Specificity is king—that will never change in regards to strength sport. However, in recent years I have consistently found myself championing the importance of general physical strength and its positive effects for the competitive Olympic weightlifter. This is perhaps due to the fact that I primarily work with novice and intermediate trainees who have no past experience with weight training outside of functional fitness classes or individuals who have jumped directly into Olympic weightlifting for sport. These individuals have not built up a significant strength foundation, and simple tasks like holding onto a moving bar or maintaining a sound structure while receiving a lift require more effort than an individual who has actual muscle and structure development on his or her body.
Simply put: I find myself working with a lot of people who (initially) are about as sturdy as a wilted daisy. Basic programing rules such as a phasic structure in regards to programming the Olympic lifts in tandem with accessory strength lifts are meant to address this. However, I personally believe that there are certain general physical attributes that should at least be maintained year round, and one of those attributes is grip strength.
Yes, grip—the least sexy of all strength attributes. There’s no way to look cool while doing it. It’s not going to get you more followers on social media. But I say this with great sincerity: grip strength is one of the most pure and ultimately human expressions of physical strength there is. I dare you to buy one of the many current training implements available to develop your grip and leave it loaded somewhere in the gym. Watch people walk by, pause, and then see if they are able to budge it. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly technical activity, but at the same time easily understandable and accessible by all trainees regardless of experience in a weight room. There are even actual organized federations that host “armlifting” contests such as Armlifting USA. Armlifting as an organized sport is relatively new and still under the radar. So far I’ve competed in just two contests, one of which I hosted at my gym. I’ll go into that more after I explain to you, a competitive Olympic weightlifter, why you should care about your grip and how you can develop that wet rag handshake that frankly no one wants to be on the receiving end of.
One of the most common injuries in weightlifting is the wrist. Whether it be general overuse, discomfort in the rack or overhead position or the occasional ugly miss, even a relatively minor injury to the wrist requires a long recovery time primarily due to limited blood profusion to the area. The next joint upstream is the elbow and in between is a significant amount of musculature all of which contribute to the movement of the wrist and flexion at the elbow. From an injury prevention/mitigation perspective, it is absolutely beneficial to have muscle development in the area surrounding the wrist and facilitating its movement.
Another less common but more serious injury that can impact the performance of the competitive weightlifter is hyperextension at the elbow. To combat this, I will prescribe bicep curls at least once per week; especially to those trainees that have elbows that naturally hyperextend. As stated earlier, flexion at the elbow also occurs due to musculature of the forearm, which attaches at certain points of the humerus. Strengthening the flexor muscles of the forearm will further lower the risk of hyperextension of the elbow while receiving a snatch or jerk overhead.
Additionally, I encourage my lifters to flex their wrists during a snatch or clean as to facilitate a closer, higher pull with greater upper body involvement and at the same time discourage an early arm bend. Requiring a very minimal amount of attention, cuing your lifters to flex their wrists (or just saying “WRISTS” before they lift) will remind them to have a more active pull both at the point of full extension and while receiving either a snatch or clean. I subscribe to the idea that nothing happens to you during a lift; either you put a bar in the correct spot or you do not. Using all musculature available to you will ensure you do.
I’d be lying if I told you that I gave the majority of my lifters a structured grip program. We have a few that are enthusiastic enough to compete in Armlifting contests, and all of us will train grip to some degree, but honestly, there’s one spot on our weekly schedule that just says, “at least 15 minutes per week spent on grip.” This is coming from a grip enthusiast! But I’m sure that other coaches reading this can empathize that it’s hard enough getting the majority of your lifters to do anything else other than the contest lifts and squats. I’m just happy to see my serious lifters doing the prescribed accessory bodybuilding and playing with the various grip implements that I have scattered about the gym. I’m not going to waste my effort if I know only a handful of my people will actually put enough work into their grip training to necessitate something more structured. If your goal is to only get a small leg up on your competition for the reasons listed above, you could get by with working on grip only one day per week on one of your lighter days.
I would suggest that you invest in just a couple of relatively inexpensive tools to help you on your quest for a stronger grip. Buy some sort of fat grip implement. There are companies that make handles that can be fitted around standard barbells with will work fine for things like fat bar deadlifts or rows but I would suggest buying a rolling fat grip handle such as the “Rolling Thunder” handle with a loading pin and carabiner from Ironmind or “The Trilobite” from Barrel Strength Systems. This is a standardized type of lift in most Armlifting contests that will have the most direct carryover to Olympic weightlifting. Additionally, it’s very difficult for this lift to interfere with your regular training as you would have to have massively strong hands to lift over 90kg, which is relatively light to most average-sized male lifters. The current Rolling Thunder world records are 130.5kg for men and 77.2kg for women for reference.
If you want to take it one step further, you will also need to improve your pinch strength. While a fat grip handle will improve finger flexion and a bit of flexion at the wrist, your pinch strength is largely dependent on how strong your thumbs are. While that is probably the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written, strengthening your thumbs will make your hand strength more complete as your fingers and thumbs obviously need to work together to accomplish most grip related tasks. My current favorite pinch strength implement is The Flask from Barrel Strength Systems. As a guy that can casually flip 20kg plates, this tool took my pinch strength to another level and is widely used in Armlifting contests in either the single hand or two hand lift. Being that the current records for the two-hand lift for this implement are 254.8lbs for men and 156.7lbs for women, this is something that you can push with minimal impact on your regular training as an Olympic weightlifter.
As an Olympic Weightlifter, I suggest that you add this bare minimum routine into your weekly schedule:
The 1 Day Per Week “I Don’t Care About Grip but Coach is Making Me Strengthen It” Program
1) Shoot for a daily max in different rep ranges for a fat grip implement. Over the course of 4 weeks, I’d suggest week one be a heavy set of five, week two be a heavy set of 3, week three be your heavy single and week four to be your deload week. Perhaps hit three sets of five at around 75-80% of your best. Keep in mind that you compete in Olympic weightlifting and you’re not all that invested in your grip strength progress. The fact that you’re choosing to develop your grip at all is more effort than the majority of Olympic Weightlifters will choose to do, so don’t overthink it. Grip strength is largely dependent on how fresh your nervous system is and I’m going to go ahead and assume that at times, it may be depleted if you are consistently training in Weightlifting. Linear progress will not happen after the first month or two.
2) Follow that up with the same format with your pinch strength implement. Being that pinch strength is largely dependent on your thumbs, you still should be fresh enough to see measurable differences in your daily maxes for reps. If you did NOT buy a pinch strength implement, you are lucky enough to have a bunch of pinch strength implements all around you in the form of bumper plates. I will not suggest that you flip plates in the air and catch them as a gym trick but yes, I have done that and yes, it is fun. If you’d rather not be the gym ham, you could simply pinch plates for time or even go for a few laps on a pinch grip farmer walk.
3) There is extra credit for those that have iron plates and try to lift said plates by the core, but I will save that for later.
4) Finish up with one or two sets of 15-20 wrist curls working both flexion and extension. This can be done with an empty barbell or dumbbells. Sounds dumb. Looks dumb. Still smarter than skinny forearms and injured wrists.
All of that probably took around 15 minutes max. Over the course of a whole training week, that isn’t a whole lot of effort or time. Given the benefits described above, I suggest you do your grip work if your coach does assign it to you. Some of you might even find that you LIKE to train your grip.
The “Training for Maybe Doing a Grip Contest” Program
Some of you may want to even test your grip in a formal competition. To do that, you will need to invest in a few more implements and train your grip at least one more day per week.
You will need some sort of “hub” implement. These are meant to replicate the core of an iron plate which old-school strongmen would pick up with their fingertips. The standard as of now is the IronMind Hub. A lift deserving of merit is 20kg total including the loading pin and carabiner which adds 3kg. There are a few different techniques I’ve seen for this one but the rule of thumb (haha) is that it must be kept level until lockout. Barrel Strength Systems also produces the Dub Hub. This is a two-sided hub implement, one of which is even more shallow than a standard hub. After training this for a few weeks, you will be able to pluck eyeballs out like Pai Mei from Kill Bill.
Most arm lifting contests will have some sort of vertical handle event. These are meant to replicate things like pulling Excalibur from the stone or picking up an anvil by it’s horn. You could buy any of the implements currently available to practice but, personally, I’m going to place this in the non-essential category. If you practice with a fat grip or rolling handle, you could get by on a vertical handle just fine with minimal practice. I had some made for our gym by a local builder for twenty bucks.
Lastly, we come to the grippers. These are the little gimmicky spring handles that you buy from a sports store and use a few times but then forget about. You forget about them because these cheap quality ones are indeed gimmicky and pointless. However, real armlifters and strongmen use the real deal, which are very brutal, believe me. There are several different companies that produce high quality grippers now but the standard is the IronMind Captains of Crush grippers. These can be bought in different levels of difficulty. After the Guide, Sport and Trainer model, they go up in 0.5 levels of difficulty up until 4, which only a few legitimate strongmen or grip athletes are able to use for anything other than a paperweight. Buy a few, but understand that the higher numbered grippers need to be treated with respect. Check your ego and start with the Trainer or Sport.
In contest, I haven’t seen closing these grippers as an event but rather they are used for an endurance event called “The Silver Bullet” hold. This is usually the final event of an Armlifting contest where you squeeze a small metal implement between the gripper handles with one hand for time. This “bullet” is also attached to a 2.5kg plate. I promise I’m not making this up. Serious grip athletes will tell you that you need to buy the Silver Bullet as well as the grippers and I’m inclined to agree because both activities requires slightly different techniques.
So now that you have all the stuff you need to compete, it would be best if you understood how Armlifting contests actually work before you train for one. I would like to restate again that Armlifting, as an organized sport is still relatively new and having only done two contests, I am a beginner. Most contests will have three to five events, all of which test different components of grip strength. Of all two contest that I’ve been to, the events were tested in a “last man standing” format, though I believe other contest formats are permitted. In this set-up, competitors are allowed an unlimited number of attempts up until they fail. Once you decide you’d like to try a weight, you have a set amount of time to lift it off the floor in a full deadlift lockout until given the down signal. The one exception to this is the Silver Bullet hold. For this event you are allowed one attempt. Your time starts when you successfully close the gripper around the bullet and fully extend your arm. Gripper difficulty takes precedence over time held so it pushes the athletes to go for the big boy grippers. Compared to a weightlifting meet, these events are a lot looser; no coaches running back and forth to the warm-up area, no counting attempts, no last minute changes. It’s refreshing. It’s fun.
As far as training for one of these events go, I haven’t quite formed a finite training system. I’ve only competed in two contests and my focus was and will be Olympic Weightlifting until I finally retire. So I’d feel a bit like a hack if I sat here and typed to you “THIS IS DEFINITELY THE WAY if you want to win at Armlifting contests.” But I do have a few guidelines and suggestions. You’re going to need to train at least two to three times per week. Personally, I followed the same format as described above but more days per week and with all of the main necessary implements. If you’ve purchased the bare bones implements described in this article, you won’t be surprised if there’s an oddball event at a contest you’ve signed up for. Ramp up your training volume slowly. Remember what I said about your wrist having poor blood profusion and thus leading to a long recovery time? Well, in the event that you do injure your wrists or fingers due to overtraining, it is likely that you will be taken out for a good portion of the year as far as developing strength. Make sure that you also address your opposing muscle groups, which includes finger extension. There are companies that sell fancy bands to help load this but I choose to put one or two hair ties around my fingers and extend for a few sets of twenty either after training or on my off days.
It is my hope that in writing this, at least a few of you Weightlifters will consider adding a bit of grip training your weekly routine. No, you will not likely miss a snatch due to poor grip, assuming that you’re a decently developed person. But a stronger grip will help facilitate proper technique and aid in injury prevention for both the wrist and the elbow. To those considering taking their grip training to another level, I can tell you that I found training for and competing in Armlifting contests to be a refreshing break from weightlifting. Whether you find yourself in an offseason strength building phase or are looking for a new strength sport to try, consider Armlifting. It is accessible, it is intuitive and very empowering. Worst-case scenario: people won’t be grossed out by your anemic handshake anymore.
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