From endurance to strength to precision, most athletes’ performance will improve with an increase in grip strength. After all, at one point or another, sports involve holding onto something. In the sport of obstacle course racing, grip strength can be the difference between a great time and a decent one, as many obstacles require hanging from or traversing difficult structures.
During a Spartan Race, your grip strength will be tested on obstacles such as the Multi-Rig, Rope Climb, Farmer’s Carry, Tyrolean Traverse, and Monkey Bars. Regardless of your body weight, the muscles of the back, arms, hands, shoulders, and core all contribute to successfully being able to hold onto, or squeeze, things. That said, the important factor with these muscles isn't their size, but rather their strength and endurance. You need to prepare your body for high grip demands to avoid failing obstacles and prevent injury.
Try these eight exercises to improve grip strength and never fail a Spartan obstacle again.
How to Do It: This exercise requires two small towels (example: 14 inches wide and 22 inches in length). Loop one towel around the handle of each dumbbell and hold onto the end of each towel while standing upright with your shoulders back. Walk 25-50 yards around your gym floor or outdoors. You can also use weight plates for this exercise. If the plate has more than one opening, such as a top and middle hole, loop the towel through the top opening and hold onto it from there. A longer towel may be required to loop through the center hole of a 25-, 35-, or 45-pound weight plate.
How to Do It: Grip a pull-up bar or any sturdy overhead structure with a pronated (overhand) grip. Slightly elevate the scapula to engage your core and activate the back muscles. Hang from the bar as long as possible. Aim for 15 seconds, and then 30, 45, and 60 seconds. Once you’re able to hang for 60 seconds, you can get creative and move your hands horizontally during the hang, traversing from side to side on the bar.
These grip-enhancing tools can be used for a variety of strength training exercises, but using the Fat Gripz on a dumbbell curl works your biceps and forearms at the same time.
How to Do It: You can use a Fat Gripz, Harbinger Big Grip, or any branded rubber tool that adds thickness to a barbell or dumbbell.
Place one Fat Gripz over the handle of each dumbbell, and hold each dumbbell using a supinated (palms facing forward) grip. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your shoulders back, curl the dumbbells to chin height, keeping the wrists flat and palms up the entire time. Return your hands to the starting position. That’s one rep.
You can shrug a straight barbell, a trap bar, dumbbells, or even a machine to increase grip strength, but the barbell shrug is the exercise you should definitely incorporate into your strength and conditioning routine for a better grip.
How to Do It: Hold a barbell using a pronated (overhand) grip, at shoulder width, in front of your hips with your arms straight. Stand holding the barbell with your shoulders back and your head facing forward. This is the starting position. Keeping your arms straight, raise your traps and shoulders towards the ceiling, and pause for three seconds. Then, return the weight to the starting position. When the weight gets heavy, you can use weightlifting straps to keep the bar from rolling out of your hands.
How to Do It: To use the deadlift for grip training purposes, try not to use an alternated (right hand over, with left hand under) grip at all during your sets. If the weight is getting too heavy and you have to use a mixed grip, your goals have now become absolute strength, not grip strength. Also, you can deadlift in the 8-10 rep range when training the grip. On the final rep of each set (aim for 4-5 sets in any given workout), hold the bar at the top for as long as possible before lowering it to the start position.
This exercise serves solely to increase muscular endurance of the forearm muscles, which should transfer to the aforementioned Spartan obstacles.
How to Do It: Hold a barbell with an overhand grip behind you, so it’s 2-3 inches away from your lower back. While keeping an upright posture, let the barbell roll onto your fingertips while keeping your arms straight (not bending them). Next, make a fist and contract the forearms to grip the bar, again, with a closed grip. That’s one rep. Do this exercise slowly and be sure to not use momentum by shrugging the shoulders or swinging the body forward. Do this close to a barbell rack so you can safely place the bar back when you’re done.
How to Do It: Touch all of the fingertips together so your thumb is touching the tip of the other four fingers. Place a rubber band around the DIP joint (the bendy part of your finger closest to the fingernail). Push your fingers against the band until the hand is open, as if you were giving someone a high five. Bring your fingers back together. That’s one rep.
Hand X Band is a great tool for this exercise, as it allows you to insert each of your fingers into a rubber hole prior to opening your hand against the interconnected rubber holes. This exercise trains the forearm extensors and finger joints, which are essential to opening and closing the hand. It’s less about holding onto something and more about gripping it correctly in the first place.
This exercise trains the ability to hold onto something for an extended period of time.
How to Do It: Place a 10-pound plate (or a heavier one, for more advanced athletes) flat on the ground. Keep a bench or box nearby. If the plate can stand on its own, have it stand up. Grab the plate with your right hand, using just your fingers, so you don't wrap your thumb around the plate. This means the thumb is on one side of the plate, and the other four fingers are on the other side. Stand straight up with the plate so it’s at your side. Pause for 5 seconds, and then place the plate on the bench or box. Repeat for 5-10 reps. To increase the difficulty, pinch two plates, hold one plate for longer (30 seconds), or do a snatch with the weight and hold it above your head with your arm extended.
SGX COACH MARK BARROSO Mark Barroso, NSCA-CPT, is a Spartan SGX coach, personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and health and fitness journalist based in New Jersey. Barroso has completed 14 Spartan Races and counting, including a Spartan Trifecta in 2016. Barroso enjoys cooking, lifting weights, and running.