I have been consistently working on my hand strength for over a year now. When I started trying to figure out how to get a stronger grip, the idea made me laugh. I could not figure out exactly why it appealed to me so much. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of just about anything to do with strength, but worrying about how hard I could pinch, squeeze, crush, and leverage with my wrists was the fringe of the fringe.
But I’m still doing it. I’m still doing it for the same reason I do anything: it is fun and it makes me better. I feel like everything I enjoy is a part of who I am, inseparable from the other stuff, good or bad. Anything that holds my interest this long is part of me, and something that makes my life better.
Grip strength on the web
My obsession with grip began the way a lot of things have in my life: someone I knew was doing it and I wanted to try it. Well, “knew” isn’t quite the right word. Some people I had been paying attention to in the online strength community were always yapping about how they had lifted this much of that, or how they had done this many reps of blah blah–typical guy stuff, but the difference was that they were always discussing how much they were lifting (or destroying) with their fingers and hands.
I watched videos of men ripping decks of cards in half as if they were made of rice cakes. I saw people bend nails, bolts, horseshoes, and railroad spikes with their bare hands, usually while heavy metal played in the background. There were guys deadlifting, but focusing on how much they could pull while pinching the weight, not holding onto a barbell.John Brookfield was pressing kettlebells with the bell facing inwards, supported only by his wrist and crushing strength. Dennis Rogers was not an imposing-looking man–until I saw him bend wrenches.
Then I stumbled across Scott Styles’ Grip FAQ site and read it all. The mania grew.
The combination of all these hooligans and John Brookfield’s book, The Grip Master’s Manual, caused me to jump in. And just like it had happened with the guitar, with kettlebells, and every other thing I enjoyed, it quickly became an addiction/obsession/whatever. But the most infectious part of everything I had seen was the simple fact that the people pursuing grip feats seemed like they were having a lot of fun.
I like fun.
My first attempts at building my grip
I immediately bought a #1 pair of Captains of Crush grippers. I could close them right out of the box so I figured I was a natural. Not so, as I’d find out quickly.
Then I bought the Ironmind bag of nails because I wanted to start bending steel. By that point I had started World’s Strongest Librarian and Jedd Johnson, one of the premier grip athletes in the world, had let me interview him for this blog. I bought Jedd’s Bending Manual and was able to bend the yellow nail right out of the bag when it arrived. And yes, again, I thought I was a natural. And again…no.
And for a while I stopped there, focusing on crush grip and leverage strength. Now I want to break away from the grip history for a moment and give you a quick primer on the different types of hand strength.
Think of shaking hands really, really hard. If your arch enemy puts his hand into yours and you try to turn it into dust, that’s crush grip. Think of the person you know who has the firmest handshake. That guy (or gal) has nothing on the people who are closing the heavier Captains of Crush, or who are hitting the higher settings on David Horne’s Vulcan Grip tool.
Crush grip is closing your hand into a fist tightly. It is usually developed with torsion grippers, which are like the grippers you see for sale in the sportings goods store, only with 100s of pounds more resistance. Heavy duty grippers have to be respected and recovered from like any heavy lift that puts a big hit on the central nervous system.
The main carryover from crush strength is the ability to hold onto heavier weights. If you can close a serious grip tool, your deadlift is not going to fall out of your hands very often.
Grab the edge of your table or desk, with your thumb below it and your four fingers on top. Now dig all of your fingertips into the desk, trying to push them through it. That’s pinch grip. Pinching strength is the amount of pressure you can generate through…well, pinching.
As I mentioned, there are pinch deadlift events, seriously strong people do pullups while pinching the rafters in their garages and basements, and pinching is a huge part of the ability to tear decks of cards and phonebooks in half.
You can develop this type of strength through pinching stuff really hard. You can add weight to any pinching exercise, but you can also make good progress by focusing on the amount of pressure you can generate on an object. John Brookfield’s book once again is great on this subject, as he is always training his grip on the cheap.
If you are looking for pinch equipment and don’t mind paying, I recommend Ryan Pitts from Stronger Grip Enterprises. I’ve got a lot of his equipment, both customized and off the shelf. If you’re an aspiring pinch-happy lunatic, I’ve gotten some great results with his pinch lever block. (non affiliate link)
Think of this as squeezing with an open hand. It’s like crush grip, but trying to crush something the thickness of a can of soda. Now picture that can weighing 200 pounds and trying to lift it off the ground. That’s support grip.
My favorite tools for support grip so far are the thick bar I bought from Swager Strength Equipment. There’s an enormous advertisement of me on the other side of that link, but it’s not an affiliate link. I just love their strength equipment.
I also have gotten addicted to the stupid Rolling Thunder handle from Ironmind. It’s a thick handle on a carabiner that attaches to a loading pin. You put weight on the loading pin and do one-hand deadlifts. It is the most aggravating piece of equipment I have, but I am addicted to it.
The gym I train at also recently installed a 2″ pullup bar, so that is currently my only other piece of support grip equipment.
The development of the wrists and forearms still counts as grip strength. The wrist is typically trained in the gym by wrist curls–you know what I’m talking about, the guy waggling his arms around while squeezing an EZ curl bar as he watches his forearm for the first sign of a vein.
For overall arm strength, I have had better results training the wrist statically–I lock it into place and move it against a weight, such as a sledge hammer lever.
My friend and grip athlete Adam T. Glass has a hammer with spikes on it that he leverages towards his face. That is stupid, don’t do it.
Leverage strength can be developed through plate curls, sledge hammer work, bottoms up kettlebell pressing (turning the bell upside down and military pressing it) and basically through any other activity where you fix your fix in place and don’t let it move.
Wrist strength is key to bending nails. If you don’t have it, you can’t do it.
My favorite thing about grip
This is probably going to sound lame, but it is fun to demonstrate hand strength, and it’s unexpected. I think this is one of the reasons why the old time feats of strength used to be popular. There was a charm in watching an ordinary-looking man with extraordinary strength. There were still some impressive physiques, sure, but it’s not like their hands were imposing-looking.
Hands just look like hands. I’ve never look at someone’s digits and thought “Wow, I bet he could tear cards.” And that’s the other great thing: grip feats give the average joe a reference point for how strong you actually are.
If you tell someone who has never squatted that you can squat 1000 lbs, they will say “wow” and know (without actually knowing) that 1000 lbs is a lot of weight.
If you put a deck of cards in someone’s hand and they try to tear it in half, they will have a better appreciation and a more accurate reference point for what you are capable of.
But don’t go around showing off unless people ask you too. Even then, try to be cool about it.
Give it a try. Grip training is a blast and then some. And don’t forget about nail bending.