Closing Big Grippers
By Heath Sexton
When most people talk about grip strength, the conversation usually very quickly goes towards closing grippers. In this article I will try to detail some different gripper techniques and some different workout tactics. This is by no means a concrete guide to working with grippers, just some insight from a few years of training.
You do not have to have many grippers to be good at grippers. Joe Kinney (the first man to officially close Ironmind’s #4 Gripper) had, I think, a #3 and a #4. He had some other homemade equipment including a grip machine that he worked with, but only 2 grippers. Having several different gripper strengths will allow you to progress faster in my opinion. Just like lifting weight, say you can Squat 445lbs and all the plates you have are 100’s. So you can squat 245, 445, or 645, now 245 will give you a good workout, but unless you are doing high reps, not much else challenging can be done. 445 is your max, and how many times can you go after a max squat in a week? Then, 645 would crush you like a can under a car, so it is useless. You need a variety of plate poundage. Having a Trainer, #1, #2and #3 is a standard I think, having a Super Master, a couple of Elites, maybe a Super Elite, and a #4 and you have everything you need. Again, you certainly do not have to have this set-up, but it is nice. (Note: Super Master, Elite, and Super Elite can be purchased from Wade Gillingham at http://www.grippersuperstore.com)
Kinney used a grip machine with great results, as do many other people. I have used mine with no results. I think a lot of it has to do with the type of machine and the way the person is hooked up. I could work with a machine until I was blue in the face, and I honestly don’t think there would be carryover. I would get stronger on the machine, and getting stronger period is never a bad thing, but I want gripper carryover. Someone else may use the same machine with the same reps and their gripper strength would go up tremendously. Trial and error, never be afraid to experiment.
There is a whole lot more to closing a big gripper than just squeezing. A much-overlooked aspect of closing heavy gripper is wrist strength. Joe Kinney trained his wrists very hard with heavy negatives on a wrist roller so they could take the abuse. Early on in my training I would get a lot of pain in my wrists when doing heavy grippers, because all I was doing was squeezing grippers. I started doing some wrist and reverse wrist curls, some wrist roller every now and then, and what do you know the pain went away. Also, these exercise seemed to strength the forearm muscles more while stabilizing the wrists and all of a sudden my gripper strength started to grow. There are quite a few good exercises wrist curls/reverse wrist curls, wrist roller, plate curls, plate wrist curls, sledgehammer levering, and my favorite the Formulator (The Formulator is no longer sold. But Chris Rice can make you a very comparable piece of equipment. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information). When doing wrist work be sure to work all areas so as to not create an imbalance, as this will impede your strength gains and case more pain. I have always done my wrist work after grippers. Doing grippers first seemed to warm me up for hammers, wrist curls, roller, whatever. Doing these exercises first always killed me for grippers.
Thumb strength is also very important when dealing with grippers. Your thumb pad is a base for the palm handle to sit on. The bigger and stronger the base, the better leverage you have, especial in a no set close. Also, when you get that gripper down to its final bit, you thumb acts as another lever to pull the finger handle in and doubles as a lock to hold the finger handle in position. It can either lock in closed position, or allow you to ratchet the final 1/8” of the close. For thumb training block weights and thick bar are hard to beat. They will create a very strong thumb base and it will aid in power. The one thing they do not bring to the table is dynamic or closing strength. The best way I have found to work this is a cheap Pony clamp aka a wood clamp that you can buy at any hardware store for a dollar or three. This is a dynamic motion like closing a gripper and the strength curve grows as the clamp closes, just like a gripper. You can take the clamp and do negatives, singles, and high rep work, buy a large clamp and do two thumb exercises. There are many different ways to use them and all are effective. When doing thick bar or block weights, if you really hammer them your crush will go down. If your main focus is to close grippers then use these lifts sparingly. After your crush workout, do a couple of holds with a thick bar or a block. I am a big fan of ending with what I want to gain on, so after these holds I will pick up a gripper, do an overcrush, and then my workout is complete.
I mainly train with a set because I feel like it gives me more consistency. I can place it and get it in the same groove every time. Setting a gripper is very easy to learn. I had the benefit of watching a great video, but I will do my best with words. Pick a weaker gripper to learn with, doesn’t matter if it is a store bought one. When you look at your hand you will see a line right below the last knuckles in the palm, this is where you want your palm handle. Where most people screw up is they keep their hand and wrist inline. Place the gripper in your hand; right hand let’s say. Left thumb on and behind the palm handle, then roll your right hand straight down like you were at the bottom of a wrist curl. From there, place your left index on the finger handle and pinch the gripper together while bearing down with your left thumb and wriggling your fingers on your right hand to bring the handle in. When you finally get the right hand fingers around it, let go with the left and squeeze. Practice is a big part of setting a gripper. You have to learn to do it to be able to do it, just like anything else. In my opinion, cocking the hand down is a very big part; this will give a great base for the gripper to set against as you pull it in. (To see Heath’s “set” technique watch the videos here. Ed)
Chokers are becoming very popular for working specific ranges of the gripper. The cheapest and to me most effective method of choking down a gripper is go to any hardware store and buy a heavy duty hose clamp. Put the gripper of your choice in the clamp and tighten the clamp putting the gripper at a desired width. The only drawbacks to this are the knurling of the handles where the clamp rests will be damaged some and there is a possibility of the clamp breaking, which would probably be very much bad.
Whether you no set, set, choke, whatever, when you close a gripper your main focus should be to dent the handles. Not just close it, break it. Focusing on this will give you total energy transfer to the gripper. This is not meant to sound like some Zen-like alli-babba training tip. It simply is what it is, focus on your desired task and mash the thing shut. The most effective method I have found to train this switch is the overcrush. I use these in every training session. Pick a gripper that is below your max, say you are closing solid Elite, then pick a gripper along a midline #3. Take 2-3 shots at the BBE, you make 2 out of 3 both 3 second holds. Take a minute or so break, pick up your #3 and close it absolutely as hard and as violently as you can, when the handles hit keep squeezing as hard as you can, just because they touched is not a sign to ease up. Keep over-squeezing 5-7 seconds and release, repeat 4-5 times. Another very important and effective tool is a straphold. This again trains the hand to over-squeeze. When doing a straphold, the thinner the strap the better. A metal ruler with a hole through it and a shoelace attached is perfect. When doing a straphold, it is easy to cheat by turning the hand or placing the strap against the hand. Be sure you have the spring turned straight up and the strap between the handles. These are very demanding and I would suggest doing them hard and heavy only 1 day per week. Keeping the weight under 10lbs is also smart. This places a lot of strain on the wrist; you are much better off closing a heavier gripper with 2.5lbs than a weak gripper with 15lbs.
Just like trying to gain poundage on your bench press by doing overload negatives, the same can be done with a gripper. You can do set negatives. These are effective because it works your closing hand and your setting hand. Say you can handle a Super Elite negative, but can’t set it. From here you can do a braced set. Place you gripping hand on your thigh, and set the gripper with body weight into the gripping hand. This is how I started doing my negatives years back. It will condition the hand and body to the extra stress from a heavy gripper. This is also very effective when you hit a point that you can no longer set a gripper, but can still handle negatives. The most painful type of negative to me is a no set negative. Like a regular no set you will probably not be able to handle as heavy a gripper as with a set. Pick up a heavy gripper squeeze with the gripping hand, push with the off hand, close, and hang on. This places tremendous stress on the palm and wrist. These are very effective for total sweep work because you have the entire range for your finger to stay on the gripper.
What’s the best workout schedule? This is the most asked and least answered question. The best workout schedule is what you can handle and recover from. I have done everything under the sun and they all work at some point. Not changing your workout in my opinion is a huge mistake. You will adapt overtime and stagnate if you do not change.
There have been two gripper workouts that have really shined in my mind as effective. The first one was one that took me to the #3 and close to the #4. It is so simple, but man it worked.
Monday: Tx10, 1×8, 2×5, 3-4 attempts at goal gripper, forced in and turned into a negative, 3 strapholds 7-10 secs each
Tuesday: Wrist work some pinching
Thursday: 2 attempts at goal gripper turned into negative, 3 singles weaker gripper turned to an overcrush, 1 straphold
That is it, all I did, closed the #3 is about 5 weeks from the time I got it and got close to a #4 using that same set-up.
The other method is no secret, but once learned it is fairly simple, KTA. KTA was sort of invented by Bill Piche, grip enthusiast extraordinaire (Visit http://gripboard.com for more information. Ed.). He and I are friends and we bounce ideas off of one another quite often and when he came to me with this plan I laughed. It was long, hard, looked complicated, and once I started it worked great! KTA is a high rep high intensity schedule that needs to be followed closely as it includes all of the important crushing tools. However, I feel this is not a repeatable schedule, meaning don’t do cycle after cycle of KTA. Do a cycle, then back off for 6 weeks or so, then throttle back up.
I like to train my hands 4-5 days a week, these are not long workouts, doesn’t mean they’re not intense, there isn’t much volume involved, but what volume I do counts. I have been there done that on the 3hr marathon workouts, and for me, there is no point. One day a week I warm-up, take 2-3 shots at a goal gripper, do 3 negatives and 3 over crushes, 1 set of Formulator each way and I am done. Done to the point of shaking hands, not being able to type, and sore. The next day I will warm-up, and I may do some no set attempts, say 2-3, or I may do 3 overcrushes and I’m done again. Next day, I may do Trainerx10, 1×10, 2×10 and do 3 lifts on a block weight. I have a job, and my job is not lifting weights. I need to be able to get in, get cooked, and get out. My grip workouts take 30 minutes, 45 if I drag my feet or ad something new. Rest time between grippers is usually 1-2 minutes and if it’s big time attempt, 5 minutes. When this breaks down, and I stall or get weaker, what do I do? Well, 3 years ago I would’ve called myself names and just did more work. That had to be my problem, I wasn’t working hard enough, that has to be it. Now, 3 years smarter and healed injuries later, I realize that I am working on overworking myself. Now it is time to cut back to 2 good days a week.
Day one: 2x Goal Gripper, 3-4 negatives, 3-4 overcrushes or strapholds, Formulator x1 each way
Day two: Trainer and #1 for 2×10
Day Three: Trainer and #1 for 2×10
Day Four: 1 goal attempt, 2 under goal closes, 3 overcrushes, Formulator x1 each way
Day Five: Trainer and #1 for 1×10
Day Six and Seven: rest, total rest.
You said 2 good days a week, but you worked out all week? I did say two good days, the 3 days with Trainer and #1 work are active recovery and hand-smartening days, greasing the groove I guess you could say. If that doesn’t work, I will still do 2 good days and cut out the T and #1 days. If I am still going nowhere, time to take a week off.
When you are going for a maximum attempt I would suggest doing it right in the middle of a good squat or pressing workout. This will get the blood moving and awaken everything. My biggest gripper PR’s have came during a regular workout. Sometimes it isn’t practical, time constraints, to do a gripper workout in the middle of a body workout, but my suggestion is to go for a max close during a rest period after a good gripper warm-up.
All this work is bound to take a toll on the hands, and it will. Having a large cooler full of ice and water nearby is always a good idea. After a hard session or on off days I like to soak my hands in a cooler for 2-3 minutes, out for 2 minutes repeat 5-6 times. This hurts in the beginning, but you adapt and for the most part it will “cure what ales ya.” A bucket of rice or sand is also very good for active recovery. Instead of a Trainer and #1 day, take a bucket of rice and do expand and contract exercises with your hand for 5-10 minutes, talk about blood flow. Many people also use contrast baths. These will aid your recovery and boost your strength because when you are healthy, you are stronger.
If you are injured, stop training. I was the worst in the world to just keep going no matter how much skin was gone or how swollen whatever was. I finished a KTA workout once with a place gone from my palm as big as a quarter, a dime sized piece gone from the end of my pinkie and a split on my ring finger, now is that dumb or what? I was proud to say I never missed a workout; bled on every gripper I had, and didn’t get a lick stronger because I couldn’t go all out. Another time I had the genius idea to work individual fingers. I had a Trainer closed with my right pinkie and the gripper came tearing butt out of there. Time it was all said and done my pinkie knuckle was a size 13 ring, not good. I could barely bend it and I couldn’t squeeze very hard. You know what, I never missed a workout! When it got the point I couldn’t bend it and the doctor said it was going to tear everything lose if I didn’t stop, I stopped. It only took about 8 months to heal up. By not stopping I lost 8 months training, not to mention the months of stagnant training from going on injured, all because I was tough enough to keep going.
Hopefully this article will help someone with their training in some form or fashion. I have never claimed to be anything, especially a trainer. I have always offered my advice from my experiences through trial and error. I have been influenced by a lot of very strong people and a lot of very smart people. I have tried to draw from what they have passed on to me. There are no magic pills or formulas, what works for one will not work for another. Learn from others, experiment with volume and frequency, be focused, train hard, and above all train smart!
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