Have you ever rolled with someone with a REALLY strong grip? It can be incredibly frustrating when you cannot break their grip and they seem to control every situation. Whether it’s controlling the position or finishing submissions, grip strength is an essential piece of any jiu-jitsu player’s game.
While the majority of people look to the weight room for building strength, I have found that we can learn more about developing a strong grip from the blue-collar workers and athletes who have some fruit on their tree. These guys wrench, grab, carry, use tools, climb, move and use their hands on a daily basis. Forget the bodybuilder with big biceps; if you’ve rolled with an ironworker, you will instantly understand what I am talking about.
What is Grip Strength?
Grip strength involves the fingers, hands, and forearms. By gripping, grabbing, holding, and climbing our hands literally allow us to connect to the world around us. In daily life we might be carrying groceries or the kids. On the mat, we are using our grip to manipulate our opponent, move him around or control a position. While often neglected in the weight room, grip strength is an essential piece of the puzzle for any combat athlete.
Benefits of Grip Strength
Jiu-jitsu is a hands-on sport and the benefits of a strong grip may seem obvious. Strong fingers and hands help us grab and control our opponent, right? But a strong grip can help us in other ways as well. Strong fingers, hands and forearms are also less susceptible to injury, which is common in jiu-jitsu. Ever get a finger caught in a gi, sprained your thumb or tweaked your wrist? While these injuries cannot always be avoided, strength can protect us from common tweaks, pain or injury.
Types of Grip Strength
Our hands are very intricate and can perform a variety of functions. They need to be delicate enough to button our shirt, strong enough to carry heavy loads and have the endurance to work over long periods of time. Jiu-jitsu players need to be able to hold positions, as well as move under tension, using a variety of different handholds.
Holding, without moving, is called isometric contraction. An example of this would be grabbing a sleeve or collar, holding tight and not allowing your opponent to move. Even though there is no movement, this type of contraction can be exhausting. Developing this isometric strength can yield huge benefits on the mat.
Jiu-jitsu also requires movement and our grip must be able to hold up in more dynamic movement. Maintaining your grip while rolling, pulling and scrambling for position is much different than simply holding still. Our grip works with the rest of our arms, shoulders and back to assist in a variety of pushing and pulling movements. Like we said before, our grip allows us to interact with the world around us. Training for these dynamic situations help us better prepare for practice and competition.
Exercises to Build Grip Strength
Pick Up Heavy Things
Lifting things is a natural human movement pattern. We lift boxes, kids and other items almost every day of our lives. Strongmen use heavy stones to display their strength. Farmers pick up livestock, bails of hay and other items in support of their work. Jiu-jitsu players need similar strength to manipulate their opponents on the mat.
The most common exercise for this category is the deadlift. Hinge at the waist, maintain good posture and pick up the bar. You can also use stones, sandbags, kettlebells and other items, but the idea is still the same: pick up something heavy. Any of these lifts help develop a strong grip, upper back and hips. Perfect for jiu-jitsu.
As kids we were constantly grabbing onto bars, swinging around and holding on to them for long periods of time. Hanging from a straight bar, tree branch, rope, climbing hold or similar, helps build strength and endurance throughout our fingers, hands and forearms. By utilizing different handles, we challenge our grip in a variety of ways. For example, hanging from a gi is much different than hanging from a rock climbing hold or ledge, yet both yield benefits. Mix it up and challenge yourself to hang for longer periods of time.
Rock climbers are notorious for having strong hands, arms and backs. Climbing on rocks, in a gym or up a rope, forces our hands and pulling muscles to work in unison, which transfers perfectly onto the mat. Use a variety of hand holds, ropes and other implements to continually challenge yourself. This will quickly build grip strength, pulling power and the endurance needed to finish a match.[/double_paragraph][double_paragraph][/double_paragraph] [/row]
Pulling is another natural movement pattern that we use on a daily basis and every pull starts with a grip. We are constantly grabbing and pulling in a variety of positions on the mat. From arm drags to passing the guard, developing strong pulling power allows us to roll more effectively. In order to train this pattern we can use a variety of pulling exercises. Rows, high pulls, pulling ropes, tug of war and other drills all help us develop pulling strength and power. One of our favorites was inspired by the strongman truck pull.
Attach a rope to a heavy sled, weight, car or similar. Stretch the rope out, sit on the ground and pull hand over hand until the object reaches you. We use 100’ ropes and use a variety of objects to drag. This is an incredible drill to build massive pulling power, as well as building endurance throughout the hands and forearms.
The Three Grips
Grip strength is characterized as how much force or muscle power someone has in their hands; their ability to grip an object using their fingers, palm, thumb, or all three. Aside from maybe rock climbing, few athletic endeavors require strong grip strength like jiu-jitsu and grappling. A strong grip comes from muscle and tendon strength in your fingers, hands, and forearms. Grip strength can be broken down into three categories:
Crush Grip: this is the most common in jiu-jitsu. It is your ability to exert pressure on an object using all your fingers and palm. This could be a grip deep inside a collar, or wrapped around a wrist.
Pinch Grip: this is the grip used when just your fingers and thumbs are in play. Sometimes in jiu-jitsu this is all you can get a hold of, but not too common. This is a weaker grip position; if you can shift a pinch grip to get your palm involved and your bent fingers, you’ll be much better off.
Support Grip: this is when you’re holding something for a longer period of time. It involves lots of muscular endurance rather than crush strength. A great example of this would be a clinch situation where you’re holding your opponent close to you with a grip of his sleeve, or the back of his neck for a long period of time.
Carrying things is another basic way to build strength and endurance in our hands. We can carry sandbags, dumbbells, heavy buckets and more. The most famous exercise in this category is called the farmer carry. Pick up two heavy dumbells and walk for distance or time. While this is a great way to develop grip strength, it also challenges your posture, core, hips and legs. We use hex bars, dumbbells, kettlebells, chains, buckets, gi grips, barbells and many other items to add variety to this exercise, but the idea is simple. Pick up items with your hands, carry them for a while and you will get stronger.
Plumbers, ironworkers, mechanics and other guys who work with their hands every day typically have strong grips. Over the years, I was always trying to find ways to mimic the movements found in these types of jobs. Wrenching all day provides a unique challenge to our grips and this variety yields some big benefits.
The most effective way to mimic this in the gym is to place a kettlebell upside down in a bucket of rice. Claw grip the end of the dumbbell and simply twist and turn the dumbbell, like you would turn a bolt or screw on the lid of a jar. The kettlebell will slowly sink down into the rice, making it harder to turn. Keep turning the dumbbell until it gets stuck, pull it back out and repeat. You can turn the kettlebell in both directions. You can also use different size dumbbells to increase or decrease the difficulty. Enjoy!
Guidelines for Getting Started
If you’re just getting started, I would recommend starting slow, using light weights and seeing how your body reacts to these exercises. Since many of us spend our days in the office, on the computer or typing on our phones, we need to try any new exercise plan with caution. Although many may seem simple, they can be taxing on the system and should be slowly introduced over time. As time passes, you will be able to handle heavier loads, more difficult tasks and will be able to endure longer time under tension.
Hopefully these new drills and exercises will allow you to develop a stronger grip that will transfer onto the mat. Stay consistent and this new-found strength will quickly have your training partners talking and your competitors running for cover.
Corey Beasley has been a strength coach for 16 years and works with a variety of combat athletes in Southern California. He owns Innovative Results gym in Costa Mesa, CA and founded a site called FightCampConditioning.com, that provides strength and conditioning advice for MMA fighters, jiu-jitsu players and other combat athletes.