Pick up the Bar! Developing Grip Strength

Updated September 18, 2023

We return to our Pick Up the Bar series this week with an important topic: grip strength. Grip strength is one of the most important, and yet underdeveloped, aspects of our training. But once you realize that grip strength equals bigger lifts, you’ll probably want to focus on it more.
So, as we prepare for our next series of articles focusing on the clean progression, we’ll begin here first with our grip. At the end of the day, if you can’t grip the bar, then there’s no way you’ll be able to rip it from the floor and lift. And we all know we want to lift big or go home!

Now, before we get started with ways to develop that grip strength, let’s talk about a few things you want to avoid doing. It may surprise you, but follow me on this one.

You do NOT want to use:

  • Wrist wraps:
    Wrist wraps are great support during a WOD. They will help your wrists, especially your forearm muscles, from becoming fatigued too quickly. However, when we aim to build up our grip strength specifically, we don’t want to use anything that will (in this case) unhelpfully take the load off of our forearms. It is, in essence, defeating the very purpose of why we train this specific area.
  • Palm protectors:
    Like wrist wraps, palm protectors (think those leather or cloth sleeves that slip over the middle and ring finger of your hands) can be very helpful in long, grueling WODs, which require a lot of pull-ups, muscle-ups, etc. But for developing the grip, they are the enemy. Palm protectors (really callous protectors) are designed to help you maintain your grip on the bar for longer durations. So, if we are trying to develop that strength and learn to hold on to the bar, we will want to ditch these tools. Again, just like wrist wraps, they will come in handy for certain types of WODs, but as we train specifically for grip strength, they’ll hold you back.
  • Mix grip:
    Who doesn’t love that mix grip hand placement on the bar? As the weight increases, people often use a mixed grip hold on the bar. Why? It helps with moving that big weight. However, it does not help in developing overall grip strength. Reserve the mix grip for PR lifts or lifts in the 75 to 95% of your max range. Also, utilize a double overhand hook grip on the bar. As you move the weight, this grip style will go a long way in developing your finger strength.
  • “False grip” on the pull-up bar:
    Many of you have probably heard (and know) that one way of preventing rips in high-repetition pull-up WODs is to “false grip” the rig bar. This tactic can be helpful for kipping and butterfly pull-ups, as well as muscle-ups. But here, we are focusing on developing that grip strength, so you will want to wrap that thumb around the bar. This will emphasize the grip and not the movement (which, while we’re at it, we might as well say: leave your kip behind and focus on strict pull-ups to develop grip strength via the pull-up rig)

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s look at:

5 ways to increase your grip strength…

1.) Farmer Carry

Let me begin with one of my least favorite things in the CrossFit world: Farmer Carries. What is a Farmer Carry? Well, it’s horrible, if you ask me. But I digress. A farmer carry is when you pick up 2 kettlebells, one in either hand, and walk a prescribed distance (let’s say, 100m). Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, the prescribed weight is generally in the range of the red or green kettlebell (70# and 53#, respectively), for both men and women. Yup. Now do that 10 times. Ok, just do it 5 times. I guarantee you that your grip will be burnt out by the end of the third carry. But, your grip will be on its way to becoming that grip of steel!

But seriously, here are a few things to remember about the Farmer Carry: as you walk (and here I would say don’t run, because the aim is to develop strength. Remember, this is not a WOD for time) make sure you keep your shoulders back. It’s our tendency to slump them forward under the weight. In addition, look forward and not down in order to keep that spine in the correct position. And lastly, and most importantly, clench those kettlebells in your hands like you are holding on for dear life.

2.) Plate Pinch Flip

Ever walk into your Box and see your coach nonchalantly flipping a plate in the air and catching it with his fingers by pinching them together on either side of the plate? Are they simply doing this to show off and look cool? Of course, that’s why we CrossFit! But…they are also doing it to maintain and work on their grip. This movement will really strengthen and develop the dexterity of your fingers. And once you start doing it, you’ll look like one of the cool kids in the Box, as well.

To start, grab a light plate (perhaps a 5# or 10# rubber plate; make sure it’s a rubber one just in case you drop it…either on your foot or someone else’s. Trust me, I’ve done both) and flip it once in the air, catching it between your thumb and fingers on the way down. As you catch it, make sure to pinch that plate between thumb and fingers. You can start low (in weight) and do 3 sets of 10 per each hand. As you build up your strength, move up in weight. Before you know it, you’ll be pulling a Klokov and flipping 45# plates and catching them with your fingers.

3.) Specialty Pull-ups

Pull-ups are a great way to develop grip strength as well as back muscle (who doesn’t want a sexy back?!?). As we have already mentioned above, if you are working specifically on grip strength, then make sure you wrap that thumb around the bar and grip it like there’s no tomorrow. Again, the emphasis here is grip strength, and not the movement itself. So, for starters, work on strict pull-ups. This is one of the fastest ways to develop that powerful grip we’re looking for. But…let’s say you have that down; well, here are a couple of variations that will make things nice and spicy for you:

Towel chin-ups: These things are seriously horrible, but they are sure to give your fingers a workout you would never believe. And, by the way, the next time you’re hanging off of a cliff hanging onto a tree branch for dear life, you’ll thank me you did these.

Here’s the basic idea… grab a towel (preferably a durable one so you aren’t falling from the rig and onto to your butt) and sling it over the pull-up bar. Grip the two sides of the towel and then proceed to do 10 chin-ups. Believe me, this will work your fingers to the bone. But wait! That’s not enough. We want to get down to the very marrow of your finger bones, so do 2 more sets of 10.

Fat Bar Pull-ups: You know the rig pull-up bar. You know it’s touch, and how it not-so-lovingly likes to tear your hands open. Well, let me introduce you to the beauty of its lesser half: the fat bar. What is the fat bar? It’s the structural bar that runs perpendicular to the pull-up rig bar. In other words, it’s that other bar that’s a lot more fat than the regular pull-up bar; you know, the one you thought was just a support bar to hold the structural integrity of your rig (that is indeed what it is, but this is CrossFit…and we will take whatever is around us and make a WOD out of it!). Some pull-up rigs are already equipped with a fat bar. Just look for the bar with the largest width and you’re good to go. Jump up on that bar, wrap your thumbs around it, and feel the glorious pain in your forearms as you do strict pull-ups on it.

Fat bar pull-ups are by far one of the simplest, and yet best, ways of developing your grip strength. Just make sure that when you do them that thumb is wrapped around the bar. It’s only when that thumb is wrapped around the bar that you will get the most out of this movement. You can feel the difference just right now as you sit reading this. Hold your hands up in front of you with your thumbs in the “false grip” position. Now switch and mimic the position of your thumbs wrapped around the bar. Do you feel the difference in that tiny muscle that runs on the back of your forearm. You can feel it flex as you bring your thumbs to the wrap around position. You feel a little tension right there. Well, these fat bar pull-ups are going to blow up that muscle and make your grip that much stronger after you’re done. Have fun, these suck (but definitely worth it)!

Now if it so happens that you don’t have access to a fat bar on your rig or at your gym (or, even if you do…) there is an excellent alternative that can turn any bar (or even kettle bell) into a “fat bar”. A product called Fat Gripz will wrap around any barbell, pull-up bar or kettlebell so you can get that extra grip training anywhere.

4.) Sandbag deadlifts and clean

Do you have sandbags lying against the wall in some corner of your box? Drag those bad boys out and put them to good use today! First, make sure they are appropriately filled up and not leaking sand (the worst thing is doing a sandbag clean and suddenly finding yourself face to face in a cloud of dust). After you’ve checked them, use these 2 movements to develop that grip:

Sandbag Deadlift: Just as it sounds. It’s a deadlift. But in order to get the bag off the ground you need to grip the bag with your fingers. It may sound easy at first, but give it a few tries. Your fingers and forearms will be burning in no time. Want to add a bit more spiciness to its flavor (cause I know some you like it extra spicy), then do a sumo deadlift high pull with the sand bag. Yup, have fun.

Sandbag Clean: Again, just as it sounds. You’ll grip the bag with your fingers, pull and flip it up as you drop down into your clean squat. Make sure to hold your arms out and brace yourself as the sandbag comes down on your upper arms/shoulders. The flip part of the movement will really work those fingers and wrists.

5.) Hand/callous care

Well, with all this talk of strengthening grip, we would be remiss if we didn’t address the issue of hand care. I mean, what good is it trying to build strength in your grip if your callouses are hurting so much that you can’t even grip said bar to begin with? So…here are a few things you will want to regularly do to maintain hand care and avoid rips…so you can concentrate on building up that iron-claw grip of death! (sorry, my old Shaolin Sunday Theater days were coming back to me right there!)

Shave your callouses: Yup, you read that right. Shave those callouses down. It’s pretty simple: just take your good ‘ol trusty safety razor and gently, yet thoroughly, shave the calloused part of your palms down. Make sure not to go too deep; you don’t want to cut yourself nor do you want that part coming out red and raw. Just shave it down enough so the hard, calloused bump is gone. It’s this part that causes our hands to tear.

Pumice stone: Not down with the shaving? Well, another easy way to take care of callouses is to use a pumice stone in the shower. All you need to do is rub that stone over the white parts of your calloused hands. You see it all the time…as your rinsing off the bits and parts of your Box from your body, you look down at your palms and see white on top of the flesh. That’s the parts you want to rub off. Take that pumice stone to them and get to work.

Well, there you have it…5 ways to build up and maintain strength in your grip. Start today, for tomorrow we lift! You’ll thank me, because the stronger the grip is, the bigger the lift will be.

Well, that’s about it…but I know, you want a bit more. So here’s what I have for you:

WOD for Grip Strength:
10 rounds (yup…have fun with that):

  • 100m Farmer Carry (Red-70# or Green-53# kettlebells, each hand)
  • 10 Fat Bar Pull-ups (wrap thumb around bar)

Have fun! Now…

3…2…1…Steel Grip!

WOD Planet