Getting a grip
Perhaps you’ve heard lately that having a strong grip is correlated with a longer, healthier life. But don’t get it twisted, because there is a bigger picture: People with a strong grip probably are strong, exercise, and generally stay active. You are unlikely to just randomly have a very strong grip, and not be strong in general. Grip strength is more of a distillation of that bigger, more complex picture than it is a single isolated key to immortality.
I feel that it’s disingenuous to tell people to work on just their grip alone, as if squeezing a rubber ball sometimes is going to add years to their life. As the studies themselves note, measures of grip strength should really only be used the other way around: If a patient has a weak grip, they ought to be screened for dementia/cognitive dysfunction. (At best, in that scenario, practicing squeezing a rubber ball is just going to fool your doctor into not screening you for stuff they probably should be.) But working on grip is good, because a strong grip does help enable building strength in general.
The good news is, if you lift, you are almost certainly already on your way to a strong grip (and the overall fitness that will actually precipitate more glorious years of not being in constant full-body pain starting when you are 25). However, grip is an element of lifting I see a lot of people struggle with. In a future edition of LIFTOFF: Couch to Barbell, I will definitely cover grip more extensively. But until that happens, here are some tips, including the special secret grip style that only lifters know about.
First things first: get your grip right.
Listen to me because this is very important: People are far more likely to struggle with grip when they aren’t holding the barbell or dumbbell right in the first place. This is a little-explained, but crucial, part of lifting. Grip is not just about brawn; it is also about good strategy.
Here is the special secret grip: First, you align the barbell with the pads on your palm just below where your fingers end. Then wrap your fingers around the bar. Then wrap your thumb and the rest of your hand around the bar.
Most people instinctively grab the bar in the middle of their palm closer to their thumb. The problem with that is it puts more of your soft hand skin where the bar will want to roll. Where it wants to roll is basically into the position I just described (aligned next to your fingers), where it can’t roll any more. If you grab the bar further up in your hand, is your skin becomes a kind of wedge, all rolled and folded up between your hand and the bar, causing calluses or tears. It won't do that if you don't put that skin there. Learning to hold the bar right is the single best thing you can do to prevent hand injuries or roughness.
You are probably used to grabbing non-heavy stuff this way. But you’re grabbing heavy stuff now. When you grab the bar aligned with your palm pads, you are putting it in the place where it already wants to roll, and then will be able to roll the least amount once you start your lift.
This will feel weird at first. I can’t stress that enough! You have to get used to it. You might even have to back the weight down while you do. But please, I beg you from the bottom of my heart, give yourself a second to get used to it. This is a tool in the lifting toolbox that will pay off again and again the stronger you get.[^1]
Even when I do this special secret grip, on deadlifts, I still can’t hold onto the bar and it rolls.
Learn mixed grip! Your under-hand is usually your non-dominant hand, but I do it with my dominant hand reversed. This also takes getting used to but is worth it, and how most people deadlift heavy weight.
I am holding the bar right, and still can’t hold onto it as long as I need to. What do?
We gotta strengthen those little fingies and hands. One way to do this is static holds. At the end of your deadlift or row sets, pick up the barbell one more time and hold it there for as long as you can. Build up to doing that two additional times, and until you can hold it for a full minute, or until you don’t have grip problems anymore.
Another approach is farmers’ carries. At the end of your workout, hold one heavy-ish but manageable dumbbell in each hand and walk around with them for 30 seconds or so. That’s one set. If it’s too easy, up the weight. Do three sets. Work up to doing a minute at a time, then up the weight. Do it til you don’t have grip problems anymore.
You don’t have to do both of these things, and don’t overdo it, but you can build grip strength pretty quickly.
I feel that none of these rules apply to me; can I just wear gloves?
I discourage gloves, and here is why. Unless you have some sort of autoimmune disease that makes your hand-skin particularly prone to shredding, gloves do two things: They introduce more material that can slip against your hand, and essentially thicken the bar, making it overall harder to hold.[^2]
If you use gloves because the bar “hurts” your hands, this is kind of like when the bar “hurts” your shoulders when you squat: It’s probably a combination of “holding it wrong” and “needing to get used to it a little.” I promise the bar will hurt less after some time, and after you get used to holding it the right way, above.
But I think that gloves rule/my gloves aren’t like that/my gloves match my gym bag/these are my grandfather’s special lifting gloves that he passed down to me—
Fine, okay, do whatever! I think that gloves are not great, but I’m not the police and cannot spare the time to come physically remove them from your hands. You asked!
This post was very partially adapted from one of the earliest Ask A Swole Woman columns from 2016 that originally ran at The Hairpin.
Previously: In praise of slow lifting.
Nike is making plates and kettlebells now. I don’t even know what to make of this; I still don’t feel as if this is a big-enough space to be worth Nike’s time? Is Nike okay? I do think the speckled plates are sick, though $66 PER 25lb plate is a little high.
If your wrists hurt when you do push ups or planks, this PT video might be for you.
So: you assume I do not know of the wide-leg jean?
Silicon Valleyists are rucking. Before anyone gets all excited about there being some special secret magic to rucking for peak fitness: This is just the part of Crossfit that is most like running. You strap a big heavy bag to your back and run. In the same way that lots of people run because the bar of entry is low, people are rucking because the bar of entry is also low.
Related to last week’s piece on birth control’s potential effect on lifting, Caster Semenya wrote about how birth control made her feel terrible. (Just because someone wrote me a whole email lecture after that birth control newsletter, I’m going to say for balance, because it’s apparently not enough of an endorsement that I’ve been on hormonal birth control for 18 uninterrupted years: yes, birth control does control your birth, and that’s a very good upside).
Staying at home/going back to work after you have a baby is a terrible idea.
I stumbled upon an Australian comedy/apocalypse TV show called Class of ‘07 on Amazon, and it’s that good. Watch immediately. Moderate spoiler but I have to say it:[^3]
I’m completely fascinated by this story about a viral TikTok subway artist (not that kind) who got a middling review on an art site and his legion of fans went nuts. Apparently many accuse this guy of being a fraud, because he could never do this art, including full-on paintings, on a subway train, and the subjects of his drawings freak out too much.
I’m going to weigh in from the perspective of a New Yorker: It’s not unheard of for people on the train to draw pictures of people across from them and then offer the drawing to the person. They do it for a tip, like people who sing or the showtime guys. It takes a lot of practice to draw on a train, but it’s not impossible. The painting, though; that’s fake.
The standard reaction (really from any New Yorker, about anything) is like, a pursed-lip nod. For random people to be having full on emotional meltdowns when they are handed these drawings is like, beyond. That’s fake. (Though I did once see a guy draw an old woman, and when he handed her the drawing she kissed him on the head. It was very sweet.)
That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—
[F1] This grip isn’t used for absolutely everything; when the weight is generally above you (bench, OHP) the rolling problem isn’t going to happen, so the weight should actually sit lower in your palm, stacked over your forearm, NOT as close to your fingers as possible.
[F2] I actually think part of what can happen is thick gloves on a bar that is relatively thin to the person’s hand can sort of back people in to holding barbells/dumbbells closer to the right way, just by reducing the room for hand placement error. BUT! This does not mean you should use gloves; it means you should work on your placement of the bar in your hand.
[F3] The spin-cycling as survival tool but also eternal punishment for the women… My god… The levels it has.........