by Robby Sparango
USAW L1, Gripsport
(Scram, chin-ups, this aint about ya’ll)
I could go on and on about the importance of hand training. Among our five senses, our sense of touch always takes a back-seat to the others. We never really give it much thought. Day in and day out we’re bombarded with sights, sounds, tastes and smells. Funny thing is, our sense of touch, what we learn from our hands, is some of the most vital information we retain for our life’s duration. Gauging temperature, establishing density of a material, things that we factor everyday to stay alive. You don’t have to knock on a door, tap a wine glass or touch a blade to know how it feels.
This will sound absurd in your head when you read it, but your brain knows what your hands know. Heightening this awareness is like Bach for your ears. Our touch is incredibly receptive. What do you suppose is the most intimate act of affection? (Nope and nope. Wrong. Try again). We reserve hand holding only for our most cherished loved ones, interlocking fingers is our way of displaying our strongest affinities. A handshake will also reveal quite a bit (if not enough) about someone when you meet them, likely establishing trust before words do.
It’s referred to as “the deal sealer” after a business exchange, I say the deal was sealed at the introduction. Yet, we probably pay as much attention to what our hands experience as we do to how many times we blink daily.
What does this have to do with training? Everything. Your fingers are the orchestra, your thumb is the conductor, they work best in unison and better without gloves. (My two cents regarding gloves? Toss ’em.) Have you ever noticed the sign near the entrance of the gym that reads, “Please check thumbs at door?” Nope, because that shit ain’t there.
The Thumbless Grip Rationale
“It’s easier for me this way.” “My high school football coach blah blah blah.” We’ll revisit those momentarily along with this question. “If you were hanging from a ten story high pull-up bar, how would you hold onto it?” As coaches, our primary job is to get you results, and to do so safely. The best way to keep you safe is to make you strong. If there is a more effective modality to make you stronger, than that’s what I’m going to do to keep you safer. I don’t really even have to make a case for this argument, as the evidence alone is overwhelming enough regarding the advantage of a full grip versus a thumbless grip. Throughout the iron game, the best to have ever done it, the best who are currently doing it, use their thumbs on everything. Pulls, holds, carries, presses. Be it strongman, highland games, powerlifting, mas wrestling, gripsport, armsport, etc. The thumbs are active.
I’m compelled to mention the absence of weightlifting from that list as the preferred grip for pros is the hook grip. It is for mechanical retention on a fluidly rotating barbell. This is an entirely different animal, thumbless grip is not even considered a serious option regardless the caliber of athlete performing these lifts, hence no need to include it on the list.
Awaken the Ancients
Our thumb, our ability to grasp and hone tools took us from stone knives to landing a robot on a comet. Our minds cannot take credit for this alone, cephalopods intellectual processing powers make us look brain dead. But alas, we have thumbs that enable us unparalleled tactile dexterity, so we win. Suck it, Kraken. The more our dexterity improved, the more advanced our society became. You have an anthropologic imperative to utilize the very digit responsible for shaping human civilization as we know it.
My, What Big Hands You Have
According to your brain, your hands are massive. Your hands are the flagship of your central nervous system. If your brain thinks your hands can’t hold onto something it will pull the emergency brake on your entire system. This is why your grip “gives out” followed by your body, on pull-ups or a deadlift. Rarely is it fatigue but rather, your CNS just saying, “Nope. Fuck this, I don’t like it”. Engaging your thumb is critical to maximize strength. It will target your pronators to strengthen your wrists, and provides you more surface area with which to apply pressure. It will enable an involuntary neuromuscular reflex, call it “co-contraction” or “hyper-irradiation”, the endgame remains the same. The harder you squeeze something the more tissue you will recruit to draw neural pathways out of dormancy that increase your nerve force, thus allowing you to generate more tension. This means you can pull harder, hold longer, hang stronger and press more. So, you’re hanging from a ten story pull up bar, still comfortable trading “easier” for stronger? Was your football coach Zydrunas Savickas, or just a guy who played football before you did?
Safe is Strong
Bringing us back full circle to safety, we’ll touch upon the movement that is the fountainhead for thumbless culprits, the press. Overhead, bench, you name it. It’s called, “suicide grip” for a reason. “Comfort” usually accompanies “I’ve always done it like this”, as the preference to the suicide grip. Personally, I’m more comfortable having 100% certainty I’m not going to wrap my skull around a barbell, than trading some wrist discomfort for 1% chance of a barbell slipping. Wrists require mobility so this is good incentive to start working on it. Just consider the strongest pressers in the history of strongman and powerlifting have their thumbs around the bar. It assists in maximizing contraction through a powerful crush grip, creating a stronger press and pull. It provides confidence that after a ballistic pull or an off balance press that barbell is staying put. The icing on the beefcake is that exact point, mechanical retention to keep the bar in the palms, exponentially reducing risk of injury and lost training time.
Training safe makes you smart, training smart makes you strong, being strong allows you to then try dumb shit because you’re smart and strong enough to do so. Respect the gradients.
Whatever your modus operandi, how you grip in your training is your decision. These are just some considerations I calculate in mine. If you prefer thumbless it’s all good, always do you. I merely have a disdain for squandered potential and want to see everyone make progress.
Just remember, a weak grip is strong enough to hold you back.
Robby Sparango is a competitive Gripsport athlete, kettlebell instructor, and certified USA Weightlifting coach at Performance360.