Techniques For Maximizing the Effectiveness of the Grip

There are several techniques for maximizing the force of your grip on the bar. One of the simplest and most direct methods is to strengthen the grip. This subject is covered in Chapter 5, but a few comments on the subject are in order. First, since the strength required of the lifter is that of isometrically gripping a bar, the best form of training for the grip is to do just that, to hold the bar isometrically. The lifter can practice holding with and without a hook grip for variety; the weights used should sometimes be ones which nearly cause the grip to loosen slightly. When the lifter does singles in the lifts and some pulls (at least during the first repetition or when doing singles), grip aids (such as straps) should not be used. However, when the lifter is performing repetition lifts or pulls, using “straps” (see Chapter 4 for a definition) is a good idea, particularly when these movements are being executed from the hang.

Since the strength of the grip is affected by the position of the arm (e.g., the grip is stronger with the arm bent than with the arm straight), there may be special circumstances in which bending the arms in the pull might actually assist the lifter in holding onto the bar, if such bending can occur in such a way as not to adversely affect other aspects of the lifter’s pulling style. This is very difficult to accomplish and is a complex technical issue, somewhat beyond the level of this book.

A special means of gripping the bar called a “hook” grip is perhaps the greatest method ever developed for improving a lifter’s grip and is used by virtually every high caliber lifter. The technique of the hook consists of wrapping the thumb around the bar and then placing the first, second and third fingers of the hand around the thumb and the bar. Why is this technique so effective? I am aware of no scientific research on the subject, but several reasons can be discerned with some thought. First, the hook grip places the thumb (easily the strongest finger on the hand) in a better position to apply force to the bar than with the normal grip (fingers around the bar and thumb on top of the fingers going in the opposite direction). With the normal grip, the thumb is not in direct contact with the bar, and its only contribution to holding the bar is that of pressing on the index finger with the last joint of the thumb, a rather poor position for the thumb in terms of applying force. With a hook grip, nearly the entire thumb is in direct contact with the bar, more importantly, the first joint of the thumb (a joint which is directly connected and is in close proximity to the powerful pollicis muscles at the base of the thumb) is in contact with the bar, giving the thumb better leverage in applying their force. Another advantage of the hook grip is that while the thumb is in a stronger position, the other fingers press against the thumb while they are still in a good position to exert their strength (the second segment of the fingers presses against the thumb and bar- not the last, as is the case with the thumb when a normal grip is used). Finally, when the hook grip is used, the lifter is able to harness the force of friction more effectively than is possible with the conventional grip, since the normal friction between the thumb and the bar is augmented by the pressure of the fingers on the thumb.

In terms of applying the hook properly, there are several guidelines. However, these guidelines vary with the needs of the lifter. For example, for the small handed lifter, it is useful to spread the hand (i.e., to hold the fingers apart as much as possible) before gripping the bar. This stretches the skin and soft tissues of the hand and enables the lifter to assume a grip with the bar deeper into the hand, a more secure position overall (particularly for the lifter with a small hand). Another pointer for the small handed lifter is to begin the grip by pressing the spot between the thumb and forefinger deeply into the bar and then roll the hand until the rest of the fingers are gripping the bar, again, to get the bar deeper into the hand (perhaps enabling the thumb to contact an extra finger or to be in better contact with the same fingers). All lifters, regardless of the size of their hands, should employ the hook grip by wrapping the fingers snugly around the thumb and/or bar, with as many fingers covering the thumb as securely as possible.

Two final comments need to be made about the hook grip. One is that the lifter will experience considerable discomfort, even significant pain, when first using the grip. Usually, the peak of the pain occurs just after releasing the hook. The lifter may also notice a discoloration on the thumbs from minor internal as a consequence of the pressure of the bar and fingers against the thumb (i.e., a black and blue mark). In most cases, both the pain and any discoloration will pass, usually after a few weeks. The only residual effect will be a more secure grip. If the fingers develop a soreness that continues unabated from one workout to the next, the lifter should slow the breaking-in process. This is done by performing only some lifts with a hook or skipping a workout with the hook to allow the soreness of the fingers to abate. Many lifters find that wrapping surgical tape around the thumb before the workout lessens any irritation of the skin of the thumb as a result of hooking.

Another issue that is related to the hook is when to release the grip. Many lifters, perhaps the majority, automatically release the hook and assume a normal grip as the hands are turned from the palms-down position to the palms-up position during the squat under. Other lifters continue to maintain the grip until they replace the bar on the platform after the snatch. Almost all lifters jerk with a normal grip (which means they switch from the hook to the regular grip either during the hand turnover or during or after the recovery from the clean).

It should be noted that some lifters jerk with a “thumbless” grip. With the thumbless grip, the thumbs go around the bar in the same direction as the other fingers (instead of in the opposite direction as they do in the regular and hook grips). Advocates of this style feel that it makes their position stronger and more comfortable overhead. Most lifters do not notice any improvement with this style. Only personal experimentation will help a lifter to determine whether the thumbless grip is of any benefit. However, I do not recommend the thumbless grip, because it is far more likely for the bar to slip completely out of the hand (an extremely unlikely event with either a normal or thumbless grip but much more of a possibility with the latter grip). Fig. 6 depicts, from left to right, the thumbless, hook and regular grips.

Still another strategy for improving the grip is to increase the friction between the hand and the bar. The most common way of doing this is to use chalk (magnesium carbonate) on the hands. Magnesium carbonate dries the hands and considerably improves the grip. Another strategy is to remove oils from the hands with a skin drying agent before applying chalk. Special cleansers (such as “Pernox”) used to treat oily skin conditions are available at any drug store and will serve this purpose well.

Finally, there is the strategy of growing the nails a little (particularly the thumbnail) so that at least 1/16 “of white area is visible. This gives the skin at the tips of the fingers something to push against when the they are compressed against the bar. In the case of the thumb, an even longer thumbnail presents a greater surface area for the fingers to press against when they are engaged in the hook grip. A better grip can be achieved in the area of the thumbnail by taking the sheen off the nail with fine sandpaper and then actually scoring the nail with coarse sandpaper.

How much can these techniques add to gripping strength? There has been no scientific study of this issue, but, as an experienced practitioner of all of the above techniques, I can assure you that they do work.

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