The kettlebell is an amazing, completely versatile tool. You can build speed, power, strength, endurance, and flexibility. If you’re an athlete or just a sedentary office worker, this implement is for you.
Enough of me praising this tool of old Strongmen greats. Let’s get to what I want to share with you—kettlebell grip strength. If you aren’t training your grip, you had better start. Your grip is probably the most important part of any lift. If you can’t hold on to the bar, you can’t lift the weight. The stronger your grip, the stronger your pull and shoulder strength will be. By training with kettlebells alone, you’ll greatly increase your wrist strength. Your wrist must be completely straight the entire time you’re holding the kettlebell. Otherwise, it will be painful.
The following exercises greatly increased my grip strength and contributed to increases in my deadlift and pulling power.
Bottoms up clean and press
First up is my favorite—the bottoms up clean and press. This exercise is great for building your crushing strength. Not only will it add strength, but you can add good size to your forearms and make those veins bust out.
To perform the bottoms up clean, your hand placement is very important. If your grip is off, you most likely will end up smashing your face with the kettlebell. Set the kettlebell in front of you as if you were going to just perform a regular clean. The kettlebell should be vertical so your hand is neutral like a hammer curl. Grip the bell closer to the top of the handle with your four fingers. Your fingers should form a hook. Grip it loosely with the hook and don’t crush it. Sniff some air in through your nose into your stomach, swing the kettlebell through your legs, and pop it up almost like a hammer curl. Make sure your elbow is glued to your side. As soon as the kettlebell gets upside down, crush it!
As you crush the bell, crush your other hand as well. This will create tension throughout your entire body. You should have a white knuckled fist. The fist is right over the elbow, and your elbow is glued to your side. The elbow pushed against you will engage your lat. Your entire body should be tight. Most people forget to squeeze their glutes. Keep your ass tight, crunch your stomach, and try to make your pelvis and belly button touch. Now, you’re solid. Hold the kettlebell tight for about three seconds to make sure it doesn’t fall and that you have control of it. You can either proceed to the press or work out the kinks on your clean by doing 1–2 sets of five reps.
Now for the press…before you do anything, make sure your ass is still tight and that you still have air in your stomach. Your press is going to come from the lats. Flair your lats and grind the kettlebell straight up. Try to keep it directly over your elbow. If the kettlebell moves, you move. You must stay right under it. Proceed to lockout. Hold for one or two seconds and pull the kettlebell down with your lat. Repeat this 3–5 times. I usually add this in at the end of my workout.
If you don’t think the bottoms up press is hard enough, try putting soap on your hands and trying it again. Now that’s fun. In addition, use all of the tips on breathing, body tension, and alignment with every lift you do. They will greatly increase your strength.
This is an exercise that I use with beginners who use their arms too much in the swing. By using their arms, they use too much of their back. The towel swing is also good to use on big guys or overweight clients who have shorter arms and a harder time keeping their shoulders back on the down swing.
To do a towel swing, take a normal-sized bell. A 53-lb kettlebell will do just fine. Loop the towel through the handle and grab one end in each hand. Set up in your swing stance, and hike the bell through your legs. As the towel touches your legs, stand at attention. The bell should shoot forward. If the bell flops around, you’re using your arms too much. Let the hips and momentum do the work. Don’t worry about how high the bell comes up. Just focus on squeezing the glutes and locking the knees and hips out.
I don’t want to get into too much detail on how to actually perform the swing. (I’ll leave that to another article.) The swing itself is great for grip work, but a towel makes any exercise tough on grip. The towel swing work your crushing grip and will also strengthen your finger strength. It’s a great movement for MMA fighters or any combat athlete. You can work on endurance for your grip by performing three sets of 50–100 swings with a 53-lb kettlebell, or you can work on max strength using heavy bells doing five sets of five. Make sure your towel can support the bell.
If you really want to work the max strength of your grip, the single arm towel deadlift will work better than the towel swing. It’s the same thing as using the rolling thunder for grip work. You can do two arms, but one would be best because then you won’t need as many kettlebells. Work on your weak hand.
Get a strong towel. If you don’t have a heavy enough kettlebell, use two decent sized kettlebells and loop the towel through the handles. Set up in a sumo deadlift stance. Pick the bells up to lockout and try to hold them for 3–5 seconds. Perform one rep on each hand and rest. Do five sets, and if your grip isn’t fried by then, do it again. The towel deadlift is great for crushing and finger strength.
Flip catch or juggling
To do these, you should know how to swing properly first. The exercise is pretty self-explanatory. You’re going to flip the bell and catch it.
Set up for your swing. You can do a one-hand or two-hand swing. Swing the bell and release it at the top of your swing. Before the release, either flip the bell away from you or push the handle down and have the kettlebell rotate toward you (this is the harder of the two). You have to time the rotation and then either catch with one or two hands. You can mix it up. Swing with one hand, catch with two or the other way around, or go from one hand to the other. It’s your choice.
I either use a light bell—35 lbs—and go until I drop it, or I hit 50 total flips between each hand. It also works well with a heavier bell. You can use a 53-lb bell and do three sets of 5–10 reps. When you get good, you can try and tame the beast—the 106-lb kettlebell. That’s a good accomplishment. But be careful! It took my skin with it. The flip catch or juggling will greatly increase your hand speed and crushing strength.
Another self-explanatory lift is the pinch lift. Get a light kettlebell. Start with an 18-lb bell and work your way up. Set it on the floor and set up like you would on the towel deadlift. Place only your fingertips on the handle of the kettlebell. Pinch as tight as you can and lift the kettlebell until lockout. Hold it for 3–5 seconds and then do the other hand. Rest for a little bit and then repeat five times. The pinch lift is obviously great for pinch grip and finger strength.
The finger lifts are a few exercises that I do here and there just for fun. My clients think they’re cool. Although cool, they can be beneficial for combat fighters and any other athlete who needs strong fingers.
First up is the finger deadlift. It has the same set up and rules as the towel deadlift. Use a light kettlebell. Start with an 18-lb bell and place your pinky on it. Start with the smallest finger. This way you know that you can lift it with all fingers. Lift the kettlebell to lockout, hold, and then place it down. Move on to your next strongest finger. After you get to the index finger, move on to the next hand. When you finish both hands, rest for a minute and then repeat five times. You can move up in weight as long as your pinky can handle it. The movement will hurt the first few times, so I recommend staying light until you develop a tolerance to the pain.
Next is the index finger clean and press. The index finger is the only finger that should be used. Don’t actually clean the kettlebell, but squat down, keeping your hand next to the shoulder or rack position. The hand should be as close to the shoulder as possible. Grip the kettlebell with the index finger and let the back of the middle finger rest on the handle. The handle should be in between the index and middle finger. Keeping the hand in the rack position, pick up the bell. It’s going to hurt, so be prepared.
When you stand up and are in the pressing position, press the bell over your head. Lock the bell out and then slowly lower it to the shoulder safely. You can either finish the lift or grab the bell with the other hand. Try to avoid dropping the bell at all costs. The finger clean and press is a very tough lift, but it’s fun and beneficial to some.
There you have it—some odd lifts that can be done with a kettlebell to improve grip strength. As I mentioned before, any lift with a kettlebell is good for the grip and can be even more challenging if soap is added. Make sure that every kettlebell lift is performed as safely as possible. Make sure the ground is soft, or if it’s solid, make sure no one will get hurt or get mad if you break it. You will most likely drop the bell a few times performing these lifts. You don’t need to do all of the lifts. Pick one and add it in at the end of your workout. You’ll be surprised to see that your pulling power has improved.
As Pavel would say, “Enjoy the pain!”
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