Lately, I’ve found myself unable to complete the last few reps of my bent-over rows, lat pulldowns, assisted pull-ups and dead lifts.
Not because I’ve lost strength (I’ve actually been slowly increasing the loads I can lift on each of these exercises for the past few months), but because my strength gains haven’t been even.
My ‘gripping’ muscles are weaker than the muscles of my legs, back and shoulders and are limiting my ability to work my larger muscle groups to fatigue. Last week, I nearly dropped a 50-lb dumbbell on my toe, not because my back said ‘enough’, but because my hand could no longer grip the weight I was rowing.
Clearly, I need to improve my grip strength. But where to start?
Know your gripping muscles
Developing a strong grip requires focus on the muscles of the forearm, specifically the flexor digitorum superficialis, flexor digitorum profondus and the flexor policus longus. When flexed isometrically, these three muscles allow you to maintain a closed-hand hold on dumbbells, barbells and cable and pulley handles.
When fatigued, they lose their contractibility, resulting in the hand opening and the weight slipping to the ground.
Exercises to improve grip strength
Building a better grip requires development of the forearms.
Now I know that many women worry about getting bulky and the idea of having muscular forearms goes against their personal aesthetic. Just remember that strong forearms will allow you to develop strong shoulders, a more well-defined back and a booty to behold. As long as your gains are proportional, nobody will be looking at your gripping muscles.
As a benefit, you’ll also be able to comfortably carry heavier shopping bags from the mall to that ‘get more steps in’ distant parking space
1. Hex dumbbell holds
Grab a pair of hex dumbbells by their ends. Extend arms at your sides, keeping shoulders back and down and core engaged and hold for as long as you can. Obviously, the size of your hand will determine what size of dumbbell you’ll be able to grip. Start with a weight that you can hold for 30 s at a time. Progress by increasing the load every week or two, until you reach the limit of your grip width.
2. Weight plate pinches
In addition to strengthening your forearms, weight plate pinches will also improve your finger strength; a secondary, but important contributor to grip strength.
Start by grabbing two, same-size weight plates. Place them back to back, smooth side out. Standing tall, hold the plates together by placing your thumb near the top of the inside plate (closest to your body) and your fingers near the top of the outside plate. Pinch the plates together and hold for as long as you can. (Stop just before you’re no longer able to gently lower the plates to the ground). Repeat on the other side.
3. Wrist curls
Grab a light pair of dumbbells in an overhand grip. Place forearms on a bench (or counter top, if you’re doing this at home), with hands extended just beyond the edge, palms facing down. Alternately flex and extend the wrists, moving weights down towards the floor then up towards the ceiling, making sure that forearms remain in contact with the bench throughout. Aim for two sets of 10-12 repetitions.
4. Fat bar holds
Some gyms have ‘fat’ bars; bars that are thicker around than typical barbells, O-bars and EZ-curl bars. If your gym doesn’t have such a bar you can make your own by wrapping a thick towel around the shaft of a standard barbell.
Standing with feet shoulder width apart, grab the bar, placing hands slightly wider than hip width apart. Hold for as long as you can. Try varying your grips (open, closed and mixed) to stimulate your gripping muscles from a variety of angles.
5. Tennis ball squeeze
Holding a tennis (or lacrosse) ball in one hand. Squeeze tightly for 10-15 s. Rest briefly and repeat. You can perform this exercise on both hands simultaneously, or one hand after the other.
Putting it all together
My plan is to add in grip strength work twice weekly at the end of my strength workouts (wouldn’t want to pre-fatigue that muscles I need for back, shoulder and leg work ).
I’m hoping that two sets of each of the above exercises will aid in my quest for unassisted pull ups and a bigger dead lift. (And get me reading for holiday shopping trips at the mall). I’ll let you know!
Have you ever experienced forearm fatigue when performing pulling exercises?
How have you improved your grip strength?