By Chris Dellasega, MS, CSCS, PICP 2, BioSig 1
Posted: September 23, 2012 - 9:27 AM
The use of thick-handled barbells and dumbbells for developing maximum strength has been documented in strength training publications for generations. Many old-time strongmen were able to accomplish their incredible feats of strength largely due to tremendous grip strength.
Some of these feats of strength include Herman Goerner’s one arm deadlift of 734.4 pounds, Arthur Saxon’s world record in the bent press (a single-arm exercise) of 373 pounds, and Louis Cyr’s legitimate win of a tug-of-war against four horses! It should be noted that these particular feats of strength took place in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s before steroids were developed.
Although they were available, barbells and dumbbells were not common during this time. As a result, the lifting routines of many of these strongmen revolved around lifting heavy, cumbersome objects like logs, sandbags and kegs, which developed incredible grip strength. As they say, you’re only as strong as your weakest link and grip strength is the gatekeeper of upper-body strength.
Strength developed by using barbells and dumbbells with a traditional 1-inch thick grip is limited in transferability to the field because rarely, if ever, in football does an athlete grasp anything that is 1-inch in diameter. However, using thick-grip barbells and dumbbells, in addition to using standard 1-inch thick barbells and dumbbells, increases the effectiveness of strength training.
Muscle Physiology 101
Part of the strength training process is to increase the brain’s ability to signal muscles to contract with maximal force. Signals are sent from the brain through the nervous system to the muscles. These signals are known as nerve impulses. The intensity, number and frequency of nerve impulses dictate the amount of force produced by the muscles. This is known as neural drive and is largely responsible for strength gains; Increased neural drive will improve strength gains by activating more motor units.
A motor-unit is comprised of two parts, an alpha motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers it is responsible for activating. It essentially acts as the connection between the brain, i.e. central nervous system, and muscular system. Think of the brain as the engine in a car and the muscular system as the transmission.
Why Thick-Handled Implements?
Using thick-handled implements develops the muscles of the grip more than traditional 1-inch thick barbells and dumbbells because more motor units are activated. Workouts that include thick-handled implements are one of the best ways to improve grip strength.
Strength training, when done properly, should alternate between periods that emphasize volume (moderate loads, fewer sets, more reps) and periods that emphasize intensity (heavy loads, more sets, fewer reps). As strength coaches Kim Goss and Charles Poliquin say, alternate between building a bigger engine and a better transmission. Increasing grip strength through the use of thick-handled implements is like adding high performance tires to a car with a big engine and high performance transmission.
Thick handled implements develop muscular size and strength that cannot be replicated with any other equipment because they involve the forearms, hands, wrists and fingers to a much higher degree than traditional barbells and dumbbells with a 1-inch thick grip.
Many times when an athlete uses traditional barbells and dumbbells they are simply holding the implement, which doesn’t require much mental focus, rather than gripping the implement. Since thick-handled implements are awkward and difficult to handle, they require higher levels of mental focus -- this increased level of focus is one reason thick handled implements are so effective.
When & How to Use Thick-Handled Implements
Using thick-handled implements is most effective when training pulling and curling motions because during these lifts the hands and forearms are being thoroughly taxed, which increases neural drive. Pressing movements, such as the bench press or overhead press, don’t increase neural drive as much because grip strength is less of a factor in those lifts. However, those lifts should still be trained with thick handled implements.
Training loads will have to be reduced when using thick handled implements, especially in the pulling and curling movements. A study published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research entitled “Acute muscular strength assessment using free weight bars of different thickness”, noted that the use of 2 and 3 inch bars resulted in initial weight reductions for pulling exercises due to the reliance on maximal grip strength.
This reduction in loads for pulling and curling exercises is evidence of how limiting grip strength can be. For this reason athletes should use a combination of traditional 1-inch thick barbells and dumbbells and thick-handled implements: traditional barbells and dumbbells to use maximal loads and thick handled implements to increase neural drive, which then increase maximal loads.
As loads increase in pulling and curling exercises with thick-handled implements the loads used with traditional 1-inch thick barbells and dumbbells also increase. As a result, less neural drive is needed for the muscles of the forearm and hand and more neural drive can be devoted to the larger muscle groups. This increased neural drive to the larger muscles results in an increase in overall strength.
The muscles of the grip respond best to a wide variety of stimulus. I find that for the best results alternating between thick gripped implements and traditional 1-inch thick barbells and dumbbells within the same set of an exercise works very well for increasing both strength and neural drive. Although, alternating periods of all thick handled work and all traditional 1-inch thick work is also very effective.
Where to Find Thick-Handled Implements
Thick-handled dumbbells and barbells can be very expensive, which is one reason that they are not more commonplace. The most cost effective way of obtaining thick-handled implements is to get a set of Fat Gripz (fatgripz.com). Fat Gripz slide over traditional 1-inch thick barbells, dumbbells, and cable attachments converting the grip to over 2-inches in diameter.
Unlock your true muscular potential and start displaying your own feats of strength like the old-time strongmen by using thick handled implements to increase your maximal strength.
Chris Dellasega is the High Performance Director for Dynamic Athletics Research Institute. Contact Chris at email@example.com.