by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS
Manager of Health Promotion
Drexel Recreation Center
Grip strength is a largely overlooked, but pivotally important attribute within athletics and strength sports.
A stronger grip could mean the difference between galloping into the end zone for six and turning the ball over as hawking defender attempts to dislodge the ball from your grasp.
For powerlifters, having greater grip strength will assuredly benefit them in achieving a hallowed “three whites” on the deadlift. Successful deadlifts, irrespective of the type of grip employed (and stance), all require a discernible amount of grip strength.
Whether your competitive pursuits transpire on the gridiron or while hoisting the good ol’ pig iron, grip strength is of paramount importance.
Grip strength can be categorized in a number of domains, which include: pinch grip, which involves thumb adduction and finger flexion, wrist movement / stabilization, crushing grip, or closed grip, which involves the concurrent activation of the wrist, hand, and finger flexors) and the open grip, which involves a greater amount of friction as the wrist, hand, and fingers are only partially flexed.
Of greatest relevance to activities of sport, especially strength sports, are the closed and open grips.
Therefore, direct grip training may be warranted.
But doing so, while having to concomitantly address a host of fitness qualities, biomotor skills, and neuromuscular capacities within a training program, renders yet another logistical complication.
In response to the slew of competing demands and time constraints faced by many coaches and athletes, the implementation of thick bars and instruments has long been advocated to economize training as they purportedly enhance grip strength while increasing neural drive and radiant tension which taps into swaths of motor units.
But what does the research say?
Fioranelli and Lee (2008) confoundingly reported that a bench press exercise peformed with a bar diameter of 51 mm (2 inches) did not yield significantly greater neuromuscular activation within the pectoralis and forearm flexor groups versus the same exercise performed with a bar diameter of 28 mm (1.1. inches). However, their findings did not account for the hand size of test subjects, which affects mechanical efficiency of gripping tasks and their research involved highly trained men, which could have further clouded the outcome.
Previous research noted greater electromyographical activity within the forearm musculature when thicker handles were employed during vocational activities (Grant et al., 1992). Channell (1990) observed greater co-contraction of the wrist flexors and extensors during exercises performed with a thick bar, particularly during the eccentric or downward phase of the movement.
What do the guys and gals in the trenches say?
Anecdotal reports have emerged from the trenches as strength coaches who train throwing athletes and personal trainers who work with individuals with office workers indicate that thicker grips confer relief to those suffering from forearm pain or tightness, especially on pressing movements, as potentially fewer forces are transmitted through the muscles consisting of the flexor pronator mass that encircles the medial side of the elbow.
– Specificity still reigns supreme.
For individuals who competing as powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters, all competition lifts should be performed as is in training and sans any grip attachments or thick bars.
– Time saving solution.
If time is scarce and does not permit for regular direct grip work, thicker bars or attachments can be incorporated for accessory movements for strength athletes and supplementary and main lifts for athletes and recreational lifters.
– Elbow pain remedy.
Throwing athletes and those who use a club or racquet in their sport, as well as “desk jockeys” may gain some relief while maintaining a training effect if thicker grips are added for pressing exercises. Thicker barbells and grips simulate an open hand grip, which involve considerably less muscular activation within the upper extremity than a closed grip.
Channell, S. (1990). The fat bar. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 12, 26-27.
Fioranelli, D. & Lee, C.M. (2008). The influence of bar diameter on neuromuscular strength and activation: inferences from an isometric unilateral bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 23, 661-666.
Grant, K.A., Habes, D.J., & Steward, L.L. (1992). An analysis of handle designs for reducing manual effort: the influence of grip diameter. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 10, 199-206.
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