How to Train Grip Strength
Grip strength is extremely important, and not just in the weight room. Grip strength is one of many attributes that deteriorates with age and is strongly correlated with health-related quality of life.
But more than that, grip strength is also a surprisingly accurate measure of upper body and total body strength. Your ability to create high levels of peak forces with grip indicates your ability to recruit your muscles and use them. People who train regularly tend to be good at this. People who don’t, not as much.
And in terms of the continuing quest for more strength and power, if you can’t grip something, you can’t lift it, plain and simple.
Many new lifters report grip strength as a limiting factor when first start training. A lot of my new clients will specifically ask me how to train grip strength. This usually happens after a set of an exercise that involves holding a dumbbell in each hand. A rapidly fatiguing grip is an alarming sensation, and people want to know how to fix it. I get it.
So how do we train grip strength? The principal of specificity tells us how. The principal of specificity states that the best way to train a particular attribute, is to do that exact thing. If you want to get better at chin-ups, do chin-ups, if you want to get better a jumping, jump, and if you want to improve grip strength, grip. Let’s review strategies for how to develop grip strength in the broader context of a well-designed strength training program.
Any exercise that involves gripping a weight in the hands will improve grip strength: Bench press, bicep curls, lunges with dumbbells in your hands and more. If you are squeezing something heavy and moving it, you’re training grip strength. Grip strength always improves when someone starts strength training, even if it’s not a specific focus of the program.
Building Grip Strength with the Deadlift
The best traditional exercise to develop grip strength is the deadlift. The deadlift involves large muscle groups and really, involves most of the body. In normal physiology, the deadlift is the movement in which the largest amounts of weight can be lifted. Novice lifters are often able to lift their body weight or more within a few weeks of training, and the world’s strongest can lift over 1000 lbs. Because these large weights are in the hands, grip is often the limiting factor to deadlift performance. The simple act of deadlifting will significantly increase grip strength. In terms of grip as a measure of healthy aging, a balanced training program that involves some free weight exercises and includes deadlifts will be more than enough to keep a lifter on the path to lifelong functional independence.
That said, at some point in a lifters career, grip will become the limiting factor to their deadlifting performance. As a result, grip variations have been developed to help bypass this obstacle. As much as the deadlift develops grip strength, we primarily use the deadlift to develop strength and power in the hips and back. We do not want our grip limit how strong our hips and back can become.
There are three types of grip that can be used in the deadlift: the double overhand, mixed, and hook grip. Lifting straps are also an option. Let’s review these variations, as well as best practices for when to use each.
Double overhand grip can be thought of as “regular” grip. It’s safe, and it works. The issue is that it is the weakest of the options, and at some point, grip strength becomes the limiting factor to deadlift performance. While we don’t want grip to limit our deadlifting, we want to challenge and develop our grip using the double overhand grip. All lifters benefit from sticking with the double overhand grip AT LEAST until grip strength begins to become an issue. When a client reaches this point, I like to spend some time changing their rep scheme before moving on to a different grip variation.
For example: Say your deadlifts progress to the point where you can lift 200 lbs for 5 reps. Any more than that and your grip fails. Assuming it’s appropriate in the broader context of your training program, you might initiate a new phase where you try to lift 180 lbs for 8 reps, This challenges grip ability in a different way. You might also introduce some of the grip specific exercises covered later in this article.
After a few weeks of this modified rep scheme, return to the 200 lbs x 5 reps approach and see if you are able to make progress beyond this point.
Remember that the deadlift is one of the best ways to develop grip strength, so we want to use deadlifts to develop our grip, not necessarily use workarounds to make grip a non-factor. But if you train indefinitely and push yourself to make progress, you will eventually reach a point where grip becomes a limiting factor to your deadlifting, and it makes sense to implement other strategies.
Lifting straps are great. I use them and teach people how to use them too. I just don’t want to rush into using them in deadlifting because while they allow you to develop strength in the deadlift beyond your grip abilities, they do significantly reduce the benefits to grip strength that the deadlift provides. This is why I like to push things for a while with the double overhand grip as described in the above section.
This video provides an easy to follow demonstration of how to use lifting straps:
It does take some practice getting used to lifting straps. When you are first start using them, I recommend using them in all of your ramp up sets even though you don’t need them, simply to get more practice with the set up. Once you are proficient with lifting straps, use them only when necessary, usually only for your heaviest sets during heavy training phases.
Lifting straps are not always an option. Some powerlifting competitions do not allow them. Or you might forget your lifting straps at home one day. In either case, we can look to the mixed grip or hook grip.
The mixed grip is easy to do, and it all but removes grip from the equation as a limiting factor in deadlifting performance. If the goal is to lift as much weight as possible and lifting straps are not an option, we can consider the mixed grip, however we must be aware of the risks. The mixed grip puts the bicep tendon on the forward-facing hand under tremendous stress, and the risk of a bicep tear is real. Additionally, this set-up puts one shoulder into internal rotation and the other into external rotation, which creates an asymmetry and limits the ability to create lat tension in the forward-facing hand. We have to ask if all these potential problems are worth it.
Some coaches recommend simply alternating which hand faces out from set to set. This would certainly help distribute the wear and tear, but I don’t know a single lifter who does this. People have movement preferences, and we need to be aware of that when we’re making recommendations. I have tried a mixed grip with the “wrong” set up for me, and it feels ridiculous. Although it makes anatomical sense, “alternating your grip each set” is not a reasonable thing to recommend.
I often see recreational lifters using a mixed grip even on their warm-up sets. My theory is that they have seen videos online of the world’s top strength athletes lifting with a mixed grip.
What we need to understand is that these are competition lifts, the heaviest lifts that athlete will do. Even elite strength athletes will use a double overhand grip when working at lower intensities. Seeing someone’s competition lift does not tell you the whole story of their training.
Ronnie Coleman deadlifting 800 lbs with a mixed grip
If you are choosing to use a mixed grip to max out your deadlifting abilities, only use it when required, and be aware of the risks. You might also consider the hook grip.
The hook grip is highly effective and doesn’t expose the bicep or shoulder to injury risk the same way the mixed grip does. The flip side is that it’s difficult to learn and uncomfortable, even painful, when a lifter is first learning it. In fact, I believe part of the reason for the popularity of the mixed grip requires much less skill.
The hook grip involves wrapping the thumb around the barbell inside the fingers, and then pinning the thumb down with the second finger. You could make the argument that you should begin to practice the hook grip relatively early in your lifting career, but I don’t think it’s worth it. If it is your first year or two of training, it is unlikely that you need to put in the effort to learn the hook grip, and instead focus on building your grip strength. When you truly get stuck, the hook grip will be there for you.
Here’s influential strength coach Mark Rippetoe breaking down the hook grip for deadlifting:
Of course, the possibilities for training grip strength extends well beyond deadlifting. Here are some great options that build grip strength plus provide other great benefits.
There are of course great ways to train grip outside of deadlifting. Let’s review those next.
One of the best such exercises is the farmer’s carry. Farmers carries are amazing. It’s one of the best ways to develop total body strength, dynamic hip stability, and yes of course, grip strength. A nice thing about farmer’s carries is they don’t require much technical skill and most lifters can do them with minimal instruction, even complete novices.
To do a farmer’s carry you simply hold a weight in each hand, usually a dumbbell or kettlebell, and you walk. The distance you can walk will depend on the training space you have available. I commonly prescribe 20 paces there, and 20 paces back.
Walk heel-toe, squeeze the heck out of the weights and make sure you have a core brace.
A more technically complex but grip specific variation is a bottom’s up kettlebell carry. It’s broken down nicely by legendary strength coach Eric Cressey here:
This variation requires the lifter to really grip the heck out of the kettlebell to keep it steady and prevent it from tipping over in each direction. Many lifters can carry multiple times their body weight in a farmer’s carry but will be humbled by a 12 or 16kg kettlebell. I usually recommend 20 paces there and back. This exercise also has tremendous benefits for shoulder health.
Once you’re comfortable holding a kettlebell in the bottoms up position and have built up some strength in the carry, you can further develop your grip with the bottoms up kettlebell press:
In addition to developing grip and shoulder strength, this exercise requires tremendous focus and control, other important skills to develop in the weight room. You may choose to keep your free hand ready and near your face while this is new. That’s understandable. I typically prescribe sets of 5 presses each arm. People with significant strength imbalances in their upper body will notice them in this exercise. I suggest starting each set with your non-dominant hand.
There is of course also direct grip using grippers, and this is a viable training strategy that does develop grip strength. Grippers make sense in a rehab setting. For example, when someone has a cast removed and needs to rebuild their grip after atrophy from being immobilized in a cast. Strength athletes who need extreme levels of strength and also have several hours or more per week to devote to their training can also make good use of grippers.
I rarely use it in the weight room because compared to all of these other exercises and strategies we have covered so far, grippers ONLY develop grip. We only have so much time to train. If I can build grip strength while also building shoulder strength, or improving my deadlift, that’s what I’m going to choose.
So, there you have it. Grip strength is an important attribute for weight room success, but also an indicator of health related quality of life. If you want to age well, do some strength training. And if you want to be strong, build your grip. I hope some of the strategies covered here can help. Happy lifting everyone!