Jan 29, 2015
Get a Grip

Grip strength training is not very glamorous, but it is an important part of the University of South Carolina football program.

By Joe Connolly, Justin Markley, & Michael Pimentel

Joe Connolly, MS, SCCC, CSCS, USAW, is entering his second season as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the University of South Carolina football team. Justin Markley, working on his master’s degree at Michigan State University, and Michael Pimentel, CSCS, working on his master’s degree at Bridgewater State University, completed summer internships at South Carolina. Connolly can be reached at: [email protected].

Grip strength is one of the most underrated and neglected aspects of training football players. Most people don’t even think about its importance until it changes the course of a game.

There’s no better example of this than the last play of the first half in the 2012 Capital One Bowl between the University of South Carolina and the University of Nebraska. With seven seconds remaining and the Gamecocks down 13-9, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw took the snap, pump-faked, and launched the ball toward the goal line where three of his receivers were flanked by four Nebraska defensive backs. Each player in the pack leapt for the ball, but wide receiver Alshon Jeffery came down with it, turned, and dove into the end zone to give South Carolina the lead as time expired. Many praised Shaw’s scrambling and the timing of Jeffery’s jump, but very few noticed the impact grip strength had on the play, starting with Shaw’s pump fake. The success of this movement relies on the quarterback’s ability to make it look like the ball is going to be thrown, so he needs to apply the same force as if it is going to be released. Without a firm grip, this can result in a fumble. Next, Jeffery showcased his grip strength by bringing in a ball that six other players were fighting for. Frequently in Hail Mary situations, multiple hands are in contact with the ball, and more often than not, the player with the strongest grip comes down with it. Jeffery’s touchdown shifted the momentum of the game, as the Gamecocks rattled off an additional 14 points to eventually win 30-13. Whether it’s a defensive lineman shredding through an opponent’s block, a cornerback attempting to jam a receiver at the line, or a running back fighting against a strip attempt from a linebacker, grip strength is essential in football. But its benefits extend beyond the playing field. This article shows how we incorporate grip strength training at South Carolina, the dividends it pays in the weightroom, and how it can help prevent injuries.


Contrary to popular belief, grip strength involves more than just the hand. In fact, 35 muscles are utilized when moving the forearm and hand, and most of these play a part in gripping. For starters, solid grip strength wouldn’t be possible without the elbow joint. When programming for grip, it is important to train the flexion and extension actions of the elbow in order to keep a balance between its anterior and posterior muscle insertions. This results in better elbow stability, which in turn leads to increases in grip performance. It is also important to incorporate a variety of wrist and forearm positions when training for grip, such as extension, flexion, ulnar and radial deviation, pronation, and supination. Using different movements ensures that athletes maintain balance between the forearm flexors and extensors, which helps prevent injury.

The final piece in training for grip strength is the hand. There are two primary hand movements to consider: flexion and extension. All of the muscles, bones, and joints in these areas work together to form the three different grip actions–crushing, pinching, and supporting. The crush grip is the action of closing the fingers against a resistance, whereas the pinch grip occurs when an athlete grasps an object with the thumb and opposing fingers. And the support grip is when the fingers take on the majority of a load. There are a variety of concepts and equipment implemented in training for grip strength. Tools such as fat bars, kettle bells, pull-up bars/balls, and even a household towel can be used to work a wide array of movements and muscles used for grip. One of the exercises we utilize at South Carolina is the isometric hold with a jersey. The athlete is required to complete a pull-up using a jersey without losing his grip. The jersey helps build grip strength because it is less stable than a bar or other firm object. Using unstable tools forces the athlete to balance himself, resulting in greater proprioception. This exercise is especially beneficial when training for football, because our athletes become acclimated to gripping jerseys, which they often have to do on the field. Another exercise we do with our football athletes is the fat bar reverse-grip curl to overhead press. The fat bar offers a greater grip challenge than a standard barbell due to its larger circumference. Have the athlete stand in an athletic stance with their hands in a pronated position. With their shoulder blades depressed and retracted, the athlete should curl the bar up to their collarbone. From this position, the athlete should press the bar over their head and bring their head through their arms, locking their elbows and squeezing their shoulder blades together. We also utilize the farmer’s walk to work on the supporting grip action. Set the implement at the start of a prescribed distance (typically 20 or 30 yards) and have the athlete grip it at the start line. Then, they walk with the weight held away from the body, constantly squeezing the handles.


Besides the advantages that grip strength provides to on-the-field performance, it pays off in the weightroom as well. As an athlete’s grip becomes stronger, they gain better grip endurance when weight training, resulting in a greater work capacity. The reason behind this is the concept of “radiant tension,” which occurs when an object, such as a barbell, is effectively squeezed. With a firmer, stronger grip on the bar, the athlete produces more tension, creating an increased physiological response throughout the set. Continued squeezing causes the tension to be dissipated throughout the rest of the body. For example, let’s look at a shoulder military press or bench press. Attempting either of these movements with a loose or open grip will cause the bar to stray from its path, resulting in a potential safety risk and inconsistent performance by the athlete. When a firm, closed grip is used and tension radiates through the body, the bar path will be much smoother. In turn, this will both lead to more efficient lifts and ensure safety.

The positive impacts of a developed grip can be seen in a variety of ways when training athletes, including better repetition endurance. In a movement where grip can be a limiting factor, such as high-rep heavy pulls like dead lifts, cleans, and clean-pulls, a stronger grip will lead to more reps. Athletes are also likely to see increased strength gains as a result of grip training, particularly when it comes to testing new weights on a lift. Because grip strength will not be a limiting factor in their success, the individual may be capable of working with heavier loads. INJURY PREVENTION

Even with all the performance and training gains grip strength provides, it is important to remember that the first priority of a strength and conditioning coach is injury prevention. Athletes in training are going to get sore and run the risk of an overuse injury. With that in mind, coaches should employ various preventative techniques during all weightroom sessions. When it comes to grip training, taking care of muscle tissue should be the top priority. If the tissue is healthy, it is less likely that an athlete will experience an overuse injury. Stronger tissue also leads to a stronger grip. There are several ways to prevent injuries to the muscles and tissues associated with grip, including self-myofascial release techniques and static stretching progressions. Self-myofascial release techniques deal predominantly with tissue health. Whenever a muscle contracts and relaxes–which it does almost constantly when training for or competing in athletics–it accrues tension. The stronger or more frequent the contractions, the more tension builds up in the muscle fibers, where adhesions, or “knots,” can eventually develop. These can be experienced as palpable nodules or tight bands of muscle tissue. Knots are especially common during weightroom work because as athletes lift greater masses, they force their muscles to produce stronger contractions. Adhesions can restrict the athlete’s range of motion. If they remain untreated, and the athlete performs a movement that pushes them beyond this limitation, injury can occur in the form of muscle strains, pulls, tears, and even tendonitis. The muscles in the forearms and hands that are used for grip are no different than any other muscles in the body and are prone to developing adhesions. If the flexors are carrying tension or knots, the athlete may experience pain when performing an action or find their range of motion limited. The same could be said for the extensors. Releasing this tension will not only ease discomfort and provide freedom of movement, but it will also allow the athlete to achieve a full contraction, resulting in greater grip strength. In order to release muscle fiber tension, different implements can be utilized to perform self-myofascial release. To begin, an athlete needs to select an object that is appropriate for the area they will massage. For example, an athlete performing myofascial release on the forearm should use a golf or lacrosse ball rather than a softball. To treat the flexor and extensors, the athlete begins by sitting at a table or lying on the floor. They should position their forearm on top of the ball so the flexors are in contact. Then, have them gradually work the ball across the proximal end of the forearm while applying pressure and utilizing a small, rocking motion throughout. The athlete should slowly apply pressure across the entire soft tissue area, all the while feeling for knots in the muscle. To break up the adhesion and release the tension in a particularly sensitive area, the athlete should relax their muscle and position the ball underneath the troubled spot, slowly putting pressure on it for up to 30 seconds. Athletes should be advised against pushing too hard and causing the muscle to lock up, which makes it more difficult to break up the adhesion. Once they have successfully treated the tension, they can move on and search for other knots. Then, flip the arm over and repeat for the extensors. After myofascial release is completed, the athlete needs to stretch the area to regain any reduced flexibility or range of motion. To accomplish this, they should use a static stretching protocol of elongating the muscle fibers in the flexors and extensors. The first progression of the stretch has the athlete standing at arms’ distance from a wall. Have them place their hand flat up against the wall in a supine position above parallel. If their flexors are particularly tight, they might not be able to do this movement, in which case they should slide their hand down the wall to a more comfortable position. Then, they should remain in the stretch for 30 seconds to a minute. The athlete should continue this stretch until they can comfortably get their arm above parallel. To stretch their extensors, the athlete can flip their wrist to a pronated position and again attempt to place their palm flat against the wall. Once the athlete can accomplish this stretch, they can move on to the second progression, which occurs on the floor. While on their hands and knees, the athlete will externally rotate their arms and position their palms flat on the floor with their fingers pointing toward their knees and their wrists facing out. From this position, the athlete can progress the stretch by gradually applying more pressure and moving the palms up the floor until a desirable position is reached. To stretch their extensors, the athlete can flip their hands so their wrists are pronated.

The final piece of the progression calls for elevated hands so the athlete can increase the range of their stretch. Have the athlete kneel by a bench or box and repeat the same stretching motion. From this position, they will be able to put more pressure into the activity than they did against the wall or floor.

In order to save time during a workout, a coach can fit these stretches into other lifts or warm-ups. For example, the “inch worm” stretches the hamstrings but can also easily work the flexors and extensors by telling athletes to keep their palms flat against the floor. Another is pairing wrist flexibility with stretching the psoas. Although grip is often overlooked when it comes to strength training, a little emphasis can make a big difference during crunch time. Grip strength is something every strength and conditioning coach–especially those who work with football teams–should grab onto, because you never know when you might need a Hail Mary.

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