Build bigger muscles by giving your hands a high priority.
Though they are the essential link to barbells, dumbbells and machines, the hands are usually underappreciated.
Without strong hands you’ll never be able to reach your full potential for muscle mass. That many bodybuilders have weak hands, and hands that are prone to injury, seriously hampers their progress.
Hands have tremendous potential for increased strength and robustness, but only if the load on them is increased gradually. If you make sudden substantial increases in demands, hand injuries can readily result—with the fingers usually being more at risk than the palms.
Unless you already have very strong hands, and thick skin—perhaps from a lot of manual labor, or from years of successful training—it’s easy to injure your hands. But even with strong hands, if you cut them while doing something with a sharp tool, or blister them from a bout of manual work, for example, you’ll quickly learn how limiting a hand injury is.
And hand injuries can readily happen in the gym.
Training-related hand injuries
All variations of deadlifts, rows, pulldowns, chin-ups, and shrugs are potentially among the most important exercises for building bigger muscles. They are very demanding on the grip, and can contribute to strengthening the hands. But if not done properly, these exercises can cause hand injuries.
What sometimes happens with these exercises is that bodybuilders curl their fingers (excluding their thumbs) into two hook shapes, and then attach themselves to the resistance with just those hooks. This takes the palms out of the hold (and the thumbs, too), and puts all of the strain on just the four fingers of each hand—on the small bones and joints there. When the weights used are challenging, the stress can lead to finger irritation and then injury, which could require several weeks (or more) of recovery time to heal.
Sometimes, the hold of the bar may be correct at the start of a set but, as the grip fatigues, the hands open, and the fingers (excluding the thumbs) form a pair of hook shapes, and end up holding the bar at the end of the set.
Grip machines can also cause problems because they may place more stress on your finger bones and joints than they can tolerate. This varies according to the design of the machine, and the size and condition of your hands. Start out very light and easy, and find how to hold the handles so that the stress is applied safely to your fingers, thumbs and palms. Then progress in weight gradually. Don’t start training hard on a grip machine for at least several weeks.
Hand grippers, properly used, can be terrific. But they can be severe on the skin and structure of your hands, depending on the size and condition of your hands, how sharp the knurling of the handles is, and how soon you start working a gripper hard. Proceed carefully.
Start with a gripper you can close easily for 10 or more full reps. Spend some time learning the safest way to hold the gripper for you, then increase your reps and progress to harder grippers gradually. (The correct way to use hand grippers is described in detail in Chapter 12 of BUILD MUSCLE, LOSE FAT, LOOK GREAT.)
How to hold the bar
Hold the bar properly from the beginning and throughout each set. Hold it against the callouses at the base of your fingers, with your fingers and thumb of each hand wrapped fully around the bar. (This means that your thumbs encircle the bar from the other side to that of the other digits, akin to how you grasp when shaking someone’s hand.) This distributes the strain over the fingers, thumbs, and palms.
Not only is this safer for your hands, it’s also a more secure, stronger way to hold the resistance.
Positioning the bar deeper into your palm (towards the middle area) than across the callouses at the base of the fingers doesn’t strengthen the hold, but can lead to skin damage. This is especially the case in the deadlift and the shrug, because the heavy weights used will force the bar towards the base of the fingers, and perhaps tear the skin in the process.
And hold the bar hard—as if you’re trying to crush it.
If you heavily overload your hands and forearms with motions that involve twisting and rotating your wrists, not only can you injure your hands, wrists and forearms, but your elbows can be affected as well—tennis elbow (outer area of the elbow), or golfer’s elbow (inner area of the elbow).
These problems can occur even if you never play tennis or golf. And they can arise from activities done outside of the gym. If you’re not used to manual work, and do a lot of work that involves wrist rotation—from painting and decorating (including surface preparation), or garden work, for example—that could lead to elbow problems.
And even with controlled grip work in the gym, without any twisting and rotating of your wrists, if you overdo it, or try to progress too quickly, that can lead to elbow problems.
Furthermore, if you work only on your gripping muscles, without any exercise for the opposing muscles—the finger extensors—that may lead to elbow problems.
Such elbow problems, unless treated successfully at the earliest signs of development, can be very stubborn, and very limiting. They can last for several months.
How to avoid hand injuries
1. Be especially careful whenever you handle a knife or blade.
2. When doing manual work where there’s a risk of injury to your hands (including blisters), wear leather gloves.
3. Unless you’re already well used to manual work, don’t do a lot of it at any one time. Spread it out over several small bouts, with sufficient rest between bouts so that no hand, wrist, forearm or elbow problems develop.
4. If you have to handle an animal that you know could injure you, wear leather gloves.
5. When you train, increase the load on your hands gradually, in small increments.
6. When you do chin-ups, pull-ups, pulldowns, rows, shrugs, or any type of deadlift, don’t merely hook your fingers around the bar. Put the bar across the callouses at the base of your fingers, wrap your fingers and thumbs around the bar, and hold the bar with your fingers, thumbs and palms.
7. Avoid grip aids other than lifter’s chalk. If you use straps or metal hooks to attach yourself to a bar, you’ll encourage grip weakening. Train without straps or hooks, hold the bar properly, strengthen your grip through aid-free lifting, and train your grip with some specific grip work.
8. Do specific grip work twice-weekly, at the end of your workouts.
9. Do one or two work sets of finger extension exercise for each hand after each bout of grip work.
One of the simplest but most effective ways to improve your gripping strength is to hold a barbell for time. If where you work out has a thick bar—one thicker than the normal inch-or-so diameter barbell, and ideally one about two inches thick—use that, for thick-bar holds.
If there isn’t a thick bar where you train, you could use a normal-diameter bar instead, and still improve your grip, but a thick bar is much more effective.
Put the bar across the pins of a power rack positioned at about mid-thigh height, so that you can take the bar easily and hold it as if you were in position to start a standing shrug. Hold the bar securely in your entire hands, with your thumbs around the bar (not over it). Try to crush the bar as you hold it. Provided you can hold it for 60 seconds continuously, with just a few seconds to spare, increase the weight a little next time, and so on. One hard 60-second hold twice a week is sufficient.
Here’s how to make your own thick-bar training tool: Get a local metal worker to cut a two-foot length of two-inch diameter pipe, and weld a hook at each end of it. Then attach that thick handle to a normal bar, and do thick-bar holds that way.
If there’s a grip machine where you train, try that for one bout each week. But if it produces finger problems, stick to the timed holds for your specialized grip work.
Especially when you’re doing a lot of grip work, the finger extension is an important supplementary exercise. It strengthens the muscles that extend the fingers, whereas exercises that involve the grip work the muscles that flex the fingers. A strength imbalance between these opposing muscles can cause elbow problems.
Here’s a manual resistance finger extension exercise:
Put the digits of your right hand together. Put the tips of the fingers (and thumb) of your left hand on the outside ends of the corresponding digits of the other hand. Open your right hand against resistance provided by your left hand. Allow the finger joints to bend sufficiently to produce a full range of movement.
Once you’re working the exercise hard, following a period of gradual adaptation, perform a warm-up set for each hand with minimal resistance. Then perform the work sets with enough resistance to make each rep taxing. Apply resistance against the fingers as they open and close—positive phase and negative phase, respectively. Provide more resistance during the negative phase. Perform each rep smoothly, over a full range of motion.
Another method, while seated, is to place the tips of your right hand together, and put your hand between your lower thighs, with your wrist turned so that your right thumb is against your right inner thigh. Keep all your digits straight, and spread the load evenly over all of them. Find the precise positioning of your hand and thighs that permits this. Perform each rep smoothly, over a full range of motion, with enough resistance from your thighs to make each rep taxing on the positive and negative phases.
The manual finger extension doesn’t permit measurable resistance. Over time, however, gradually increase the manual resistance.
Remember, without strong hands you’ll never be able to reach your full potential for muscle mass. Build bigger muscles by giving your hands a high priority.