Hand grip strength is incredibly useful. From picking up a heavy piece of furniture to opening up a jar or scaling a cliff face, if your hands are weak, the rest of your body isn’t going to be able to compensate. In many cases, they’re the weakest link in a strength training routine.
Because my hand strength was unevenly developed, and maybe just plain undeveloped overall, my finger were overwhelmed by these errant kicks and frequently jammed up.
But thanks to my new focus it’s been more than year since I’ve jammed a finger, despite continued kicks to the hand. And my hand strength has improved so much that I’m able to do some pretty awesome things that weren’t possible before.
In this article I’m going to explain how I developed even, well-developed hand grip strength and resilient fingers with just two basic movements, spending no more than 10 extra minutes a week in total.
What People Forget About Hand Grip Strength
Most people assume the muscles that move our fingers around are located in the hand and around the wrist. This is the set up of most of our joints, but not those of our hands. The lion’s share of grip strength actually comes from our forearms, up near the elbow – our fingers contain almost no muscles at all.
If we want a well developed, strong hand that can do everything we want while being resilient in the face of stressors (like hand kicks) we have to remember that there are two important muscle groups in this area that need to be addressed. These groups are targeted separately with the two movement patterns I lay out below.
The first muscle group is one most people with a strength workout regime have already developed to some degree – the flexors. There are a number of these, but the Brachioradiali and brachialis are the main workhorses. They’re responsible for causing your hand to contract and make a fist, and holding your fingers closed around a barbell or rope. They’re also important for grasping jar lids you need to pry open, tree branches, and the rock formations you climb on.
The flexors’ antagonists are the extensors, which open the hand and keep is open. These muscles, including the extensor digitorum, are much smaller than the the flexors, but no less critical to developing balanced hand strength that will keep you free of injury in the face of strain. Of the two groups, most people have extensors that are extremely underdeveloped.
In this article I’ll give you the plan I used to develop my hand flexors and extensors.
Warming Up For Hand Grip Strength Training
Typing on keyboards isn’t adequate warmup for the type of work we’re doing. Before you dive into any of this training, it’s a good idea to do wrist rolls and hand squeeze and extend drills. You can watch me demonstrate both of these in this video.
Building Your Extensors
Many people have gone their whole lives without putting much weight on their extended fingers, and the result is uneven hand strength development. I think the reason I was so prone to finger jams before starting my hand grip training was because my extensors were so undeveloped compared to my flexors.
The fix is an easy one, though, and only one exercise type was necessary to strengthen my extensors – the fingertip pushup and related fingertip work.
If you’re not strong enough to do pushups, or you already can do them but your extensors are too weak to hold you up on your fingers, we’re going to make progressively building up to them approachable.
In either case, you should review my four-step guide to achieving push ups. I start off with the simple wall pushup and move through the incrementally harder knee pushup and half pushup before arriving at the full pushups. The sets and rep targets I lay out will help ensure that you make solid progress and are ready for each progression. As you’re progressing, mix in two sets of six fingertip pushups 1-3 times per week.
If you already rock pushups, I urge you to not just jump into many reps and sets of fingertip pushup work. The joints of your fingers are delicate, and you can easily overtrain your extensors. Instead, start back with wall pushups and go through the following progressions, training 1-3 times per week and integrating them in with your normal fitness routine.
When a particular progression is easy, move on.
Over the last year and a half I’ve probably averaged 5-10 minutes of total hand grip training per week, and that includes flexor-specific and extensor training combined.
Even low-volume work will yield benefits, and lessens the risk of straining your extensors and the small joints of the fingers. But once several six-rep sets of handstand pushups are easy, you can consider upping your game further.
I’ve enjoyed exploring fingertip L-sit holds, which load more weight onto your fingers than pushup work. Although I haven’t played around with them much because I’ve largely met my goals, one-handed fingertip pushups, fingertip handstands, and transitioning between various static positions while on fingers are all good options if you want to go down the hand strength rabbit hole further.
Squeezing’s Role In Hand Strength.
The ability to squeeze your hand shut and keep it shut was hugely important in our evolutionary history. The unusually strong grip that human babies possess, called the palmar grasp reflex, is believed to be a remnant of a time when baby primates had to grasp onto their mother’s fur for safety and transportation. Being able to climb a tree to get at fruit or scale a rock ridge to escape a predator were important abilities that kept us alive.
Fittingly, we’re outfitted for the task in a manner better suited than any species on earth except other primates. Unlike most species, for instance, we’ve still got clavicles, which makes hanging easy. Our hands are a masterpiece of grasping and hanging technology – thirty muscles and 120 ligaments wrapped around the 27 bones in each hand.
We were made to hang, but few people do it after leaving monkey bars and tree climbing behind in childhood, and so their flexors are atrophied. I already had decent flexor strength at the beginning of my hand grip strength improvement project, but a little focused training really took things up a notch.
Because the flexors can take a much greater training volume than the extensors, we’re going to be using them a bit more intensely.
Long Hangs: Hop up on a pull up bar, monkey bars, or even a tree branch and hang there for awhile with both hands. I’d worked my way up to more than two minutes in this hang for awhile, but that’s probably overkill. Two one-minute holds will get you ready for the next step. Remember that thick bars and branches are harder to hold than something the size of a pull-up bar.
Hand-To-Hand Swings: When hanging from something, let one hand open up and your weight swing out. As you swing back, regrab the bar with your free hand and then let go with the other, continuing your swing. If this is too much, you can try nixing the swing and just briefly shifting the weight to one hand, barely letting go with the other, and then switching. Gradually build up to the full swing, and achieve two sets of 30 swings before moving on.
One-Handed Long Hang: Hang from one hand instead of two. I enjoy doing them with my legs raised to 90 degrees for the extra work, but that’s optional. Move on when you can do two sets of 30-second holds.
Towel Hangs: These are my current focus, and I find them hard. Hanging from a towel is harder than hanging from a climbing rope, and the vertical grip works more of your hand than is worked by a horizontal grip of the bar. When these are easy, you can use a thicker towel or switch to a one-handed grip. There’s a lot of room for growth in towel hangs.
Wrapping Up Grip Strength
These two focus areas, in just a few minutes a week, have jam-proofed my fingers and lead me to have a radically more powerful and utilitarian grip. My stronger grip also lets me do some really cool bodyweight stuff I couldn’t do before. Overall, I’d call this experiment a success.
If you decide to fool around with any of this, let me know how it goes in the comments below.