Trial and error Vs science for training grip strength for BJJ
So, I wanted to write this article because when it comes to grip training, I want to move away from a trial and error approach, which tends to be the most common approach for grip strength. I wanted to look at the science. Using a scientific approach for developing strength in other areas, e.g. the legs, is a no brainer. So, why don't we take the same scientific approach when it comes to grip strength?
The article covers:
- Why you need to train grip strength for BJJ
- The anatomy of grip strength for BJJ
- What science tells us about building grip strength
- Exercise selection
- Building a grip strength training program
Science of grip strength for BJJ accompanying video...if you want to skip the reading
1. Why should you train grip strength for BJJ?
"Won't training jiu jitsu build grip strength and isn't that enough?"
Yes, it will build grip strength, up to a certain point. When you first start jiu jitsu, unless you've come from a sport or activity with heavy grip usage, using your hands in this way is going to be new to the body. So, your body will adapt and will become stronger. But there is a point for everyone, no matter of your background, where your gains in strength will slow, or maybe even reverse. Here's why:
- To continue building strength (of any form) you need to continually (albeit gradually) increase either the load or intensity. Unless your training partners become heavier and heavier, or you fight with more and more force, this won't happen. You'll reach a plateau at some point.
- As you get better at jiu jitsu, you should be using less force. One of the goals of jiu jitsu as you get better, is to become more efficient. So, better jiu jitsu goes directly against what the body needs to build strength. In fact, if you rely entirely on jiu jitsu for maintaining strength, as you become more efficient, your strength may in fact decrease, because you're using less force.
So if you want to both maintain and/or continue to build strong grips, you need to supplement with strength training.....in my humble opinion.
2. The anatomy of grip strength for BJJ
6 elements to consider when we pick the exercises to use for building grip strength:
- Muscles that close the fingers (image A below)
- Muscles that curl the fingers, which are different to the muscles that close the fingers (image B)
- Muscles that close the thumb
- Muscles that control the position of the hand in relation to the wrist (images C & D) - while this doesn't have a large impact on grip strength, we flex our wrists a lot in jiu jitsu, particularly for choking
- Muscles inside the hand that control hand & finger position - These do not have a great impact on grip strength, so will not be a focus in this article.
- High tendon to muscle ratio (anatomy image above)
What you'll also notice when looking at the forearm and hand, is that the length of the tendons in the forearm is typically the same length, if not, longer than the muscles controlling those tendons. This is particularly true of the inside of the forearm/hand. So when looking at how to train grip strength for BJJ, it is also important to consider the science of developing tendon strength (FYI - I'm using tendons as a catch all for the non muscular tissue).
I also believe, although I can't find research to back this up, that tendons become more important in grip strength because of these ratios.
3. What science tells us about building grip strength
Key takeaway: to best develop grip strength for jiu jitsu you need to perform exercises for 3 to 5 sets, using a load you're only able to hold for 10 to 15 seconds. Rest 3 minutes between sets.
Here are the highlights from the research I read on building grip strength:
- High loads for low duration are best at building grip strength
- Use 3 to 5 sets of 10 second hangs, using maximum load. 3 minute rest between sets
- 10 second maximum load hangs showed double the grip strength gains Vs multiple sub-maximal hangs of 10 seconds with 5 second rest between hangs (28% gain Vs 14% gain)
- Tendon development is directly related to load intensity
- Tendon strength development and adaptation mostly used 3 to 15 second hold times
- Tendons take 12 weeks to get most adaptation benefit
I won't bore you with the specifics of the studies, but links can be found at the bottom of this article.
4. What exercises to use for building grip strength for BJJ?
We'll get into specifics of program design, i.e. reps and set, in the next section.
A. Full grip hangs
This should be in any grip strength training program. Its simple; grip onto something and hang from it. You should probably use a pull up bar to start, but you can then use a thick bar, a tree, gymnastic rings....anything really.
This exercise will focus mostly on the finger closing (not curling) motion, plus will also develop great health through the shoulders, elbows, upper back and spine. Its a must.
Plus, make sure to close your thumb around the bar to work the thumb closing motion.
B. Finger hangs
The key difference between these and the full grip hangs, is that it places the leverage on the finger tips and not the finger bone closet to your palm.
This works the curling motion in the fingers and puts much more stress on the fingers.
These are tough START SLOWLY.....
Video will jump to finger hangs
C. Kettlebell viking holds
To work the extensor and flexor muscles in the forearm, there are many exercises you can use. But, this is my hands down favourite.
Something I call the viking hold.
Fantastic for building great wrist strength and particularly important for BJJ given how we use our wrist to choke people by curling the knuckles inward.
Video will jump to finger hangs
D. Exercises to balance out grip strength work
While these exercises won't contribute as much to your grip strength, we need to balance out all the hand closing motions we perform in jiu jitsu.
So, treat these exercises as important, but use them as a way to 'cool down' after your grip work, rather being a primary focus.
Opening you fingers against elastic bands and finger tip push-ups are my favourite for opening up the hand and fingers.
The elastic band work can be particularly effective for avoiding tendonitis.
5. Bringing it together into a grip strength training program
- 12 weeks before increasing weight/load: while it can be tempting to keep adding more weight, take it slowly. Particularly for finger hangs. There is a huge load on the tendons. Tendons take about 12 weeks to adapt. So, (after initial adjustments to find your load) look to do maximal holds at the same weight for 12 weeks.
- Greasing the groove Vs dedicated workouts: For grip strength training, I'm a fan of Pavel Tsatsouline's 'greasing the groove' approach. I.e. doing one set every couple of hours throughout the day four to five days per week. I've personally seen great results. Plus, research looking at grip strength in rock climbers, showed that those with the most climbing volume per week also had the highest grip strength. Surprisingly, I find it less taxing than doing several sets in a dedicated workout session. If that's not your style (or isn't feasible) I'd suggest training your grips twice per week, maybe increasing to three times after 6 to 12 months of dedicated training. Take it slowly.....
- Don't forget grip endurance: while this article has focused on strength, the table below has suggestions for build grip endurance.
- Suggested programming: see below
Before you go....just how good are grip hangs for building grip strength??