I’d never realised it was possible to get DOMS in your hands.
But a day after my first serious grip session, as I sat at my desk and tapped at my keyboard, I found my hands wracked by a grinding ache that settled in the triangles of flesh beside my thumbs and radiated across my knuckles and down into the pad of muscle beneath my pinkies. It was an ache that felt familiar and yet foreign at the same time. Sure, I’d felt this in my glutes, my quads, my chest. But my hands?
It all started a few months earlier on the tennis court. Every Friday lunch, a colleague and I will head down and hit for an hour or so. Once we’ve both worked up a sweat, we’ll meet at the net for a handshake. And every time he’ll get me. His purchase will be a little firmer, a little surer. My knuckles will buckle, my fingers will strain. And no matter how many forehand winners I’ve driven down the line, I’ll slink back to my desk with the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth.
It’s a weekly indignity that got me thinking: why had I never – not once – made a concerted effort to strengthen my grip? Why had I ignored those ropes of muscle that curl around the elbow joint and run down the forearm? Why had I neglected those flexors and extensors that pass through the wrists and fan into the fingers and thumbs? Vanity most likely. Hell, when has a woman ever admired the musculature of your thumbs?
But from a utility perspective, these muscles are crucial. As PT and strength mechanics expert Paul Bersagel points out, the hands are invariably the first point of contact between you and an object – be it a barbell, a sparring partner or a stubborn twist top. “Your hands are like the tyres between the road and the car,” he says. “If you get good contact and initiation there, everything else will function at a higher level.”
Indeed, the force you apply with your hands doesn’t just empty on to an external object – it also ripples back up your arms and into your shoulders. “There’s a lot of research that show grip strength has a direct correlation with rotator cuff strength,” says Bersagel. “And strong rotator cuffs, of course, keep your shoulder in a stable position.” For this reason, if you’re doing any weighted movement – from bench press to deadlifts – it’s vital that you actively engage your grip to stabilise your shoulders, providing a concrete platform for the big prime movers in the chest, back and legs to do their thing.
But the significance of a firm grip extends well beyond the gym. A 2015 study published in the Lancet measured grip strength in 140,000 adults in 17 countries. The researchers then followed the subjects’ health over a four-year period. The results: every five-kilogram decrease in grip strength was linked to a 16 per cent higher risk of dying from any cause, a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease, a nine per cent higher risk of stroke and a seven per cent higher risk of heart attack. The conclusion: grip strength is a peerless marker of your biological age. The stronger your grip, the biologically younger your body; the weaker your grip, the more decrepit your carcass.
Armed with this knowledge, I made a booking at my local gym to test my grip strength on a dynamometer – a curious implement that measures the amount of force a closing hand can apply. My results – 56 kilograms on my right hand, 52 on my left – placed me at the upper end of average for a man aged 30-39. Not bad. But filling the bell curve isn’t optimal, especially with the fragility of my handshake being brutally exposed on the tennis court each week.
It was time to call in the experts.
Shaking Ben Simpson’s hand is an unsettling experience. My knuckles are engulfed. My fingers don’t even reach around the sides. Fortunately, Simpson’s a genial bloke who doesn’t go in for dick-swinging shows of strength, but the latent power his right hand radiates is both stunning and slightly terrifying.
For Simpson, Australia’s premier strongman, an unshakeable grip is the keystone to his physical dynamism. “You can be as strong as you want in your legs and your back,” he says, “but if you can’t hold on to the weight when you’re doing a farmer’s walk or a frame carry or a Hercules hold, you’re stuffed.”
It’s a truth that applies to those who don’t hoist 130kg Atlas stones for fun. “I say to my clients all the time: what’s the point of being really strong, if you can’t apply that force with your hands?” says Simpson, who also works as a PT. “In real life, it’s your hands that are invariably in contact with the thing you’re trying to lift or to move. Whether you’re playing a sport or picking something heavy up in the garage, you need strong hands.”
For this reason, Simpson shakes his head in bafflement when he sees guys at the local gym using straps for everything from deadlifts to chin-ups. Tossing away straps, he contends, is the simplest and most effective way to shuffle grip work into your session. When Simpson knuckles down for a deadlift session, for example, he’ll go with a strapless double-overhand grip for every set until he starts pushing close to his 360kg 1RM. At that point he might switch to a mixed grip. Only when pushing for a new PB will he strap up.
If strapless deadlifts provide quality incidental grip training, the farmer’s walk is the exercise Simpson typically employs to narrow the focus to his hands and forearms. (See "Hold Tight" workout below.) “Farmer’s walks are the absolute best thing that you can do for your grip,” he says. “Every time you take a step, the weight bounces up and down inside your hand, so if you can hold a heavy farmer’s walk, that’ll improve your grip massively.” And for Simpson, heavy means heavy. A standard farmer’s walk session will see him clutching 170kg in each hand and shuffling 15 metres at top speed, a set he’ll repeat 3-5 times. A “light” session, meanwhile, might involve 140kg in each hand carried for 30m.
In this way, Simpson has built a pair of hands that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountain gorilla. He holds them up and stares at them appreciatively. “They’ve gotten a hell of a lot bigger,” he says. “Looks like I’ve got sausages for fingers now.”
Each Friday, Simpson will typically do a strongman-specific grip session. Follow his lead to build insanely strong hands
Farmer’s walk: choose two dumbbells whose combined weight is at least 75 per cent of your body weight. Hold the dumbbells at your side and, keeping your stride short, walk 30m. Rest for two minutes; repeat 3-5 times.
Static hold: using the same dumbbells, hold them at your side for as long as possible without moving. Rest for two minutes; repeat 2-3 times.
Tip: vary the numbers depending on your goals. Want to build strength? Do the above workout with dumbbells whose combined weight equals your body weight and walk 15m for the farmer’s walk. Want to hone endurance? Use dumbbells whose combined weight is 50 per cent of your body weight and walk 100m.
The Rock Climber
If strongman training is all about gripping a weighted barbell, then rock climbing presents a more diverse challenge, with holds varying from capacious “jugs”, which can easily swallow an entire hand, to minute “crimps”, which struggle to accommodate a single trembling fingertip. For James Kassay, this variety is the seam of gold in the sport. “I love the challenge of climbing,” he says. “It’s obviously very physical, but it’s also very mental. Every time you pull on the wall you’re problem solving.”
The 31-year-old Kassay has been scaling walls ever since his tenth birthday, when his parents signed him into the kids club at a local climbing gym. “They ran a few little competitions during that first session and I won everything,” he says. “I came home with a bottle of Coke, a chocolate bar and a chalk bag. I was hooked.” Since then, Kassay has notched more national titles than he can count, representing Australia over 30 times in World Cup events around the globe. He’s also opened his own climbing gym, Bayside Rock, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
Kassay’s hands may not possess the stunning heft of Simpson’s, but they’re still arrestingly large, sporting a thumb-to-pinkie span of 23.5 centimetres – impressive given he only stands 174cm tall. Little wonder, given the innumerable hours he’s spent clinging to impossibly small holds on vertiginous walls. “Climbing’s all about power-to-weight ratio,” he says. “Once you’re on the wall you’ve got four points of contact: your feet and your hands. Now, your feet are obviously just resting on the holds, so your hands are doing everything else. Being able to grip the holds – what we call ‘contact strength’ – is the thing that separates a really good climber from an average climber.”
For Kassay, the key to building this “contact strength” isn’t clinging to loaded dumbbells or closing weighted grippers – it’s using his body weight to stress his fingers, whether that’s on a wall or a hang board (see “Hang Tough” workout below). “Grip exercises tend to close the hand,” he says, “which builds strength in the forearms. But climbers want to build strength in the tips of our fingers because most climbing grips require an open hand position. So when you’re on a wall or a hang board, you want your main point of contact to be your fingertips. This stresses the fingers, building up your strength.”
It’s a style of training that’s not without risk – climbers occasionally rupture the pulleys in their fingers, an injury that can consign them to horizontal surfaces for up to six months – but it builds fantastic strength through the fingers. “Everyone says I’ve got big hands,” says Kassay. “And I like a firm handshake. If someone wasn’t ready I could cause a bit of damage . . . ” He smiles: “But I’m a pretty nice guy.”
“Repeaters”, says Kassay, are a common climbing-focused workout that not only build finger strength but also finger endurance – key components to nailing a difficult climb. Get ready for the burn
Directions: choose a crimp that allows a solid hold. While climbers will typically use a hang board, you can use a solid doorframe or a chin-up bar.
Set 1: hang straight-armed for seven seconds, then rest for three seconds. Repeat six times; have a two-minute rest.
Set 2: repeat this sequence with your arms locked at 15°. Have a two-minute break.
Set 3: repeat this sequence with your arms locked at 45°. Have a two-minute break.
Set 4: Repeat this sequence with your arms locked at 90°. Have a two-minute break.
The Arm Wrestler
It is, perhaps, not overly surprising that Andrew Lea got into the sport of arm-wrestling via a bucks party. Each Wednesday night, he and two mates – both of them bouncers by trade – would meet in a garage and do MMA sparring. The weekly ritual was broken when one of the bouncers got engaged and decided he wanted arm-wrestling at his bucks night. “So we bought an arm-wrestling table and started smashing one another,” says Lea. “Two of us caught the bug – and it is a bug; it’s like a disease. The other one couldn’t handle the pain. He dropped off and we haven’t seen him since.”
These days, Lea is both the vice-captain of the Australian arm wrestling team, and treasurer and vice-president of the Australian Arm Wrestling Federation. Probe him on why he loves the sport and his words come in a torrent: “There’s technique and there’s strength, and it’s how those two interact that determines whether you’re a good arm wrestler . . . ”
There are, he explains, two basic moves in arm wrestling – the inside and the outside move. If you think you’ve got a stronger arm than your opponent, you hook your hand in and pull him towards you. If you think your opponent has a stronger arm, you bend his wrist back with a move known as the “top roll” and push him away from you. “Throw the element of speed in there – who can get to their move fastest – and that’s basically arm-wrestling,” he says.
While urban myth dictates that arm-wrestling’s all about soaring testosterone and bulging biceps, it is, in fact, a technical pursuit that demands profound wrist strength. “When I started arm-wrestling,” says Lea, “I’d been lifting weights for 20 years, so I was gym strong. But my hands and my wrists weren’t strong. So my technique was to try and put it on the biceps. But guys would take a look at me and flop my hand backwards. I was getting smashed the whole time.”
It was only through a dedicated program of wrist strengthening that Lea was able to build the strength where it counted. His gym work now centres around three seminal arm-wrestling movements – cupping, rotating and rising (see “Wrist Management” workout below). These three movements form the basis for the inside and outside moves, so he trains each independently, hunched over weighted ropes while around him blokes punch out squats, biceps curls and bench presses.
He laughs: “I look pretty weird and wonderful at the gym. I mean, on Saturdays I train my thumbs. People laugh when I tell ’em: what do you mean you train your thumbs? But the bigger your thumb is, the harder it is to get around your hand in arm-wrestling.” And how exactly does he train his thumbs? “I hold a 7.8kg shot put for time. You’ll find your thumb does a lot of work because it’s counteracting the four other fingers. It’s a hell of a workout. You hold that for a minute and a half and when you let go you won’t be able to close your fingers because they’ll be locked out with this weird kind of cramping pain.”
According to Lea, arm-wrestling’s got little to do with oversized biceps and everything to do with a cast-iron wrist. Use these three moves to pulverise any opponent
Directions: do three sets of 10-12 reps for each movement, resting for two minutes between sets
Rising: hold your arm at your side, your elbow bent at 90°, your palm facing in. Make a fist and drape a weighted rope over your fingers between your knuckles. Keeping your wrist straight, lift the weight straight up.
Rotation: hold your arm at your side, your elbow bent at 90°, your palm facing up. Drape a weighted rope over the knuckle of your thumb and make a fist. Rotate your wrist so your palm faces towards you at the top of the movement.
Cupping: put a fat grip on a pulley machine handle and set the pulley at chest level. Grab the pulley with your elbow bent at 90° (an arm-wrestling position). Cup the pulley straight back towards your forearm.
After a month of thrice-weekly grip sessions – ranging from farmer’s walks to fingertip holds – I become intimately acquainted with the “weird kind of cramping pain” Lea speaks of. It’s not pleasant. In fact, it’s downright torturous. A pyrotechnic pain that feels as if I’m doing untold damage to the pulleys in my fingers.
Perhaps this is why grip work is such an ignored facet of strength training? Body-weight holds with my fingertips crimped on the edge of a wooden beam bring on a scalding burn in the back of my hand I find difficult to describe.
But the results are startling. A second crack at the dynamometer a month later reveals my right hand can now exert 72kg of force, my left 65 – both marks significantly above average for a man in my age bracket.
And on the tennis court? I lock on with a vice-like grip that leaves the bastard wide eyed and quivering like a hooked fish. Job done.