We all want to move more weight around the gym and let’s face it, grip strength is often a limiting factor when it’s time to go heavy. I’m guilty of using grip aids in the past, especially on heavy dead lifts and weighted pull ups. I first learned about the dangers of using grips last year, and I decided to take an entire year off of using them to regain my grip strength. But after the research I did this month, I threw my grips into the trash bin. If you rely on grips or straps, brace yourself. You’re going to hate the research I’m about to show you. (Or you may want to just click the X in your browser right now and go on about your merry way. Cheers.)
Have you ever had shoulder pain? Did you every think it had anything to do with your grip strength?
Do yourself a favor. Skip the next two paragraphs and read the two studies below them. Feeling lazy? Okay, I’ll summarize for you now.
Improving your grip strength improves your rotator cuff function and the rotational strength of the shoulder in both internal and external rotation. This occurs via neural pathways. You can cheat your nervous system by using grip aids to lift heavy, but you will pay a price in diminished rotator cuff function and weaker shoulders.
A common occurrence in training is shoulder pain as a result of rotator cuff pathology. The activation of handgrip can potentially change internal loading of the shoulder muscles. This is due to a co-activation of the proximal and distal arm muscles during gripping. How you grip an object and the effort you apply results in a redistribution of force in the rotator cuff muscles, (either positively or negatively) since shoulder stabilizer activity increases during handgrip actions. Knowing this about grip strength and the rotator cuff helps us not only in rehabilitation of an injury, but also in strength training. Having a program with many gripping movements strengthens much more then your hands. A variety of grip strengthening exercises as an emphasized regular part of your athletic program may in fact be one of the best methods of working the musculature to stabilize the rotator cuff. The bottom line: Train your hands to protect your shoulders.
Grip strength correlates with rotator cuff function. Study
Grip strength training improves shoulder internal rotation and external rotation peak torque. Study
Okay now, if you aren’t convinced to trash your straps, keep reading.
Let’s continue by defining a few important terms coined by renowned physiologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington.
Definition: an active process that reduces or suppresses the excitatory activity of synapses, neurons or circuits. Neural inhibition is what happens when your brain senses that you lack the strength to support a certain position. Neural inhibition is one of the body’s safety mechanisms. It limits or shuts down the output of all the muscles involved in order to protect you from injury. Source
Sherrington’s law of irradiation
States: A muscle contracting at near maximum output recruits the neighboring muscles, and if they are already part of the action, it amplifies their strength. The neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle reach other muscles and ‘turn them on’. (Here, in case you want to read about Sherrington or his law of reciprocal innervation.)
A motor unit is made up of a motor neuron and the skeletal muscle fibers innervated by that motor neuron’s axonal terminals. Groups of motor units often work together to coordinate the contractions of a single muscle; all of the motor units within a muscle are considered a motor pool. (Read more about motor units here.)
Alrighty, let’s put these three terms together in the setting of a weight room.
The more motor units that are firing, the more a given muscle will contract. In a max effort lift, we hope to recruit as many motor units as possible to complete the lift. Therefore, to lift the heaviest weight possible, we want the low neural inhibition and high irradiation.
Your brain sends signals throughout your whole body to brace for shock when you grip a significant load in the gym. Essentially, it puts your body on alert to prevent injury. If you grip the hell out of the bar, you send irradiation signals to the other muscles involved and they fire harder. However, if your body senses a grip weakness, neural inhibition will begin to shut those muscles down. Everyone has experienced this while doing pull ups, but you may not have realized what was happening neurally. Your grip started to fail, and suddenly you hit a wall with the pull ups and could not complete another rep. Similarly, many people have experienced the opposite effect during a deadlift. While setting up for the deadlift, we are trained to grip the bar as if we are trying to crush it. Upon establishing a rock solid grip, the entire upper body tenses and begins to fire. The grip feels rock solid, and the deadlift feels light and easy. Often, remembering to establish a rock solid grip will make a tremendous difference in the perceived weight during execution of the deadlift.
What does this have to do with straps, you ask?
Well, using straps will in fact lower the neural inhibition because the hands are not being taxed with a load. The problem is that Sherrington’s Law still applies and we are not getting recruitment of the neighboring musculature in the same manner as if we were lifting without grip aids. While this may not matter for 90% of lifts, it is critical in certain instances. For example, when under fatigue in a movement that requires good shoulder stability, the lack of gripping action can potentially turn off the rotator cuff when it is most needed. It is precisely in this moment that a shoulder injury will occur.
Let’s use bench press as an example
If the grip strength of an athlete is relatively weak compared to the strength of the rest of her upper body, then we have a situation in which the following could easily occur: The athlete sets up for the bench press with good shoulder stability and position and she begins to perform repetitions. She knows she is supposed to grip the bar tightly and is doing so. Her form is flawless. After 5 reps, she begins to fatigue. Her grip on the bar weakens, which signals to the rotator cuff to weaken ever so slightly. She continues a rep, nearing failure, and one of her shoulders rotates internally. She has lost perfect form. The rotator cuff is now compromised. She completes the rep, racks the weight, and walks away from the bench rubbing her shoulder. Why did she break form? Why did she tweak her shoulder? The answer is not that her pecs fatigued. (BTW, If you have shoulder pain, read this.)
Need some more convincing? Okay fine. Enter Charles Poliquin
Let’s move on to a few comments by fitness training hero Charles Poliquin. (By the way, there is a reason over 800 Olympic athletes have worked with him.)
Got elbow Pain?
… “these ailments are often caused by improper strength ratios between the elbow muscles and the forearm muscles. If the elbow flexors, like the biceps and brachialis, are too strong for the forearm flexors, uneven tension accumulates in the soft tissue and results in elbow pain”…
If you don’t want this to happen when taking your lifts to the next level, you need to build strength and stability in your hands and forearms.
Hit a Plateau in the Gym?
Here’s another great quote from Mr. Poliquin:
“when your grip strength improves, less neural drive is needed for the forearm and hand muscles to perform other exercises. That is why many trainees report breaking training plateaus in a host of lifts, ranging from dead lifts to curls, after doing a grip specialization routine.”
Think Grip Strength has nothing to do with the Squat?
Check out this article by Mr. Poliquin on grip strength and the squat.
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