Train Your Weakest Link…
If I had a quarter for every person I’ve trained who blurted out, “That wasn’t too hard, I could have done more but my grip was giving out,” after a difficult set, then I would have enough money to pack a pair of shorts, my 32kg kettlebell, and then swing my way through retirement on a sandy beach.
As the true professional I (mostly) am, I simply smile to give a false sense of empathy. But, grip strength is a foundational component of strength. It’s the balancing point which determines our success with many movements.
In the past—especially with assisted weight machines—grip strength was not required or emphasized, so many people forgot its importance. Grip strength is often the weakest link that determines if someone will have difficulty performing pull-ups, kettlebell swings—or even passing the legendary RKC Snatch Test.
If their grip wasn’t holding them back, most people are strong enough to pull themselves up over a bar repeatedly. Their legs and cardiovascular systems are also more than capable of performing hundreds of swings and snatches with a sub-maximal weight. Grip is the foundation for many upper body and repetitive dynamic exercises, and shouldn’t just be an afterthought.
Grip strength can be the limiting factor that rears its ugly head to compromise your technique and cut your sets short. Or it can be the bedrock of strength, something to train so that you are stronger, fitter, and more successful at the gym.
In this post, I will present some strategies for focusing on grip strength in your training so that you can do more kettlebell swings and snatches. I will explain two types of grip training: one focused on increasing strength and the other on endurance. Both types should be in your program to ensure success.
Use Your Grip
If you are a true practitioner of Dragon Door Hardstyle training, using your grip should be a common occurrence. Whether you are performing a kettlebell exercise or practicing traditional weight training, your grip should be engaged.
At the gym, it’s common to see people loosely holding their dumbbells when lunging, performing step ups, and even during rows! The idea is simple—when you are moving, grip the weight and engage as many muscles as possible. Not only is this safer because you body will be in a more stable position, it will make you stronger by activating more muscles to assist in every lift.
Adopt this training principle: anytime you grab a bar or weight, make sure your grip is prioritized and utilized throughout the movement.
Ditch the Two-Arm Swing
This might sound a bit blasphemous, but hear me out! Yes the two-arm kettlebell swing is an excellent movement for learning the proper hip hinging movement, and the safest way to dynamically move a relatively heavy weight. But it can sacrifice grip strength—if it’s the only swing we do.
When learning the two-arm kettlebell swing, the grip is involved. But as we become more proficient, grip strength becomes a secondary focus, and takes a back seat to the hip drive and timing of the movement. You might be surprised at your lack of grip strength development if you do too many two-arm swings instead of the one-arm variety.
Most of us have a finite amount of time to train. And since I am a “training simpleton” I want to get the most “bang-for-my-buck”. One-arm swings provide that for me. Whether you use one kettlebell at a time, or one in each hand, the one-arm swing is the foundation for many exercises since it can easily transition to the clean or snatch.
The one-arm swing also calls for more grip activation, since you are no longer relying on two arms. The one-arm kettlebell swing also allows the trainees to train each side individually. Similarly, you will do your leg strength a huge disservice by performing only squats and deadlifts without challenging your strength and stability with lunges and step ups. Training with only two-arm swings will not balance your grip strength in each hand.
If your time is tight and your goal is to perform more swings or to pass an endurance event like the RKC Snatch Test, it is in your best interest to focus more on the one-arm swing and its variants.
Utilize the Magnificent Versatility of the Kettlebell
Even though it is fairly obvious that kettlebells are more versatile that dumbbells, how many of us actually take advantage of this fact? We all know that a kettlebell military press builds a strong shoulder joint and works the grip. Even though the weight is held in a slightly different way, the same effect is achieved by performing the movement with a dumbbell.
A kettlebell is very versatile, you can flip it upside down and perform bottoms-up presses, which are a whole new ball game. I have seen strong individuals easily press a 32kg kettlebell overhead—only to be completely unable to do a 16kg bottoms-up press. This usually happens because of a lack of grip strength. Someone may have the strength to press the kettlebell upward, but when their grips gives out, the kettlebell flops over like a deflated balloon.
Add bottoms-up presses to your routine to strengthen your grip. Instead of overdoing them, simply add in one set after your regular sets of presses as a finisher. If you’re a real glutton for punishment, try the bottoms-up variations of other classic kettlebell exercises like farmers walks, windmills and the get-up. Be careful and consider the risk-to-reward ratio—when grip strength fails, the kettlebells fall in a hurry. A good benchmark goal is to bottoms-up press a kettlebell that’s one half the weight of your standard military press weight.
Don’t Neglect Endurance
When I was training for a kettlebell sport competition last year, I signed up for a biathlon event—five minutes of double kettlebell jerks, then five minutes of snatches with a 24kg kettlebell. I am usually better at snatches than double jerks, but doing them after the jerks when I was tired presented a new problem. My grip was fatigued, and I could not do as many snatches as when I was fresh.
After one of my workouts, my coach, John Wild Buckley, said to do a six minute double kettlebell farmer’s walk with the competition weight. In my mind, I didn’t want to do it because it would be painful, but I knew that it was exactly what I needed to do.
Adding grip endurance sets are not technically difficult, and they substantially challenge and train the grip along with your mental fortitude. I added most of my endurance sets at the end of my workout or I did shorter endurance sets after a set of squats or deadlifts.
I found the farmer’s walks with the kettlebells to be a great grip strength builder along with bar hangs. I switched grips in both, sometimes using a bottoms-up kettlebell position for the farmer’s walk and alternating between an over and underhand grip for the bar hangs. If you can perform one-minute endurance sets with farmer’s walks or bar hangs, your grip endurance will significantly improve.
Now you have some ideas on how to increase your grip strength and turn a potentially weak link into an asset. For more information, check out the video below:
Doug Fioranelli, RKC II, PCC, holds a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and is the owner of Rise Above Performance Training™ in Belmont, CA. Check out his blog for more training articles and videos at DougFioranelli.com