The size of your biceps doesn’t mean much if your hand cramps up holding a baby carrier on the way to the car. What’s more, your ability to participate in even the most basic of activities will be severely compromised if you lose grip strength. And, it’s so integral to so many exercises, a weak grip will make expire faster than an avocado when performing everything from pull-ups to deadlifts. As they say: If you can’t grip it, you can’t lift it.
“Grip strength is crucial for all activities of daily living, work, or recreation,” says Dr. Nathan Wei, Director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, MD, and a certified professional trainer. “You need to work the muscles of the forearms, wrists, and hands to preserve grip strength so you don’t have issues opening a jar of pickles when you’re 65.”
Wei suggests simple exercises to develop grip strength including wadding up newspapers, squeezing a rubber ball, and working with resistance bands. You can also use a device such as the Xtensor or even thick rubber bands to work the fingers. Wei suggests starting with a minute of grip exercise and working your way up from there. And don’t try to undo carpal tunnel symptoms with these exercises. “If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, it needs to be addressed by a doctor.”
Strengthening your hands in the gym means adding a few grip-building exercises to your regular routine. Here’s how to maintain and improve grip strength according to Ramsey Bergeron, owner of Bergeron Personal Training in Scottsdale, AZ.
Why: “This doesn’t just work your grip,” Bergeron says. “It’s also functional—working your core and most of your upper-body muscles.”
How to do it: Select dumbbells that each weigh 30 -40 percent of your bodyweight. Hold one in each hand and walk, keeping your back straight and core tight. Aim for 100 meters. Set the weights down slowly and with control. If the weights are too light, adjust accordingly, working up to half your weight in each hand.
Common mistakes: Starting with weights that are too heavy or shrugging your shoulders up. “These put too much pressure on your rhomboids and traps, so you’re not getting the benefit for the entire upper body.”
Standing Rope Forearm
Why: “This is an endurance exercise,” Bergeron says. “It’s good bang for your buck for your forearms.”
Grab a bar or pipe that has a rope attached with a 5-to-10-pound weight plate hanging on the end. Hold your arms straight out in front of you. Slowly twist the bar to wrap the rope around it, bringing up the weight until it touches the bar. Slowly spool the rope back out. Repeat, rotating your wrists in the opposite direction.
Common mistake: Using too much weight. “Then it’s a shoulder exercise.”
Heavy Rope Shakes
Why: These engage your arms and shoulders, but also your whole body. You’ll reach maximum heart rate very quickly. Ropes with larger diameters are harder to grip and control, so use a big rope if you can.
How to do it: Holding the ends of a heavy rope or battle ropes with your arms bent at the elbow and knees slightly bent, swing your arms to raise and lower the rope ends, shaking the rope. Repeat for 1 minute. Alternatively, sit on a box to isolate your upper body muscles.
Common mistakes: Too much body English. “Some people turn their whole bodies back and forth,” Bergeron says. “They look like Muppets. It should look like you’re hitting drums with drumsticks.”
Why: Simple hangs build up your grip strength quickly. “How long you can initially hang is about your strength-to-weight ratio,” Bergeron says.
How to do it: Find monkey bars, a pull-up bar, or anything you can hang from, supporting your bodyweight with your hands. Time how long you can hang to establish a baseline. Try to increase your hang time incrementally.
Common mistake: Giving up. If you can’t hang freely, put your feet on the ground for an assist.
Why: “This is popular for baseball players who need to train their forearms,” Bergeron says. “It’s about the resistance of the rice. Water is too light. Rice is pliable enough to move around, but there’s still weight around your hand.”
How to do it: Fill a 5-to-10-gallon bucket with uncooked rice. Push your hand into the bucket and knead the rice. Options include: pretending you’re trying to find something; reaching to the bottom of the bucket and massaging the rice; moving your wrist back and forth; making the shapes of letters with your hands; opening your hand and moving your fingers in all directions.
Common mistake: Trying too hard. “Small movements will go a long way.”
Cable Crossover Machine
“Just holding those handles engages your forearm synergists, or helper muscles, so they get worked out, too,” Bergeron says. “Even if they’re not the primary mover, they’re still getting worked.”