Get a Grip on Your Functional Training

Personal Training

Get a Grip on Your Functional Training

By John Meeks, CSCS, Precor Master Coach, CrossFit Owner

It has been said that you can tell the measure of a person by a handshake. A firm grip and commanding handshake are often interpreted as signs of a strong, powerful and formidable person. Shaking a person's hand is more than a greeting; it is also an assessment of what type of person they are. The last time you shook someone's hand and it was weak or lackluster, what crossed your mind?

In the world of functional fitness, we commonly hear words like strength, speed, power, rotational power, and mobility. Grip strength, on the other hand, is rarely discussed, though it is a foundational element of many of these. For the purpose of this article, hand and forearm strength are combined into a single term: grip strength. Grip strength is not only functional unto itself, but it also makes a huge difference in your pulling strength, as well as assisting with muscle firing, activation, and even your heart rate.

Functional training involves replicating anything that we could do in real life within a gym setting. These movement patterns are often described by actions such as push, pull, pick up, put down, climb, hang, swing and carry. When performing these movements, grip strength is often our weakest link. Unless you are Popeye, the small muscles in your hands and forearms are some of the smallest muscles used in your daily life. For example, when doing pullups, what muscles are get tired first when you’re hanging the bar – your big back muscles or the gripping ones?  When deadlifting, which muscles are the first to get fatigued? Muscles associated with grip strength are the weakest link in the chain. Now think of all the times you use your hands and forearms in the realm of functional fitness:

Picking things up: deadlifts/cleans/snatches

Hanging/Swinging: pull-ups, monkey bars. rope climbs, climbing, kettlebell swings, muscle-ups

Carrying: Farmer's Carry

As evidenced, grip is a limiting factor when doing lifts, carries, and swings, and intentional grip strength exercises should be added into your training. However, what if I told you that it also can affect strength in other muscles, as well as have a huge effect on your cardio-respiratory system while exercising?

Let's start with strength.


Test 1

Squeeze your hands as tight as you can. Did you notice that every muscle from your wrist through upper back turn on? By squeezing the bar when you lift, it helps activate more muscles. During a deadlift this keeps your back tight when you initiate that first pull off the ground. What's even more interesting, any good squatter will tell you to squeeze the bar during your squat because it helps turn on leg muscles. Try it yourself:

  • Warm up and squat to 90% of your 1 rep max with a loose grip while the bar is resting on your shoulders.
  • Let your body fully recover and try the same exercise while squeezing the bar. 
  • Takeaway: You be the judge on the difference.

Now let’s look at the impact of grip strength on cardio-respiratory endurance.

Anyone who has ever attempted a competitive obstacle course race will tell you that when your grip fatigues, you fatigue. Let's look at this in two ways. First of all, when your grip is weak, you must squeeze harder to hold onto an object. If you are squeezing harder, isometric tension will cause an increase in heart rate.  

Test 1

  • Warm up.
  • Grab a rolled up towel in each hand and squeeze it lightly for one minute. As soon as you are done, run 400 meters and record your time.
  • After fully recovering, grab the towels and squeeze them as hard as you can for one minute.
  • Run 400 meters again.

How did you feel with each run?  Was there a difference in your time? 

Takeaway: Even though squeezing the bar helps you lift more, it also causes you to fatigue more during cardio-respiratory training. The stronger your grip, the less you have to squeeze to hold onto a weight, climb a rope, or pull up and over a wall.

Test 2

  • Warm up.
  • Run a mile at your normal pace, or perform sustained aerobic activity for at least 6-10 minutes. If you can, use a heart rate monitor to track your average heart rate during that activity.
  • Recover fully before doing the next test.           
  • Grab two heavy kettlebells or dumbbells that you can hold for a minute (but not much longer).
  • Hold them until you feel like you must drop them, and then immediately repeat your run test.

How did the second run go?

Takeaway: Grip fatigue has an amazing effect on your heart rate when performing the second run. Now imagine if your grip was stronger – it would be less fatiguing to hold on to the weights and you would feel less fatigued going into the run. 

Whether it is for functional training, building strength, or preparing for an obstacle course, a stronger grip will benefit everyone. So how can you improve your grip strength? It does not take a lot of time to make a huge difference in your grip. Select two of these exercises and do them twice a week. Switch up your exercise selection each week.

Exercise 1

  1. Grab two heavy kettlebells or dumbbells.
  2. Hold them for as long as you can.
  3. Make it more challenging by moving with them to see how far you can carry them.

Exercise 2

  1. Hang from a pull-up bar and hang for as long as you can.
  2. If you have a Queenax, level up by using Superfunctional™ and add a swing while hanging.
  3. The change of direction causes your grip to have to adapt to the changes in force as your body moves from one direction to the other.

Exercise 3

  1. Wrap a towel around a pull-up bar and grab both ends.
  2. Squeeze the towel as tight as you can and hang from the towel as long as you can.

Exercise 4

  1. Take a rubber band, wrap it around your fingers and open your hands. 
  2. Do three sets of 20-25 reps.

Grip training does not require a lot of time, but it plays a huge role in your strength and your fitness.  Make sure you and your clients are making the time for it!

Author Information

John Meeks
John Meeks's picture

John has over 20 years experience in the fitness industry.  He has worked for 10 years as a strength and conditioning coach with multiple youth athletic teams and clubs and has assisted with over 50 athletes attending Division 1 schools. He is the head coach and co-owner of 2 CrossFit gyms in North Carolina, and is a Precor Master Coach. He is also the Director of the War of the WODS - one of the largest CrossFit competitions on the East Coast with over 1200 competitors.    

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