Have you ever stopped to consider the importance of grip strength? Barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, the pull-up bar and gymnastics ring. When using any of these pieces of equipment, it’s your grip strength that’s typically one of the first things to fatigue.

Lots of coaches, quite rightly, place a great deal of attention on the feet and the posture of an athlete, yet our hands are just as important. Poor grip strength and function will lead to poor positioning, medial elbow pain, injuries, and obviously a decrease in overall performance. Grip strength can actually help improve muscle activation in the deadlift, bench press and even the squat. Knuckle placement, the supinated, pronated, semi-supinated, Olympic lifting hook grip, gymnastics hook grip, false-grip, and wrist mobility are all important elements that coaches should understand and talk about.

The thumb is the weakest link, and therefore many coaches only teach athletes about the position of the thumb when it comes to grip. They talk about the Olympic hook grip (thumb under finger), the gymnastics hook grip (thumb over the finger) or placing the thumb over the pull-up bar (God gave us an opposing finger for a reason, to grip a pull-up bar correctly i.e. thumb under the bar). If you place your thumb on top of the pull-up bar you are affecting trying to find a position that will activate the lats. With the thumb on top of the bar, there will be a slight flexion of the wrist, which will cause lat activation. However, as soon as we start to add any type of motion (kipping toes-to-bar, kipping pull-ups), this position hinders consistent grip and athletes will often re-adjust their hands when they start to slip off the bar – hence why we often see bloody hands and torn skin.  

There is a better way! What often gets forgotten is the pinky finger and the importance of its position when it comes to overall grip strength and muscle endurance.  If the knuckle of the pinky finger is placed on top of the pull-up bar with the thumb wrapped under the bar, the wrists will be in flexion and our lats are activated and ready to do the work. Why is this important?  Because our lats help us position the shoulders and increase tension in both the shoulders and the midline. Lat activation impacts the chain of muscle required to perform a number of movements and has the potential to help us move more efficiently by improving movement quality.  That’s the power of the pinky finger!

It’s not just in pull-ups that this applies. Let’s take the kettlebell swing as an example. By driving the knuckle of the pinky finger into the inside of the handle we instantly have better control over our shoulders and midline. The shoulder rotation and lats activation help to increase shoulder stability and midline tension.  If you don’t feel a strong contraction in your lats when performing pulling movements it is highly likely that you are doing them incorrectly. 

Rope climbs are another example. These can be a dangerous exercise if performed incorrectly. Why? Because if you’re unable to activate your lats, then the consistent tension in the forearm that comes from gripping the rope, and in the biceps (from doing all the work) will quickly overload the elbow joint and cause uncomfortable pain. Muscle-up training can also cause elbow pain if the tendon strength in the elbows is not strengthened correctly.  A well-structured periodized programme should be followed before athletes start performing muscle-ups or rope climbs.  Far too often athletes fail to prepare the connective tissue of the wrist/elbow/shoulder joints and simply kip their way to serious injury.It's important to remember that wrist flexion trains forearm strength, and anything we can do in the gym to train wrist flexion will increase our grip strength and muscle endurance. Forearm strength allows us to hold a false-grip. If you want to be able to perform muscle-ups (I'm talking strict muscle-ups, the best sort) you need to be able to hold a false grip. Something as simple as a Farmers’ Walks,  performed with the pinky knuckle under the handle (ie. the wrist in flexion) can improve overall grip strength. Starting your Olympic lifting pulls with slight wrist flexion is another great way to keep the bar closer to the body and increase the maximum load. Keep your knuckles pointed towards the floor!

Something as simple as pinky finger placement can be key to connecting the final loop of the kinetic chain that can increase muscle activation, body awareness, and higher levels of movement capacity.  Play with it and see if you can feel the difference.  In the beginning, it might feel a little uncomfortable and your forearms may fatigue quickly, but over time the strength and endurance will improve

PART 2: Specific Grip Training