The dominatrix phenomenon. The dead fish factor. The irradiation principle. Here’s what all that means and how it relates to building scary strength.
It’s undeniable: A stronger grip and bigger forearms will improve performance on every single big lift you can think of.
Grip strength is, of course, integral to movements like the deadlift, clean, snatch, pull-up, and rows. However, a stronger grip will also increase your strength on movements like the bench press, military press, and squat, too.
Let’s take a look at all the ways grip strength can affect performance, followed by some novel and not-so novel ways to build the forearms so that you can take advantage of this secret strength weapon.
This one should be obvious. When you’re pulling on a barbell, your hands are the links that transfer the force produced by the body to the object being lifted (barbell, dumbbell, etc.). If the grip isn’t strong, you won’t be able to transfer as much force to the bar.
That’s why a weight you can deadlift, snatch, or pull will feel lighter and easier when you wear straps, even if you’re still capable of doing the weight without them. The straps keep the grip tighter on the bar, allowing for a greater transfer of force. Build the grip and you’ll possess “built in” straps.
Thicker forearms will make the bar feel lighter in the bench press via what I call the “dominatrix phenomenon.”
Pretend you’re lying down on your back while a dominatrix steps on your abdomen. If for some reason she’s wearing running shoes, it wouldn’t hurt as much. Now imagine her in the stereotypical stiletto heels. Now it would hurt, right?
This is because the high heels concentrate the force on a smaller surface. As a result it feels heavier and hurts more, which presumably is exactly her intent.
Similarly, when your forearms are thicker, the weight of the bar is spread over a larger surface area and as a result it feels lighter. This is a psychological effect (you perceive it as lighter), but there’s also a neurological benefit, courtesy of the golgi tendon organs (GTOs).
When the weight is spread out, it decreases the activation of the GTOs, which are your muscle and tendons’ protective mechanism. When they feel that the weight is too heavy (or more specifically, that you have to produce too much force), they will shut down force production to avoid tearing the muscle.
When the weight feels heavier, it’ll more easily activate the GTOs, preventing you from using all of your strength potential. Bigger forearms would help you decrease that inhibition, allowing you to use a greater percentage of your potential.
Having a strong grip and big forearms plays a big role in pressing exercises. It allows you to better control the bar path by more easily keeping the bar directly above the wrists, while a weaker grip will allow the bar to move behind the wrists.
The salient point is this: The more the bar stays directly above the wrists with the forearms perpendicular to the floor, the stronger your bench pressing will be. The same applies to the military press.
Having a stronger grip also allows you to “crush” the bar when pressing. This creates tension in your arms and shoulders because of the irradiation principle (when a muscle contracts super hard, the connected muscles respond by contracting harder too), which both stabilizes the shoulder joint and decreases strength leaks. This will make you stronger while being less prone to injuries.
The role of grip strength is less obvious for the squat, but it’s still of paramount importance. Here’s a quote from coach Lee Boyce:
“The real key to improving squat performance is more than likely going to come from examining the areas of the body that most think aren’t involved. Assuming we’re talking about back squats, the hands play a crucial role for how heavy and unstable the load feels on your back. Actively pulling apart on the bar creates tension through the entire back and also takes some of the pressure of the bar off your back.”
Let’s do an experiment to see if we can prove this. Load a bar up with something like 90% of your 1RM and keep the hands super soft (dead fish hands) with the upper back relaxed. Note how heavy the bar feels.
Then take the same bar but squeeze the life out of it while keeping the upper back tight. It will feel almost half as heavy. The equation is this: Soft hands = soft upper back = bar feels like it weighs a ton.
When I want to get my grip strength up rapidly, I do pinch-grip deadlift holds at the end of every session. I simply ramp up to the heaviest weight I can hold for 9-12 seconds.
Here’s a super quick way to boost your grip strength without having to add more volume. Simply use either a thick bar/dumbbells or Fat Gripz when you’re doing curls. (You can use them for rows, but I find that it decreases performance too much and will negatively affect back growth.)
This approach can also be adapted to deadlifting. I’ll do all the lighter/ramping up sets with a fat bar or Fat Gripz, but when the load gets too heavy, I switch to a regular bar.
Former Canadian Olympic lifting coach Pierre Roy used a similar approach with his female Olympic lifters. They would do the lighter sets with a men’s bar (28mm) and do their heavier sets with a women’s bar (25mm). Switching to the smaller bar also provides a bonus neurological boost that translates to increased performance.
This is something I learned when I did my CrossFit experiment. I was strong, but whenever I had to do a WOD where there was lots of pulling or pull-ups, my grip would just give out.
Why would I fail after 10 pull-ups while someone weaker than me could do 30 kipping pull-ups? It’s not hard to figure out. To do 30 pull-ups (kipping or otherwise), you have to hold on to the bar for at least 40 seconds, possibly as long as 60. But when I tried to just hang from the bar, I could barely hold my bodyweight for 20 seconds!
That indicated an embarrassingly weak grip, so I added 2 minutes of chin-up holds at the end of my workouts. Here’s how it looks:
Surprisingly, it doesn’t create fatigue. It might even help recovery by decompressing the spine.
At first it took me 8 sets or so to add up to 2 minutes, but eventually I was able to do it in one long set and one small one. It’s a very simple, low cost way of increasing grip strength.
These are without a doubt one of the best ways to increase grip strength. Grab the handles in the middle and stand upright – do not lean forward! Stay upright. This will work your core as well as develop grip strength.
Keep your upper back tight and bring those shoulder blades together while externally rotating the shoulders, as if trying to show off your chest. As you walk, imagine that your upper body is one big block of iron!
Don’t go as fast as possible. What we want is time under tension while moving a heavy load and keeping everything tight.
When doing loaded carries I often use the 10 meters = 1 rep approach. So if you’re training for strength – which would involve doing sets of 1-5 reps on big lifts – it would translate to sets of 10-50m on the farmer’s walk, with an optimal distance of at least 30 meters.
In truth, the wrist roller will not increase grip strength that much. It’s more of a forearm exercise than a hand strength exercise, but it is the best way to build forearm size, especially if you stay under load for 30-60 seconds.
Remember, thicker forearms will contribute to pressing strength by increasing the surface area on which the force is distributed, thus making the weight feel lighter.