When people, particularly grapplers, ask me about training their grip, I always attempt to classify them into two categories: experienced with a weak grip, or novice/low training age with a weak grip. The distinction matters.
Novices & Grip Training
Quite simply, someone more novice to jiu jitsu or the weight room should not worry about extra grip training too much: it will be trained adequately as you get used to training with a barbell, dumbbells and hanging from a pull-up bar. It’s a skill, like much of strength, and is specific.
The training age of a novice is simply too young to say something definitive about your grip strength. Just be sure your training has plenty of barbells, dumbbells and hanging exercises from a bar (pull-ups, hanging leg raises, etc), and you’ll begin to develop adequate grip strength in the early going.
I have seen grown men come into the studio and attempt to hang from the bar for more than 10 seconds and dropped off immediately, but their problem wasn’t some true “weakness,” they just hadn’t ever done it. 2-3 months into training deadlifts, pull-ups/flexed arm hangs, and they were hanging for over a minute on dead hang tests. That will translate.
The Experienced Athlete and Weak Grips
When you have an experienced person with a weak grip, you have a few things that could be at play, but all ends and solutions will include directly training the grip. More importantly, though, there’s a few questions and things you should look at first: namely, why is your grip weak?
The lowest hanging fruit is your supplementary S&C as listed above. Are you just not training at all outside jiu jitsu? Start there. It may be that simple. Make sure your program, much like the advice above, has a lot of heavy bar work in it and pull ups/hanging exercises.
However, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably tried this and still struggle.
I always look at stronger, experienced lifters and fighters with weak grip with the same critical eye and ask the following:
How is your overall posture?
People with chronic terrible posture have a cascading list of problems, but one of the ones I am more concerned about is the idea of “irradiation”— in other words, one muscle or group of muscle’s tension creating a positive effect for another muscle. Think of doing a 1 Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press: you’re much stronger/more stable by clenching the opposite fist and tightening the torso/core. Otherwise, you noodle under the weight to get it up.
Do you have shoulder pain, or is it in a bad position constantly?
This is often a giveaway for tight or glued up pec minor. It runs rampant in jiu jitsu. When that pec minor is tight and the shoulders are forward/internally rotated, there is a lot of lost strength. Solving this for some takes some real work, but a balanced strength program, some manual work (lacrosse ball smashes + manual therapist) is the way to go about solving this.
How is your core strength?
This is a favorite one of physical therapists to examine; in fact, I learned it from Dr Peter Hwang (my NYC studio-mate). Weak cores are often the hidden root of weak grips because the body simply can’t create or maintain what I often call “a closed feedback loop of tension.” Meaning there’ll be no irradiation. In other words, whatever strength and tension you are able to create through the core, leaks out in the weakest part of the body and is lost.
It’s important to point out, it may not just be one of the items above; if your posture is bad, there’s a good chance #’s 2 and 3 are problematic as well, etc, so test yourself accordingly.
Once you address these things, I find the athlete’s grip comes to life. The last step is adding in more grip training directly once you’re confident you’ve worked on the items above, and you will find it increasing in strength quite a bit.
In part II next week, I’ll go over my favorite grip training strategies specifically.
I also go over all the necessary strength and conditioning concepts for grappling in Jiu Jitsu Strength, my 3-month self guided program for jiu jitsu athletes.
Be well, be strong,