3 Grip Tips and a Workout from Old Timey Strongmen

The prisoner was discovered, and he then had but one option: he must escape… He threw himself at the gate and shook the bars violently, but the iron refused to bend. The guards advanced in the dark, and we could hear their cries. The prisoner’s strength was truly unleashed in the face of this danger… Grasping two bars in his hand, Apollon pulled them together using a tremendous grip strength. He then squeezed his head and upper body through the bars with still more effort, and eventually the bars yielded, and the prisoner was free.

Yeah, it sounds like Prison Break meets Game of Thrones, but that’s actually a passage from Edmond Desbonnet’s 1911 book, The Kings of Strength, and it’s about a theater performance by the French strongman Apollon — namesake of Apollon’s Axle, the non-revolving thick bar used in strongman competitions.

Now, keep in mind that back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “circus strongman” was a somewhat popular phenomenon, and performers like Apollon could have pretty brutal travel schedules (not unlike a band on tour). These guys couldn’t actually perform barbaric feats of strength day in and day out, so most strongman “feats” were more like magic tricks, and depended on special equipment or leverage to look impressive without requiring insane physical effort.

I’m not knocking Apollon or any of the other old-school legends — I’m just saying that you should take their “records” with a big ol’ grain of salt. For instance, it’s unlikely that Apollon actually lifted a 360-plus pound train axle over his head.

That’s not to say we can’t learn from them. Whether or not Apollon ever performed some of the feats he’s credited with, it’s probably a safe bet that he had pretty impressive grip strength. For one, he’d need at least above-average hands to bend the bars in his act, even if they weren’t made of solid iron. And besides, grip strength has long been a hallmark of performing strongman; “tricks” like tearing phone books and rolling frying pans aren’t terribly exhausting (making them perfect for showing off), but they’re not exactly easy, either, even if you know the secrets.

More to the point, improving your own grip strength will have some big benefits for the rest of your training — regardless of whether you’re a strength athlete or bodybuilder! A powerful pair of hands can help you lock out a heavy deadlift, handle a circus dumbbell with ease, and build some massive forearms and biceps.

Unfortunately, grip training gets overlooked a good amount of the time. That’s understandable; training is complicated enough as it is without worrying about “extras” like grip. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to strengthen your grip if you’ve got a good plan.

Greater Grip with These Three Simple Tips

1. Train your grip in different ways.

Many lifters think of “grip strength” as a pretty simple concept, but grip gurus will tell you that it’s more complicated than it appears. You might have really good pinching strength (between the finger and thumb), but weaker crushing strength (which involves the connection between your fingers and your palm). Most lifters want support strength: the ability to hold on to something for long periods of time.

2. Think about time under tension.

Regardless of which type of grip strength you’re training, however, you want to think about time under tension. Constantly “maxing out” your grip is a good way to overtrain or develop tendinitis. On the other hand, doing endless reps with light weight probably won’t feel very challenging, and probably won’t produce great results, either. Instead, try performing multiple sets of low reps, or using timed holds, to get in more work with heavy loads.

3. Don’t neglect the upper arms.

A good grip is about more than your hands and forearms. The brachialis in particular helps to maintain a neutral forearm position, which is very important when you’re pulling heavy! (That’s why hammer curls are useful, which I’ll discuss in the workout below.) In addition, training your upper arms will help to balance your development and prevent overuse injuries, especially near the elbow joint.

Put ‘em all together, and you might come up with a grip training routine like this one:

Sample Grip Training Workout

Deadlift with Apollon’s Axle or Thick Bar: Start out doing sets of 3 with a double-overhand grip, and hold the bar at the top of the last rep for 10 seconds before lowering it. This will be really challenging, so start light, and add weight very slowly. When you can no longer perform a set of 3 using a double overhand grip, switch to a mixed grip, and start doing sets of 5. Continue adding weight until you’ve performed 10 total sets or reached 70% of your 1-rep max deadlift.

Pinch-Grip Chin: Take a neutral pinch grip on the post of a power rack, and perform three sets of max reps with bodyweight (aka grip the metal infrastructure of the rack and use it as your chin-up bar). If you can’t comfortably set up on a power rack, you can perform towel chins instead.

Hammer Curl: Remember, don’t neglect those upper arms! Finish up with two sets of 20 reps on the hammer curl, using a light weight and keeping your wrist in a neutral position throughout the entire range of motion. Don’t cheat by using momentum, and make sure to get a good stretch at the bottom of each rep.

Got any old-school grip training tips? Share them in the comments below!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from Rogue Fitness YouTube channel.