Skill Training: Grip and Forearm Strength

With American Ninja Warrior season five in full swing, I can’t help but be impressed with the physicality of so many of the competitors. But in this case, I’m not talking about the obvious abilities of these excellent athletes. There are a lot of small things at play that make the Ninja Warrior course incredibly difficult and challenging, and competitors need to train each area to make sure they’re ready for the test. Upper and lower body need to be in perfect harmony, else hopefuls will end up with a face-full of chilly water, as opposed to a handful of finish line.

Sure, the arm strength necessary to jump up the Salmon Ladder without falling is impressive.

And we all love watching people run up (and sometimes fall back down) the Warped Wall.

But the thing that really stands out to me is the grip strength on these people! The American Ninja Warrior course – and of course it’s older brother in Japan, Sasuke – is very heavy on not just upper body, pull-up style movements, but also on obstacles that require incredible grip strength. Have a look at the Lamp Grasper, for instance…

Did you just say to yourself “is that man hanging from poorly sized metal balls by, essentially, one of the weakest grips your hand could ever be forced to support your weight with?” The answer is yes, yes he is.

Need another one where grip strength – i.e. how long you can hold on – really matters? Have a look at some hopefuls training for the Rope Junction or the Cliffhanger.

Every time I see someone fail at these, it’s almost always about maintaining that grip strength throughout the movements required by the Ninja Warrior/Sasuke courses. Don’t believe me? In 2012 the Stage 1 finalist with the quickest time was Derek Nakamoto, finishing the course in 1:34 (min:sec).  Here’s what I want you to do: go find some Olympic rings, and hang from them, bare-handed and supporting your full body weight for one minute and thirty-four seconds. Go ahead; I’ll wait…

So how was that? Make it. If you did, good job. But that was the time from the BEST competitor. Go try it for 02:10, which was the time for the slowest competitor to make the finals. Another 40 seconds can make all the difference.

Oh and did I mention that all of the competitors failed the next stage of the course, except one? The majority couldn’t get past, you guessed it, a grip-related obstacle! The only guy to make it to stage three ALSO failed on a grip-strength testing obstacle called the Hang Climb:

So, seeing what all these failed attempts have in common yet? Well I keep telling you, so you probably got it by now: GRIP!

So how do we train the grip?

First, understand that your grip strength is determined by the individual parts of your arm responsible for making and holding a fist shape, and then extending the fingers out of that fist shape. The forearm extensors open the hand, and the flexors work to close it. Training these muscles in different ways will improve your grip strength.

Second, you have different types of “grips” that each have their own separate, but related, groups of muscles that determine how strong that grip will be. For best results, which includes avoiding nasty complications like tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, you should train all your grips equally. Issues arise when the flexors and extensors are too imbalanced in strength.

Closing Grip

This is the one you think about when you consider “gripping” or “grabbing” something, and includes any action where you curl your fingers into your palm either into a fist, or around something like a pull-up bar. Anything that provides resistance against the closing motion will help train closing, also called crushing, grip strength. Some suggestions:

  • Work with larger bars during exercises like deadlifts and pull-ups. Bars with a diameter of 2 inches will train supportive strength in your closing grip.
  • Use dumbbells or other hand weights to do wrist curls, where you rest your wrist on your knee or another flat surface and curl the weight through the full range of wrist motion. Do these palm up to work the flexors.
  • Grippers can be used to specifically train the closing motion, and most sporting goods suppliers have a variety available. You can also use a tennis ball instead of buying a gripper, and practice gripping the ball as hard as you can for a sustained period of time. Much like abdominal planks, this is a plyometric exercise that works the muscles via pressure and not while moving through a range of motion.

Opening Grip

The opening grip is the strength it takes to move your hand out of the clenched, fist position and into a fully splayed fingers position. If your opening grip is weak, you may notice an abnormal amount of curling in your fingers while they are at rest. You may also notice that flattening your hands is painful or takes more effort than you would expect. This is an imbalance which you can work on correcting by training your opening grip.

  • Many martial arts styles have been training this grip for decades or centuries using rocks, rice, sand, and other resistance mediums. The basic idea is you thrust your closed fist into the medium, and force your hand to open against resistance.
  • A variation on the above uses a bucket or contained weighted with any convenient material. The opening at the top allows a closed hand through, but is small enough that an open hand would not pass through. The trainee opens their hand inside the opening, and uses their open grip hand to support to the weight, training the muscles.
  • Like the closing grip, the opening grip can also be worked by doing wrist curls. The other difference is that instead of palm up, which works the closing grip flexors, you would do them palm down, which works the opening grip extensors.

Stabilizing Grip

The stabilizing grip keeps your hand, wrist, and forearm in alignment for an extended period of time. Any exercise which places stress on the hands and forces them to keep their position, will work stabilizing grip.

  • Fingertip push-ups are an excellent stabilizing grip exercise for two reasons. First, the body is supported on the fingers alone, and the hand is not absorbing the amount of body weight it normally would in the push-up. This means the fingers are under greater stress, which is helpful in encouraging bone density development in the fingers. Second, the grip must be constantly held to prevent fingers from sliding out, and the push-up ending up on the palms of the hands. This forces the extensors and flexors to resist the movement.
  • Another good option is handstands with the fingers pointed backwards. You’ll need to do these away from a supporting wall, so if your balance is precarious this might not work well at the start. The flexors and extensors work together to prevent the body from teetering over either backwards of forwards.

Any progression is going to have to be personally developed, since grip strength varies heavily between people, and the options for training some grips is limited. My recommendation is to pick one exercise from each group, and work those on the same day, with one day rest between working days. These can be worked into your normal lifting routine, if you do so already. Just remember that many more popular exercises like the pull-up/chin-up, deadlift, bicep and tricep curls, etc. all work the closing grip to some extent already. If your workout is heavy on these gripping movements, you may only need to add in exercises for opening grip and stabilizer grip to balance it all out.