Anyone who has ever trained in judo or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for any length of time will know this simple truth – if you can’t hang onto your opponent, you can’t control them. Grip is a large part of any match, especially if you attempt multiple chokes during your bouts, which adds even more stress to the forearms and hands.
You’d think this would leave grapplers with a set of strong, resilient hands, but often the opposite is true. Outside of training, many grapplers can’t even manage simple tasks like shaking hands or opening jars without some small pain. Once they reach a certain age they need to put more tape on their hands than a mummy to protect their fingers from getting worse.
But if you’re serious about grappling, sooner or later you start thinking you need better grip strength. You think if you just made your grip a little better, you’d become a more difficult opponent. Well, yes, but quite possibly no.
Reverse the Damage
To figure out if you really do need extra grip work, you must first consider your training load. If you train infrequently (or are a beginner without a strength training background), it is possible you could benefit from a stronger grip. However, most BJJ guys I know train on the mats a lot – four to six times per week is common – often with multiple sessions on a day at least once per week.
If I spent my entire week cycling as my sport and went to a strength coach, the first thing a good coach would do would be to try to get me out of my sport position and reverse some of the damage from the sport itself. And this is exactly why adding more grip training for grapplers is often detrimental. They spend so much time with their hands flexed that adding in more flexion-based work is akin to getting a cyclist to do more quad-based work in a sitting position.
Stretch Your Digits
I’ve found that the single most helpful thing for me in relation to keeping my hands working well is simply stretching them out after training. Make sure to stretch the forearms in both directions, as gripping is a fixating action, making both the extensors and flexors work simultaneously. But even more importantly, make sure to stretch the fingers. Simply bending the fingers on each hand back individually will result in an enormous stretch if you’ve spent a lot of time on grip work.
The next step in this process is to revert to the RAIL system as per many of my previous articles on fixing body issues quickly. In RAIL, the “R” stands for Release, the “A” for Activate, the “I” for Integrate, and the “L” for Locomote. We really only need the RAI part, as there’s no way to locomote on the fingers.
R – Release: Stretch both the forearms and fingers.
A – Activate: Perform active finger extension work, either by extending the fingers as fully as possible, or against light external resistance like a rubber band. This short video shows a smart way to train extension while going through wrist extension, flexion, and rotation to make sure the fingers are moving through the full range of motion you use in training.
I – Integrate: Any part of your regular strength training that involves gripping: deadlifts, pull ups, club or bag work, or grappling itself.
People usually have no problem getting enough integration in training. The issues usually lie when not enough time is spent countering that training through release or activation work.
Build Strong and Supple Wrists
The next link in the chain for a strong grip are the wrists and forearms. Seasoned grapplers don’t need to add extra direct forearm work as, like with the fingers, they will already be stressing that area enough in regular training.
A better option is to focus on wrist mobility and strength. Martial artists have spent centuries developing wrist strength and suppleness and there are many systems that will all work. My preference is to follow the wrist preparation from Gold Medal Bodies and then the wrist push up series from Ross Enamait to get everything fired up and well integrated.
A Grip for Every Situation
Now that you’ve got strong, supple wrists and fingers, you’ll probably find that your grip works better, and your hands are feeling less riddled with arthritis. If you still feel like you need extra grip work, then you may want to think about the type of grip that needs the most work. There is no point in working on a rotational grip exercise if your issue is not being able to hold an open grip. Let’s look at the different type of grips and how they are related to grappling.
Open grip – Imagine holding onto a fat bar or a tennis ball where the hand isn’t closed. This kind of grip is often used as a friction grip, when cupping the back of the elbow or head, or attempting a kimura. Wrist strength plays a big factor in your ability to keep and hold this grip.
Closed grip – Your normal grip used in strength training. Very rarely used in actual grappling, but is gentle on the hands.
Tight grip – Almost a fist. Your hand is as closed as it can be while still holding something. This is the normal grip you will find yourself using while grappling, and the one that damages hands the most.
Pinch grip – Not often found in grappling, but very common in strength sports. As a type of open grip, it is characterized by pinching two objects, such as two weight plates, together and being held for time.
Rotating grip – Usually employed as a tight grip, although can be found in open form too while looking for submissions. The ability to keep the fingers flexed hard while the wrist rotates can take a while to develop.
If, after all this, you still genuinely find yourself needing extra grip strength work, one of the best tools to train the wrists and forearms as well as the grip is a Bulgarian bag. Rather than do multiple sets at some point in your training, I prefer to spread sets throughout a session so the grip is accustomed to working for extended periods of time. Pick an exercise you like, such as halos, and use a variety of grip options on the bag throughout.
Old-school trainees may recognize this technique as the same method Arnold Schwarzenegger was said to have used to build up his calves when he first moved to America. He performed a set of calf raises in between every set of his other training in the gym. Considering the pair of iconic calves the Oak managed to build from this method, you’ll be following a tried and trusted path if you decide to adopt this approach.
Consider What You Really Need
If you are a grappler, it’s unlikely that you need extra grip work. Focus on restoring full range of motion in your fingers first in extension, both by adding specific stretching as well as strengthening. Then work on wrist strength and suppleness.
And if you still find yourself losing grip fights due to lack of strength, add in the Austrian Oak’s method of blasting your grip after every single set of strength work. Keep it up for four to six weeks and watch as you develop gorilla-like grip.