I’ve always been something of a running, jumping, climbing trees kind of chap (and an occasional transvestite for those waiting for the Eddie Izzard reference) something that transfers well to Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), but I still have to work at things. Right now, I’m trying to master holding my bodyweight with one arm, progress is being made but my grip is being severely tested, and with the grip being a key component of OCR, I thought I’d share my experiences.
I have three go-to exercises for grip development: deadlift, farmers walk and dead hang. Here is a little about each:
I love to deadlift. There is nothing clever about it. You are just picking up something heavy, that’s it. The technique, however, is paramount, especially when the weight gets heavy.
Here is somebody doing it right:
I like to use ascending pyramid sets (see below) for deadlift, 5 reps with the weight increasing by around 10% each set, this makes sure you are warmed up before things get heavy and your grip is getting a good testing throughout.
- Do not go too heavy too soon: you will get hurt.
- Practice: poor technique will get you hurt.
- Do not arch your back at the top of the lift or push your hips forward: it serves no purpose and, again will get you hurt.
- Do not use straps: they defeat the object.
- Do not use gloves: your skin and hands need to toughen up.
- Vary your grip – over hand until it gets too heavy then mixed grip alternating left and right to balance your body.
This style of deadlift shortens the range of motion, works the hips more, and is less stressful on the back than conventional deadlifts.
The suitcase deadlift will have the muscles of your midsection screaming for mercy and your lower body bowing in gratitude, it’s hard to do but the additional focus on the midsection and core makes it well worth the effort.
Farmers walk is super simple, just pick up something heavy in each hand and walk, that’s it. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, plates, or if you are lucky farmers walk frames.
Here is an example:
I like to finish any session that involves grip work with farmers walk, often with Fat Gripz (see below). Five or so thirty-meter carries are usually enough to give me Popeye arms and force the loosening of my watch strap.
- Treat the pick up like a deadlift: protect your back.
- Baby steps: keep your feet underneath your body.
- Vary your grip: use an open hook grip, a pinch grip or fewer fingers.
- Be ready to stretch your forearms: they are going to burn.
Single-handed farmers walk shifts the tension from your shoulders to your core, particularly the obliques and spinal erectors, a good one to throw in the mix.
There are multitudes of bar exercises that work grip, but dead hangs are the simplest. Just grab the bar, take your feet off the floor and let gravity do the rest, simple.
For consistency, here is an example:
I like to keep a timer or clock in my eye line, that way I can measure my progress and keep my posture neutral.
- Do not cross your feet, just bend your knees and tuck your feet back.
- Vary your grip: use a forward, reverse or mixed grip and, if the gym kit supports it a neutral grip.
- The thicker the bar the harder it is to hang – most bars in the gym are 28mm in diameter, whereas bars at a race are likely to be made of scaffolding, which has a diameter of 48mm. The difference is almost instantly noticeable. Even my Gibbon hands* struggle with 48mm.
*As is mentioned in my biography nature imbued me with two thing, long arms and dense muscles, which my better half describes as being Gibbonesque**; harrumph says I.
**Not to be confused with the literary works of historian Edward Gibbon (1737–1794)
Throw a towel over the bar, grab each end and cling on for dear life.
Nunchuck / Rope / Ball
If you happen to have any rig fittings use them, after all, that is what you are training your grip for.
If you are strong enough then the next progression is to use one hand, but this requires more than just extra grip strength. The body will swing such that there is a straight line between your gripping hand and your opposite foot; the key here is to engage your core and remain as vertical as possible, good luck.
Tools and Aids
Fat Grips are as their name suggests, grips that are fat. They fit over standard barbells, dumbbells and pull-up bars, increasing the diameter of the bar and making it much harder to hold or hang from. I use them for farmers walk and dead hangs and to say that it hurts would be an understatement.
Like all exercises, it is important to remain balanced. Whereas the exercises above focus on the agonists (contractor) bands are used to train the grip antagonists (extensors). The exercise is very simple, place your fingers inside the band and open your hand as wide as possible, repeat ten times and swap hands. If you can do ten repetitions three times, then add a second band and repeat the process.
You will get funny looks with this one. If you loop a climbing hold ball like the ones shown above onto a kettlebell (I find plates tend to spin and catch on my legs) then grip the ball rather than the kettlebell handle the grip is worked completely differently. As with all of the exercises mix your grip. The cord between second and third fingers, cord between thumb and index finger or the real killer gripping the ball without the cord passing between any digits, basically a pinch grip. You can buy climbing hold balls online but I found it cheaper to make my own, you just need a couple of drilled beech wood balls and some lengths of cord or narrow strapping. For the record, I use 80mm balls which work my grip really well, if you are unsure if the size you need go to a sports store and try gripping their balls until you find something that is too big to wrap your fingers around.
Climbing and Bouldering
Both John Albon (4x OCR World Champion) and Ryan Atkins (multiple World’s Toughest Mudder Team and Individual Champion) boulder, and if it is good enough for them it is good enough for me. It builds phenomenal grip, teaches coordination and helps build confidence on obstacles.
Links and References
Tools and Aids