, hey, let’s not feed the bad posture dragon (similar to Albi, the racist dragon.) Don’t let the weight pull your shoulder out of a strong, packed position, where you can easily use your back muscles to create force. In other words, shoulders out of your ears and no slumping forward.
Ready to get a grip? Try one of these three options:
– Assisted towel pull-ups – There are some bad-ass guys and a few uber-bad-ass ladies who can do pull-ups hanging from a couple towels draped over a pull-up bar. For the rest of us, I’ve found throwing some towels over the handles of your friendly neighborhood Gravitron creates a great mid-point. Not only will you feel your grip challenged, but you’ll also feel many of the itty-bitty muscles in your shoulders and upper back working, too.
– Farmer walks with added bonus! – Farmer walks– carrying heavy weights by your side as you walk around– is a great way to start working grip strength. Up the ante by wrapping the weight handles with towels (to make them thicker), or try carrying two weights in one hand.
– Just practice “normal” grip as much as possible – If this study is any indication, the pronated grip we often use for deadlifting, rowing, etc, is actually weaker than a supinated (read: underhand) grip. I’m totally guilty of using a mixed grip, with one hand supinated and the other pronated, more than I should, since it does make lifting heavy loads easier. (Or, related, doing chin-ups instead of pull-ups). That said, I try– and I get my clients to try– using a pronated grip for as much of the set as possible before switching to a mixed grip. It’s not fun, but it works.
I try to work variations on grip strength into every routine, and be mindful of whether I’m planning a routine towards grip endurance or overall strength. In other words, if we’re working on heavy deadlifts in a program, I’ll probably superset the exercise with a grip-friendly exercise, like a plank variation. Conversely, if I’m working more for grip endurance, I’ll combine exercises that both involve grip– following a lighter deadlift with a lat pulldown, for instance.
Lesson: don’t let your grip limit you!