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Coming to grips with hand & forearm strength.

Grip strength tends to be one of the most neglected aspects of strength training. Some coaches assume that any time you pick-up, hold, and ply a barbell, dumbbell, or any other training device, you automatically strengthen your grip.


Not true. The indirect benefits derived by the hands and forearms from exercising other areas of the body cannot carry over significantly to grip strength.


This is especially true of athletes who wield an implement such as a bat, hockey/lacrosse stick, javelin, vaulting pole, etc.) These activities are not going to contribute meaningfully to such skills as tackling, blocking, throwing, catching, rebounding, etc., all of which are dependent on a solid grip.


Before describing some of our favorite grip-strength exercises, we would like to present a brief overview of the structure and functions of the involved musculature.



A surprisingly large muscle complex in the forearm and hand is responsible for the wrist and finger movements. The accompanying diagrams show some of the more prominent muscles in these areas.


The muscles that flex the wrist and fingers are on the anterior side (palm side) of the forearm. Diag. 1 shows the superficial layer and Diag. 2 the deep layer of flexors.

The superficial muscles that extend the wrist and fingers are on the posterior side (knuckle side), as shown in Diag. 3.

Two other important movements are pronation (palms-down), provided by the pronator teres, and supination (palms-up), provided by the small, deep supinator on the lateral side of the elbow.


The names of the forearm muscles certainly look intimidating and exotic, but they have a specific purpose in identifying rudimentary structure and function.

Check the extensor carpi ulnaris in Diag 3. "Extensor" indicates its function (extend the wrist), "carpi" indicates that it affects the carpals (wrist bones), and "ulnaris" indicates that it runs along the ulna, the long forearm bone on the little finger side.


The muscles and tendons of the palm-side of the hand (Diag. 4) provide various finger movements - primarily adduction (spreading the fingers apart from the extended position) and abduction (closing the fingers together from the extended position) - as well as finger flexion and extension.


In developing grip strength, we perform exercises as wide and varied as burying our hands and wrists into buckets of sand and flexing and extending the fingers, to squeezing handballs or tennis balls in between sets of our regular workouts.



Photos 1-13 offer a short list of other favorites in our "grip grab-bag":

Wrist Flexion: Several implements can be used for this exercise, but a straight bar or lighter dumbbell will suffice.

Support the forearm on a bench in the palms-up position, with the hands hanging over the edge in a pre-stretched position (photo 1). Flex the palms toward the forearm and squeeze tightly in that position for a second or two (photo 2). Return under control to the starting position and repeat (15-20 reps).


Wrist Extension: Turn to the palms-down position on the bench, and start with the hand hanging over the edge in a pre-stretched position (photo 3). Extend the hands toward the forearm and squeeze tightly in that position for a second or two (photo 4). Return to the starting position and repeat (15-20 reps).

Supination/Pronation: Start in the palm-up (photo 5) position (supination), and turn the hand to the palm-down (photo 6) position (pronation). Return to the starting position and repeat (15-20 reps).


Gripper: We have a machine for this exercise (photo 7), but a variety of pliable balls (tennis balls are especially effective) will get the job done.

Start with fingers extended, and then flex them into a tight fist. Squeeze hard in that position for 1-2 seconds, and then gradually extend the fingers to the starting position. Perform 15-20 reps.

Farmer's Walk: Shake hands with a farmer, and after you catch your breath and your hand returns to its normal color, you'll understand why we use this exercise. We've used a variety of bars, dumbbells, and sandbags (photo 8) for this grueling grip exercise.


It's simple enough to execute: Just pick up the sandbags (ours range from 50-100 lbs.) by the handles and start walking. The objective is to walk as far as possible without dropping the sandbags.


We prefer sandbags for this exercise, because they can be dropped without worrying about injuring the feet. They will easily clear the outside of each foot due to their rectangular shape. Their soft, forgiving composition makes them a safer option. Dumbbells and steel bars must obviously be handled with much more care.


Towel Pulls: These are simply chin-ups performed with the use of towels (photo 9).

Roll-up two towels, drape them over the chin-up bar, and tape the ends together. The thickness and smooth texture of the towels increase the difficulty for the grip muscles to a much higher degree than regular chin-ups.

Perform them as you would normal chin-ups; pull up until your chin is above your wrists, pause for a second, and then lower yourself to a position that has a slight bend in the arms. Repeat for as many good reps as possible.

We ask our athletes to get at least 1-2 sets of 8-10 reps per set even if they have to climb the steps on our chin-up rack to the top position. They must then lower themselves slowly to complete a set.

You will undoubtedly have some athletes who cannot perform very many, if any, positive (raising) reps. They should, however, be able to perform several negative (lowering) reps. Over time and with practice, they will develop the strength to perform more positive reps.

Hammer Bar/Thick Bar/Sandbag Curls: We like to use a variety of odd shaped and difficult to handle implements for our arm-curling movements to stress the grip.

The "hammer bar" (photo 10) has thick, perpendicular handles that work both the grip muscles and biceps when curling.

The "thick bars" (photo 11) are 3" -4" in diameter and are great for regular and reverse curls.

Sandbags (photo 12) are also great for curling movements, as the shifting sand places different levels of stress on the forearms and upper arms throughout the movement. Perform all curling exercises, regardless of the implement used, through a full-range of motion.

Starting with the arms fully extended, curl the bar toward the chest while keeping the elbows as tight as possible to the side of the body. Hold the midrange position for 1-2 seconds, and then return under control to a point where the elbows are slightly bent before executing the next rep.

We usually perform 1-2 sets of 8-10 reps for the chosen curling movement. Note: The positions pictured for all three curling movements are near mid-range.

Wrist Roller: We use PVC pipe that is about 16" long and 3"-4" in diameter (photo 13). Holes are drilled through the middle and a 4' rope is tied through them. A steel clamp is attached to the end of the rope for adding weight plates.

Start with the arms extended in front of the body with the rope straight and the weights off the floor. Roll the pipe with your hands until the weight plates touch it, and then return slowly to the starting position.

We usually perform 2-3 full-length rolls of the rope. Weight is added in small increments (2.5-5 lbs.) when 3 full-length rolls can be completed.


Remember, developing vice-like hand and forearm strength will not happen merely because you lift weights for other parts of the body. These muscles must be targeted with specialized exercises.

Try some of these and get a firm grip on the competition.


Ken Mannie, Michigan State University Duffy Daugherty Building, East Lansing, MI 48824 or via email at

BY KEN MANNIE Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University
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Title Annotation:Power Line
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Previous Article:Coaches' corner.
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