Closing Big Grippers, by Heath Sexton
A note from CPW
This article was originally published by Heath Sexton for the Farm Strength website. Heath's sound advice and no-nonsense straight talk were instrumental to CPW owner Matt Cannon closing big grippers. In hopes this article will reach many more generations of grip enthusiasts, we have republished an edited version with the author's permission. Heath Sexton is the first certified GripBoard Mash Monster, a certified IronMind Captain of Crush and has closed an IronMind #4 in training. He knows a thing or two about closing big grippers.
Closing Big Grippers, by Heath Sexton
When most people talk about grip strength, the conversation usually very quickly goes towards closing grippers. In this article, I will try to detail some different gripper techniques and some different workout tactics. This is not a concrete guide to working with grippers, just some insight from a few years of training.
Have the right tools for the job.
You do not need many grippers to get good at grippers. However, several different gripper strengths will allow you to make faster progress. Just like lifting weights, let's say you can squat 445 lbs. but only have a bar and 100 lb. plates. Your only choices in training are 245, 445 and 645; basically a warm-up, your max and a weight that would crush you like a can under a car tire. Clearly it is useful to have a variety of plates for smart training. Likewise, it is smart to have a good progression of grippers if possible.
Do not be afraid to experiment.
Many people have also used a plate-loaded grip machine with mixed results. Some people might work with a machine until they are blue in the face and only get stronger on the machine. Others may use a grip machine and experience tremendous carry-over to handgrippers. Only trial and error will reveal how you respond to different types of training, so never be afraid to experiment.
There is more to closing big grippers than just squeezing.
A much-overlooked aspect to closing grippers is wrist strength. The strongest gripper athletes have typically trained their wrists just as hard to take the abuse. People new to grippers commonly get wrist pain because all they're doing is squeezing. Adding some wrist curls and wrist roller now and then will keep the pain away. Wrist exercises strengthen the forearm muscles while also stabilizing the wrists, which primes your gripper strength to grow.
When doing wrist work, be sure to work all directions to avoid an imbalance (flexion, extension, adduction and abduction). Do wrist work after grippers. Grip training tends to act as a warm-up for wrist exercises, but wrist exercises can fatigue your grip and compromise the workout.
All you need for wrist work is any hammer or any yard tool, such as a rake or shovel.
Build static and dynamic thumb strength.
Thumb strength is also very important for closing big grippers. Your thumb pad acts as a base for the gripper handle. The bigger and stronger the base, the better the leverage. (See the article How to Set a Gripper). Also, when you get that gripper down to its final bit, a strong thumb can reach forward and help ratchet the gripper closed. Static thumb training builds power and should be combined with dynamic thumb training to build size.
It is hard to beat block weights for static thumb training. The most simple block weight is any hex dumbbell stood on end so you can lift it by one head. Use block weights sparingly if your main focus is closing big grippers. It is difficult to get stronger on both at the same time. Consider doing just a couple of holds with a block weight the day after your crush workout.
The best dynamic thumb exercise is an inexpensive spring clamp. (Check out the Pony Pinch Kit). This is a dynamic motion like closing a gripper and the strength curve grows as the clamp closes, just like a gripper. You can do negatives, singles or high-rep work as a finisher after every crush workout.
Train with the proper intensity.
Your main focus when you close a gripper should be to dent the handles. Go past only trying to close the gripper and strive to make it break. This intensity will give you total energy transfer to the gripper. This is not meant to sound like some mystical trick about "mind over matter." Think of it more like an attitude adjustment to bring the proper intensity to your training. Focus on the task and mash the thing shut!
The most effective intensity training method is the overcrush. Pick a gripper below your max that you can close with authority. Set it according to your preference and then close it as absolutely hard and violently as you can. Do not let up when the handles hit! Keep squeezing as hard as you can as if to melt the handles together. Literally try to make the handles melt together. All this over-squeezing should last 5 to 7 seconds, and then release slowly.
Since the handles won't actually melt together during an overcrush, some enjoy a more objective type of intensity training, such as strapholds. The general idea is to squeeze something between the handles that will fall if you let up. It's called a straphold because often a "strap" or string is tied to a weight that would fall. The thinner the strap, the better (3-4 mm or less). Get creative; anything that is thin and has mass may be used. For example, use a shoe string still laced into a shoe. The shoe string is thin and the shoe has weight. Shoe not heavy enough? Put something inside. Keep the weight under 10 lbs. Strapholds put strain on the wrist, so you're better off closing a heavier gripper with 2.5 lbs. than a weaker gripper with 15 lbs.
Beware that it is easy to cheat by turning the gripper. Be sure you have the spring turned straight up and the strap between the handles hanging straight down.
A negative is performed when you only complete the eccentric portion of a lift, for example, slowly lowering a heavy bench press to your chest. The idea is to cheat the gripper shut and then try to hold it closed. The most important thing for a safe negative is gripper selection. You should choose a gripper you can almost close. Ideally it would be a goal gripper you are only missing by 1-3 mm.
Some may struggle to cheat a heavy gripper shut. If you're having trouble, consider performing negatives while seated. Assuming a right-handed close, first set the gripper as deeply as possible. Then place your setting hand against the inside of your left knee and your gripping elbow on the inside of your right knee. Push your knees closed to aid in closing the gripper. Then hold on for dear life.
Critical point: The gripper is too hard if it pops open more than 1/4" (6 mm). Check your ego and choose an easier gripper.
Programming your workouts.
What is the best workout schedule? This is the most-asked and least-answered question. The best workout schedule allows you to handle the work and recover. Be open to changing your workout schedule as you adapt and get stronger. After much trial and error, the following workout shined as especially effective. So simple, but man did it work.
(Recommendations are given as a percentage of your goal gripper and do not need to be exact. Feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org for help filling out the workout plan. As an example, the goal gripper could be a 128-lb. rated IronMind #2.5. The 60% gripper would then be rated 77 lbs. or roughly an average IronMind #1. The 80% gripper would be rated 105 lbs. or roughly an IronMind #2.)
- 10 reps on an easy warm-up gripper; 40% or less
- 8 reps at 60%
- 2 sets of 5 reps at 80%
- 3-4 attempts at goal gripper turned into a negative; stop if the quality suffers
- 3 strapholds or overcrushes, 5-7 seconds each
- Dynamic thumbs, 3 sets of 10. Go slow and get a pump. Open the reps as wide as is comfortable for your thumb joint.
- Wrist work, 10 reps each in all 4 directions
- Wrist curls or wrist roller, 2 sets
- Block weights, 3 holds for 5-7 seconds
- 10 reps on an easy warm-up gripper; 40% or less
- 2 attempts at goal gripper turned into a negative
- 3 overcrushes, 5-7 seconds each
- 1 straphold, 5-7 seconds
All other days are completely off from grip work.
An alternative workout.
You probably have a job, and that job is probably not lifting weights. Most people need to be able to get in to the gym, get cooked and get out. A grip workout like the one above will take 30 minutes, 45 if you drag your feet or add something new. Rest time between grippers is usually 1-2 minutes and if it’s a big time attempt, 5 minutes. These intense workouts can take a toll and you might find that you stall or get weaker. What do you do? Well, after years of training and many healed injuries, the answer was clear: Consider shorter workouts with greater frequency. This alternative schedule is actually less demanding and can be cycled into your schedule as needed, or used entirely.
- Warm up
- 2 attempts at your goal gripper
- 3-4 negatives with a gripper you can almost hold shut
- Any mix of 3-4 overcrushes or strapholds, 7-10 seconds each
- 1 set of wrist curls each way
- Warm up
- 2 attempts at your goal gripper, turned into a negative
- 3 overcrushes on a weaker 60-75% gripper, 7-10 seconds
1 straphold on a weaker 60-75% gripper, 7-10 seconds
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday
- Active recovery days
- 1 set of 10 reps with a light gripper, such as the IronMind Trainer
- 1 set of 10 reps with a moderate gripper, such as the IronMind #1
- Total rest from grip work
Take recovery as seriously as your training.
All this work is bound to take a toll on the hands, and it will. Having a large cooler full of ice water nearby is always a good idea. Right after a hard session and any time on off days, soak your hands in ice water. Cycle 2 minutes in then 2 minutes out for 5 rounds. This hurts in the beginning, but you adapt and for the most part it will cure what ails ya. One variation called "contrast baths" has you switching between ice water and hot water every 2 minutes. Use as hot of water as you can tolerate.
A bucket of rice or sand is also very good for active recovery. For example, consider the alternative workout. Instead of the gripper work on an active recovery day, take a bucket of rice and do expand and contract exercises with your hand for 5-10 minutes. Just open and close your hand in the rice. Talk about blood flow! These will aid your recovery and boost your strength because when you are healthy, you are stronger.
Be smart and listen to your body.
If you are injured, stop training. Grip guys are the worst in the world to just keep going no matter how much torn skin or swollen joints. After one particularly demanding workout, the damage toll was a torn palm blister as big as a quarter, a dime-sized piece gone from the pinkie and a split-open ring finger. Now is that dumb or what? It may feel like pride to say you never missed a workout and bled on every gripper you have. But the truth is you probably didn’t get a lick stronger because you couldn’t go all out due to injury. By not training smart and listening to your body, you could lose months of training, not to mention the countless compromised workouts from going on injured, all because you were "tough enough" to keep going.
There are no magic pills or formulas.
Hopefully this article will help someone with their training in some form or fashion. This advice is only offered from my experiences through trial and error. A lot of very strong people and a lot of very smart people have influenced this advice. Always be open to draw from what someone can pass on from their experience. There are no magic pills or formulas. What works for one will not always work for another. Learn from others, experiment with volume and frequency, be focused, train hard and above all train smart!