Thursday, June 14, 2012

It's hip to grip

“Many of the old school strongmen used to claim that hand strength was the ‘last thing to go’, and I well believe it.”
-          Paul Wade

In my humble opinion, nothing in the world of strength training is as exciting or as misunderstood as grip strength.  Shake hands with any man or woman with a strong grip and regardless of any other first impressions, your level of respect for them goes up a notch or two.  Grip strength also seems to be the epicenter of the legendary phenomenon known as “Old Man Strength” – the ability of seemingly average dads/granddad to make your recent bench press PR seem like a joke after he single-handedly manhandles an awkward, greasy engine block out of his ’76 Ford F100 and easily carries it out to the driveway.  And let’s face it, you know you couldn’t hope to budge that thing if you had an engine hoist and all day to move it (well, I couldn’t, anyway).  Nothing shames me faster than having a weaker grip than a seemingly non-descript old dude nonchalantly greeting me and nearly crushing my hand like the hopes and dreams of an American Idol contestant.  I was recently reminded of this when an old man I’m acquainted with casually shook my hand and rocked my world: I realized I needed to take my grip training more seriously.  My grip felt like a 3rd grader’s hand in an industrial vice.  

It felt kinda like this.

The great thing about grip training is that you can get a set of iron claws in a few short sessions a week and with next to no equipment.  In Paul Wade’s dynamite book Convict Conditioning2, he sets out a tried-and-true program for grip excellence (which I’ll lay out shortly, for those of you who don’t yet own it).  But first, a few reasons why you should train your grip:

1)      It’s one of the easiest things to improve, and in record time.  Unless you’re a very advanced grip athlete, you more than likely won’t ever need to train your grip more than twice, MAYBE three times a week, and you won’t likely have to spend more than 15 minutes at a time to do it.
2)      It’s one of the last things you lose (see quote from Paul Wade above) strength-wise.  In the aforementioned case of old man strength, you can be sure that the bone-crushing grip your grandpa has isn’t coming from the 16 oz Schlitz Can Bicep Curls he’s doing now that he’s retired – it’s left over from the hard work he did throughout his life.
3)      It can actually be an indicator of your health.  According to a 25-year study done for the JAMA (Journal of American Medicine), “Among healthy 45- to 68-year-old men, hand grip strength was highly predictive of functional limitations and disability 25 years later. Good muscle strength in midlife may protect people from old age disability by providing a greater safety margin above the threshold of disability.”  In less sciency talk, the stronger your grip, the less likely you are to suffer from disabilities later in life.
4)      It will make just about everything stronger.  During some downtime from pressing and pull up practice, I improved both and hit big PRs totally by accident simply by taking up grip strength practice.
5)      It’s “functional fitness” at its most functional.  As grip master Adam Glass has stated “I can tell you one (sic) for certain – not a day has past (sic) in which I was not finding a use for a stronger grip. I have not had too many situations in life where a 500 lbs squat was the fix, or where a big bench would have helped. I find stronger fingers and thumb make life easier. From pickle jars to cleaning out garages, I am never sorry my hands are strong.” 

So how can you simply, quickly, and inexpensively take your grip from sniveling wimp to tree-swinging chimp?  By hanging around and pushing yourself off the ground!

These are two of the most fundamental activities in human movement, and they’re basically connected to two movements you are most likely familiar with anyway: push ups and pull ups in the form of finger-tip push ups and bar/towel hangs.  Your ultimate goal is to build up to a one-arm towel hang and one-arm fingertip pushups. These two movements work the arm evenly, as your hands are meant to close AND open, so mastering these will set you up well for any grip feats you may want to shoot for in the future. 

Here’s the “jump right in” knowledge you need to start ASAP:
Because your fingers are dainty and delicate, warm them up first by opening and closing your hand slowly to get the blood pumping.  Also, do your fingertip pushups before your hangs.  Even thought you may already be able to bang out a few fingertip pushups in full-pushup fashion, build up slowly as your digits will give you the finger if you do too much, too fast.  If you need a refresher, here are the ConvictConditioning pushup steps to work through.
1)      Wall fingertip pushups
2)      Incline fingertip pushups
3)      Kneeling fingertip pushups
4)      Half fingertip pushups
5)      Full fingertip pushups.

As for the bar hangs, start out hanging with your feet propped up, as if you were doing bodyweight rows, and progress to hanging from the bar (keep your shoulders tight in your sockets!) and with time, add a towel, subtract a hand, add two towels, and subtract a hand again.  One arm bar-hangs are fun, and they look like this:  

On the fingertip pushups:
·         Stick with “easy” versions of the fingertip pushups for a looooong time.  Why risk screwing your fingers up?  You use them for a lot of things, so be patient. 
·         While you can keep going through the ConvictConditioning pushup series to creep up on increasingly difficult pushup variations, what I found worked well was this: after I could do full fingertip pushups for about 10 straight reps without getting too much of my fingers’ attention, I started over at step one – with one hand.  And, when I was feeling good, I would get down into the full pushup position, subtract and arm and support myself for a few seconds on those fingers.  Do this sparingly.  Again, if your fingers go on strike because you did too much too soon, I’ll point at you with my healthy fingers and laugh.  If you position your fingers like this, you will immediately regret that decision.

All sorts of yes.  Do your fingertip pushups on the pads of your fingers, rather than the “tips”

You will eventually be able to work up to this:

Fingertip pushup pro-tip: it's all in the hair.

On bar hangs:
·         Keep your shoulders tight.
·         Stop before your grip wants to give up.
·         Listen to the wise words of Tom Foley.  He’s got a helluva grip, thanks in large part to this program.

Practice these two, MAYBE three days a week, and go from weak grip to “Holy $h!t!”  If you want any more information, feel free to check out more information on the book here.  It got me to one-arm fingertip pushups, so if you don’t think you’ll gain something from it, you can either already do those or you’re being a tightwad. 

That’s all I got for you this week!  Until next time, lift heavy, eat clean, and get a grip!