Grip Strength
Unlocking Hidden Growth Potential
by Jesse Seal

Photo courtesy of Flickr

You're grip strength is robbing you, but there's an easy solution that makes little to no changes to your actual training program.

We've heard it a million and one times: "You're only as strong as your weakest link."

While quite the cliché, it couldn't be more true. Although this phrase was drilled into my head many times during team based training sessions, the principle still applies to the body.

So, what is the body's weakest link when it comes to developing strength?

For many it's grip strength (injuries aside). You may be wondering how a limited grip strength will inhibit overall strength development, especially with the option of barbell wraps (which basically takes grip strength, or lack thereof, out of the equation). The answer is neural inhibition.

Now, I'm not a neuroscience expert, but the theory of neural inhibition basically states that our body will "inhibit" muscular growth in certain areas of the body in order to prevent imbalances. So, in theory, if your grip strength is insufficient then your body has no reason to allow your arms to increase in size or strength.

If your upper arm muscles aren't allowed to grow (optimally, that is), then you're missing out on PRs for your bigger, complex lifts. Bodybuilders have known about neural inhibition, which is why they spend time doing behind the back wrist curls and other forearm isolating exercises.

For the sake of keeping things simple, FORGET about adding MORE to your lifting program. Instead of adding a slew of new exercises that target your forearms and gets you nowhere fast, look into training with thick bars.

Before I get into thick bar training protocols, benefits, etc. let's review some history.

Thick Bars and Strong Men

Strongman competitions have been around since men first learned that picking up heavy shit was actually fun. Before manufacturers set the standard barbell diameter at a measly one inch, strongmen had to either forge their own barbells or have their equipment custom built. Since most materials didn't hold up to some of the weight that was thrown on the bar back when Strongman competitions first became popular, these homemade barbells would be roughly 2-3" in diameter.

John Davis, Wheels of Apollon

Consider the Wheels of Apollon challenge that was born out of the use of railway wheels and axles. You'd have men weighing less than 220 lbs. deadlifting railway axles that weighed more than twice their bodyweight. While this feat is manageable to many using a standard Olympic barbell of today's world, consider deadlifting over twice your bodyweight with a 3" diameter barbell.

These men didn't bother themselves with forearm exercises...they didn't have to! Whereas most "grip exercises" isolate the forearm, they do little for actual grip strength because the hand and finger muscles aren't doing any actual work.

Thick bar training changed that, and not only improved grip strength, but increased total body size and strength. Allow me to introduce another theory.

The Principle of Irradiation

I first heard the term irradiation while going through some old articles and reading one about Pavel Tsatsouline. Another Russian bringing something new to the strength community...imagine that. Irradiation basically states that the harder a muscle contracts, the harder the surrounding muscles contract. Given that thick bars force the lifter to grip the bar as if their life was depending on it, all of the muscles in the arm contract harder. This effect is felt throughout the upper body.

To demonstrate, contract (flex) your bicep without contracting your forearm. Now compare how much more you can contract your bicep when you clinch your fist hard, causing your forearm to contract. Contract hard enough, and you will feel it throughout your upper body, even in your chest and back.

Now imagine performing a complex barbell movement with your entire upper body contracted in this same manner.

Benefits for Pulling and Pressing

Thick bar training first develops grip strength with pulling movements. Since pulling movements pit gravity vs. grip strength, it's much harder to hold onto the bar. Adding thick bar training to rows, pull-ups, high pulls, etc. will increase the neuromuscular strength in your arms and hands, which will transition nicely to more complex pulls like the deadlift.

While the effect of increasing the diameter of your barbell is mostly felt when pulling, there is a side-benefit when using thick bars while pressing, whether overhead or bench pressing. Given the larger surface area, it has been stated that the difference in weight distribution between 1" and 2"+ diameter barbells on the hands reduces stress on wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints.

Pressing with a thick bar

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Many people have stated that their joints feel better while pressing a thick bar compared to when they press a standard Olympic barbell. This is especially important for someone coming back from an injury. While it's not advised to train "through" an injury, having a thick bar may be a good alternative when looking for ways to train "around" an injury.

What Athletes Specifically Benefit?

While everyone would benefit from having greater grip strength, there are specific athletes who require it for their sport. Grapplers, such as those in mixed martial arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) would definitely benefit from thick bar training. Wrestlers also fall into that category.

Another group of athletes that would benefit from thick bar training is, of course, Strongman athletes (given that they basically pioneered it) and Highland Games athletes. Both sports require heavy lifting and/or throwing, and having a sufficient amount of grip strength is important.

Thick Bars: Pros and Cons

Thick Bar

Photo courtesy of Flickr

We've mentioned many of the benefits already. Thick bar training causes increased muscular contractions and activation, recruiting more muscle fibers in order to perform a lift. The increased surface area on the hand increases joint comfort and reduces injury. Imbalances are also avoided with thick bar training (although I'd consider this as merely an afterthought, as a good program will already negate the need to worry about imbalances...remember, don't major in the minors).

The major downside is availability. I can attest that our local gym, which has come far in implementing training tools such as a sled and battle ropes, still doesn't have a single thick bar. Purchasing a thick bar can be expensive (up to $800), and even then, it would be a huge pain in the ass to take it with you to the gym every time you wanted to use it...unless you also want to invest even more moolah into enough plates to workout at home! Even then, you'd be limited without some form of squat rack.

Thick Barbell vs. Standard Barbell

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Unless you already have a nice home gym with a squat rack and plenty of weights, purchasing a thick bar is most likely out of the question.

Lucky for us, advancements in technology have given us a solution.

Fat Gripz: A Better Alternative

I remember when I first saw Fat Gripz in action:

I was at the gym doing dumbbell rows with the heaviest dumbbell my gym offered (150 lbs.), thinking to myself that they better get some heavier dumbbells or I'm going to be stuck doing high reps of submaximal weight for one of my favorite heavy lifts.

That's when I looked over and saw another gym rat doing the same exercise, but he had these funny blue handles attached to his dumbbell. Now, I'm not the kind of guy to make small talk at the gym. In fact, I hate it when people do nothing but stand around talking, especially when they're using a bench I've been waiting to use forever.

That said, I did the unimaginable and actually talked to this guy. He told me about Fat Gripz, which are made out of hard rubber and wrap around any standard sized barbell, dumbbell, pull-up bar/handle, etc. They basically turned any one inch bar into a 2" thick bar.

As soon as I got home I spent the 40 bucks and ordered a pair for myself. Since then I've used them on a variety of bars and attachments; barbells, dumbbells, pull-up bars, cable row attachments, you name it. The only thing I haven't tried them out on is a kettle bell. I've heard the handles are slightly too small to accommodate the Fat Gripz, which would be my only complaint. 

Without fail, my body experienced a different kind of soreness the next couple of days after using Fat Gripz. My hands and forearms especially (no surprise) felt sore when normal barbell work prior to the Fat Gripz caused exactly zero soreness.

And that 150 lb. dumbbell row I was talking about earlier? Well, I don't find shame in admitting that it was rough rowing even a 90 lb dumbbell once the Fat Gripz were added. It feels nice being able to work my way back up to 150 lbs with the Fat Gripz.

I will also add that doing wide grip pull-ups with a thick bar implementation has allowed me to set a new PR of 12 reps, almost twice as many as my previous best. While this may not seem like much to some, adding Fat Gripz was the only thing I did differently. 

Thick Bar Training Frequency

While all the science and theories behind thick bar training is good to know, the most important aspect is application.

How often should you train with a thick bar?

The main concern we face is lifting less weight because our grip gives out earlier due to the thicker grip. Instead of letting this become a limiting factor, there are a couple of different ways to avoid this.

First, you can opt to use the thick bar only when doing your preparation lifts (aka "warm up"). Using the thick bar in the first few sets with lighter weight will prime your muscles for when the weight gets heavy, causing you to continue contracting harder and "gripping" the barbell even when you switch to the standard Olympic size barbell.

The second method would be to use the thick bar until it begins hindering the performance of the lift. Once this occurs, switch to a standard sized barbell and continue adding weight until your performance deteriorates again. You may need to implement the use of barbell wraps the first time your grip gives out, which is fine since you no longer need to worry about training your grip strength.

I'd recommend programming thick bar training in an alternating fashion. If you decide to purchase a thick bar or a set of Fat Gripz while in the middle of a training cycle, finish the current cycle and implement one of the two methods above in the next. Train with the thick bar for a complete cycle and then go back to lifting strictly with an Olympic barbell.

Rinse and repeat.

Hopefully when you come off of a thick bar training cycle you'll notice an improvement in overall strength compared to training with a standard Olympic barbell, and all you had to do was make the bar thicker!

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About the Author

Jesse Seal is the assistance Combatives Instructor, and has been training in Combative Sciences since 2008. He has also been training and learning through Bullock's Irondom Performance Systems since 2010.

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