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Get a Grip

Nov 08, 2021

I’ve written/drawn before about the benefits of hanging. But what about the technique of hanging? Does how you grip the bar matter so long as you are holding on?

True story

I was working with a competitive gymnast and she kept getting blisters in the same place. It was always right at the base of her index finger on both sides.

Was the problem that she needed to toughen up that part of her hand?

She looked at her skin and noticed that the problem area had harder calluses than the rest of her hand.

So she shaved the calluses off.

The next day the skin ripped.

The problem wasn’t the calluses. The problem was that she was placing more pressure on that part of her skin. And THAT was causing both the calluses AND the blisters. Removing the calluses removed the very thing that was protecting her hands.

We took a step back to figure out why this was happening. It turns out that she was rotating her shoulders (turning her armpits out) and squeezing her shoulder blades together. This placed more pressure on the index knuckle (see images below).

We addressed this in three ways:

  1. Strengthened the skin on her hands & rebuilt her calluses
  2. Worked to improve overhead mobility with passive hangs in a close chin-up grip
  3. Modified her pull-up grip to drive the shoulders into a better position

I’ll discuss these in more detail in this article.

How should you grip the bar?

As with any movement there is no single right way to grip. I always recommend hanging with different grips and different anchors (trees, bars, rings, rope..). This prevents overuse injuries and builds good all round grip strength.

However, there are some definite advantages and disadvantages to different grip techniques. I will break these down into how they impact:

  • Your hands & skin
  • Your forearms & shoulders

Hands & Skin

In the example above the calluses & blisters occurred due to excessive pressure on a particular part of the hand. But this doesn’t mean that calluses are bad.

To quote Katy Bowman, “A lack of hand calluses is a sign of a lack of loading them.”. When you hang on a bar you are applying a shear force to your skin. In response your skin adapts by getting stronger and thicker (creating calluses). Blisters and rips occur when you apply too much load before the skin has had a chance to adapt.

We want to build calluses to increase our ability to hang, swing and pull. BUT if you are getting calluses all in one place then this may be a sign that you are only loading one part of your hand. If we can spread the load across a greater surface area then we are using our entire hand and are likely to be stronger. Think about it this way, if you grip with all your fingers you will spread the force across your entire hand. If you grip the bar with one finger that same force is applied to that single digit!

Let me share a very common example that I see in a lot of my calisthenics students working on pull-ups. They begin gripping the bar by wrapping the palm of their hand around the bar first. Then they grip with their fingers. What can occur is a strong pinching of the calluses at the base of their fingers. AND it can leave the palms of their hands feeling raw and painful. What is happening here is that they are applying the majority of the force to the palms of their hands.

An alternative approach is to grip the bar with your fingers first. And then wrap the rest of your hand around the bar. If you have never done this before you may initially find it painful on the skin on your fingers. However, as you continue to practice this way you will build calluses and strengthen that skin.

Side note: I do not experience this pinching myself. This may be due to years of building calluses through gymnastics bar work. So I grip the bar predominantly with the palm of my hand. However, if you are experiencing pinching the approach above will definitely help.

Forearms & shoulders

I will cover two main points in this section:

  1. Getting your shoulder in a good position through your grip (the approach I used for my student in the example above)
  2. Thumb under the bar or thumb over the bar?

Getting your shoulder in a good position through your grip

When hanging, swinging or pulling we can use our grip to ensure that we have a good shoulder position. The most stable position for your shoulder when your arms are overhead is a slight external rotation. Even in a passive hang where we are relaxing and letting gravity pull us down, this position will be desirable.

I want to remind you of my student from the start of this article. The approach detailed here is what we used to help her.

Place your hands in a chin-up grip and bring them close together on the bar. This position will exaggerate external rotation. Passive hangs in this grip will be fantastic for improving your mobility. You can see in the picture below how the chin-up grip guarantees that the shoulder is in more of an externally rotated position.

Note: If you have certain shoulder issues or hyper-mobility it may be beneficial to start with active hanging. If you experience any pain when hanging in a relaxed position then start with a more active hang, by driving your shoulder blades down.

In many cases such as for gymnastics or pull-ups we need to use a supinated grip (palms facing away from you). To drive the shoulders into a slight external rotation in a pull-up grip try the following:

  • Begin by gripping the bar with your pinkie side
  • Get your pinkie knuckle as high as possible above the bar
  • Keep the pinkie side high as you take the load into your arms and feel the shoulder position

This helps create a strong shoulder position.

Thumb under the bar or thumb over the bar

The question that I get asked the most about grip is “should I have my thumbs over the bar or wrapped around the bar?”.

Growing up in gymnastics I used a thumb over the bar grip, which is typical for women. This is because we are swinging around the bar. The thickness of the women's bar makes it safer to keep the thumbs over.

Side note: Men have a thinner bar and wrap their thumbs around.

For hanging and pull-ups I recommend a thumb around the bar grip. This is, in general, a stronger grip.. BUT if you have tiny hands or a very thick bar then wrapping your thumb around the bar might be challenging. At a certain thickness of bar I need to place my thumb on top of the bar. The stretch on my thumb is too great to have a strong grip with my thumb wrapped around.

If you do use a thumb over the bar grip I recommend wrapping your thumb over or pinching your index finger. This creates a stronger grip.

A common argument that I hear is that a thumb over the bar grip is more practical for muscle ups and climbing. I’ll address these one at a time:

Bar muscle up

There are two main ways to do a bar muscle up:

  • False grip
  • Regular grip

Some people do a false grip with their thumb over the bar, but you can also do a false grip with your thumb around the bar. Madeleine Leander (my muscle up idol) has her thumb around the bar for her super slow muscle ups.

With regular grip muscle ups I see more people do this with their thumb around the bar. Check out badass Kat doing her bar muscle ups here with her thumb around the bar.

Climbing

I reached out to Mercedes Pollmeier, a performance climbing coach and collaborator of mine. Even for climbers Mercedes recommends the thumb around the bar grip. One big reason is to avoid over training the same grip that you are already using in climbing. When you wrap your thumb over the bar you are working more of the same thing. Wrapping the thumb around changes which muscles in your forearms you are working. This decreases your chances of overuse elbow pain.

Summary

As I said at the start of this article there is no single perfect way to grip. However, if you use the following guidelines you’ll be doing great:

  1. No shoulder pain
  2. Build up your calluses slowly by starting with small doses of training
  3. If you get pinching wrap your fingers around the bar first and then grip the bar with your hand
  4. Vary your grip and what you are gripping
  5. Wrap your thumb around if/when possible
  6. Have fun

If you want to improve your grip strength, shoulder mobility and shoulder strength Mercedes and I have a 3 level hanging program. This program is suitable for everyone from beginners up to advanced athletes. Sign up below to find out more and receive 50% off the program.

 
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