Grip Strength for Greater Triumphs

by Adrienne Harvey on September 6, 2016

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Adrienne Harvey Senior PCC Grip Training

Many times we associate grip strength and grip training with those ubiquitous spring-tension grippers and strongman training. While I really enjoy grip training with heavy odd objects, giant kettlebells, etc. it’s also very possible to train for a monster grip using bodyweight training only. With just a little creativity, bodyweight grip training presents infinite variations and challenges—and you can do most of it just about anywhere.

Having a strong grip is a prerequisite to so many bar-based calisthenics exercises—if you can’t hang on long enough, then you won’t be able to do a meaningful number of reps. Beginners will often need to build up their grip strength, as modern life and desk-based jobs don’t seem to test or build our grip.

As many PCC instructors and instructor candidates already know, grip strength is essential to passing the Century Test—you’ve got to be able to hang out on that bar for a while to do those twenty knee raises. In the excitement of testing, those twenty knee raises can seem to take a very long time, and you’ve got to hang on for every single one of them. Then, after the knee raises, the guys still need to do 10 pull-ups, and the ladies have to do their 10 Aussie pull-ups as well.

Convict Conditioning Vol. 2 remains one of my absolute favorites, and that’s not just because of the flags, it’s also the focus on grip training. The book begins with a comprehensive guide to hand and grip strength, and every time I look at it, it gives me more new ideas for training, some of which are presented below.

All Angles and Surfaces

At the PCC and in the Convict Conditioning book series, you’ll notice that there’s a variety of grips demonstrated—the “tactical” no-thumbs overhand grip most commonly seen on pull-ups, overhand with thumb wrapped, the chin-up grip with palms facing you, neutral grip with palms facing each other, wide grips, narrow grips, just a few fingers on each hand, two-arm, one-arm, finger-tip grips, and more.

Adrienne Harvey Bar Grip Training Collage

A few examples of the nearly infinite number of bodyweight grip training options.

Inspired by old time strongman training—which, properly scaled, is great for absolutely everyone—Paul Wade even includes adding a towel (and later two towels) to timed hangs for an extra challenge. A towel is hard to grip and hang from given its large diameter when bunched up, and because the hand is challenged in a less-familiar and surprisingly challenging vertical orientation.

One day, frustrated by the lack of a plain straight pull-up bar in a commercial gym, I came up with the following variation. I put one hand on one handle, but then looped a small hand towel around another one, then did a short set of 5-6 pull-ups. I made sure to switch sides every other set. It was a great grip challenge and can be done most anywhere.

I’m always looking for new places to do pull-ups. While my city is not constantly covered in scaffolding like NYC, I have been able to find great grip-challenging pull-up spots like I-beams, vertical rafters (very difficult, just doing short hangs there), open stairwell stairs, hand-only rope and pole climbs and more. The next time you visit a playground with young relatives, look around for grip challenge opportunities.

Chamber Press Neutral Grip

This is a favorite place to practice flag regressions like the chamber press. The “easier” neutral grip lets me focus on the rest of the movement.

One of my all-time favorite tips from Zach Even-Esh, author of The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength and Conditioning, is to vary the grip on each set of pull-ups (or push-ups) in a workout. Towards your last sets, you might be forced to get very creative.

Speaking of push-ups, if you haven’t tried, them, Neuro-Grip push-ups are a fantastic challenge of yet another angle of grip strength and training. I’ve found that the focus and strength required from them has helped with other exercises like dips, etc. on rings and even when performed on parallel dip bars.

Neuro-Grip push-upsYour Grip = Your Health?

Recent studies have found that grip strength is often an indicator of health. While it seems to be generally accepted that our grip strength declines as we get older, this is yet another opportunity to rebel against the mainstream. We can build up, increase, and maintain our grip strength into our later years if we keep training intelligently. Good health, grip strength and general strength will help us remain safe and independent in our senior years. That sounds good to me even now.

It Goes Both Ways: Train Your Extensors!

Adrienne Harvey Fingertip Pushups

Keeping our hands healthy means that it’s also important to “go the other way” too. In workouts which really emphasize grip training, I like to pair a grip intensive exercise with another exercise that either stretches or challenges the extensors—basically a superset. The extensor exercise can be something as simple as a well executed straight arm plank for time, push-ups, frog or crow stand, handstands if appropriate—or if you’re ready for it, you may want to experiment with fingertip straight arm planks or push-ups at this time too. There’s really no limit to the level of difficulty. It’s important to be patient and gentle though, as fingers seem to take a while to strengthen, and just a second to injure.

Here’s a sample combination from the last part of a favorite at-home workout:

  • 45 second pull-up bar straight arm hang
  • 30 second or longer crow stand
  • rest
  • 60 second pull-up bar straight arm hang
  • 45 second or longer crow stand
  • rest
  • 90 second (or keep going for a max PR) pull-up bar straight arm hang
  • 45-60 second straight arm plank

Grip Confidence and Breaking Through Mental Barriers

This last section might not apply to everyone, but I’ve observed both with myself and others that once we really begin to work on—and TRUST—our grip strength, then we’re often suddenly able to make a lot more progress on the skills which were otherwise right at the edge of our abilities. Getting the vertical chamber press and the next few human flag steps after it (human flag with one leg straight, one leg bent) were absolutely dependent on my confidence in my grip. I knew I had the strength, especially through the core, but in the past, kicking all the way up to vertical was fairly iffy. Turns out, my brain was putting the breaks on. Training my grip while still working on the rest of those progressions (but with a stall-bar-based neutral grip) was key. After finally putting the pieces back together, I’ve been able to reliably do the move on the first try and I’ve still been (slowly) progressing forward.

Adrienne Harvey PCC One Leg Flag

Is there a bar or vertical pole move that’s proved extra challenging for you? Could it be improved with a stronger grip and/or greater grip confidence?

Please share your experiences and questions in the comments below.



Adrienne Harvey, Senior PCC Instructor, RKC-II, CK-FMS, has been RKC Certified since 2010, and RKC Level 2 certified since 2011. Kettlebell and bodyweight training have been crucial in Adrienne’s personal quest for fitness.  A core member of the PCC team, Adrienne loves sharing her knowledge with small groups and individuals. She also loves to develop recipes and workout programs to further support performance, body composition, and of course—FUN. Visit her website, for workouts, recipes, and more.

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  • Steve Grizzly Opalenik

    Awesome article!!! It reminded me of a few things I used to work on but have forgotten to re-focus on… going to have to add some stuff back into my routines… missing my neurogrips currently while at work..

    • Thanks Steve 🙂 Glad to remind you of good stuff to work on — though I also think its great to cycle variety in and out of our programs too, it’s neat how that happens almost naturally sometimes. Glad to hear you’re enjoying your Neuro-Grips – I love them 🙂

  • Matt Schifferle

    As I always say, you’re only as strong as your grip!
    This was a great article Adrienne on and so comprehensive too! It’s good to hear there’s more to grip training than just hanging for time. That pull up variation of doing something different every time is something I’m gonna have to try. Thanks so much!

    • I like your quote there! Sooo much can be done with grip. I’m a huge fan of Zach’s “change the grip every set” idea – it can also really stimulate creativity which is so good for those of us who write too — so please try it! 🙂

  • Haydn

    So often neglected, yet so important for health and performance – a strong and enduring grip. Great post Adrienne – thank you : )

  • bencrush

    Great article, Adrienne! I have been training my grip for about 16 years, and it never really gets old if you know how to switch things up. Which you obviously do.

    -Ben Edwards

    • Agreed Ben! 🙂 It’s funny when I got really into Convict Conditioning and kettlebells, I noticed that the very familiar calluses of my childhood came back almost immediately. All the hours of monkey bars, climbing ropes, and hanging onto makeshift trapeze swings in the backyard must have done some long-term mental programming. Ever more grateful for that now. What’s your favorite grip-strengthening exercise these days?

      • bencrush

        I would say it’s the 2″ vertical bar. But the basic grippers will always have a place in my heart. I certified on the #3 about 11 years ago.

  • Swiss_Olympic

    It’s not like all PCC posts aren’t high quality already, but your posts shine with their unique combination of insight, knowledge, sincerity and humanity.

    I’m a huge proponent of grip strength training, because whether we’re talking of calisthenics or weight training, the grip is the applying agent, the interface with which we interact with the world at large. Almost all upper body exercises, and even some lower body exercises with weights (e.g. deadlifts) are dependent upon grip function.

    A body cannot be trained towards strength without a strong grip. A body cannot BE strong unless the grip is too. Having strong upper arms and torso muscles with a weak grip is like having powerful hips and legs with underdeveloped calf strength. In the real world, your strength is USELESS. It might sound harsh, but it’s true.

    And here’s a little something on the humorous side.

    • Thanks for the great complement – I love writing these posts, glad you can tell! 🙂

      And very well put – grip is how we apply what we have – and that’s so crucial, it can’t be the weakest link if we’re to succeed! Love the photo!

      • Swiss_Olympic

        Thanks! Looking forward to your next article on here 🙂

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