Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book Review: Mastery of Hand Strength (1st edition)

Mastery of Hand Strength by John Brookfield is a book about one aspect of strength - hand strength. It's a truism of strength that if your hands can't grip it, you can't lift it. Obviously that excepts things like weighted vests and some kinds of squats. But generally your grip can become a limiting factor on your strength. If you can't hold the barbell, or get your fingers under the tire, or grip that rope, you can't lift it/flip it/climb it. John Brookfield's book is aimed at dealing with your grip.

Because of its narrow focus, the book gives a lot of coverage to different facets of this one important part of strength. The book has sections on building your crushing grip (for example, squeezing a gripper or holding onto a barbell for a heavy deadlift), pinch grip (holding things with just your fingers), and finger strength (for both closing and opening your hand). Because the forearms are so important to a good strong grip, forearm strength is also covered extensively.

The book starts with some background on past and present grip strongmen and their feats. Interspersed through the book are descriptions of strength feats and advice on how to do them (or make them harder) - ripping decks of cards or tearing off the corner of one, scrollwork (bending a bar into letters or shapes), pinch-gripping plates, bending nails, and so on. The advice on these gives you more of a sense of how hard they are than how best to do them, but who really needs to know the "trick" until their hands are strong enough to attempt it?

Each section of the book - those on crushing grip, pinch grip, block weights (see below), and thick-handled work - contains a series of exercises and ways to increase their progressive loading. These range from the simple (use heavier dumbbells or heavier plates) to very creative (wrapping extra tape around a handle to make it thicker, using a bucket of water to increase resistance by fractional amounts).

John Brookfield suggests a number of tools for the job. These include block weights - a solid dumbbell "bell" hacksawed off the handle, used for pinch grip training or tossing hand-to-hand. One suggestion is to pinch-grip a pair of block weights and clean-and-press them...adding resistance to momentum to the demands of holding them. Another is a simple 5-gallon bucket, filled with sand or water, used for farmer's walks or for lifting with a rope, towel, or even a pair of pliers. One fun suggestion is towel-wringing - dipping a towel into water and then trying to wring it dry, over and over, for endurance. Thick-handled tools like axes and sledgehammers - for levering or swinging - are also covered. One fun idea is finger-walking - holding an inverted axe or sledgehammer by your steepled fingertips, and then walking the fingers down, raising the tool. Try it with a book or unweighted wooden rod and you can see how much finger strength this would require.

The books shows its age a little - he mentions kettlebells, and how to improvise them since they are so scarce. Since the Russian kettlebell craze started over 10 years ago, they've become easy to find online. But his advice on how to train with kettlebells is still useful, and the improvised version is handy for a do-it-yourself type with more elbow grease than cash.

The book also covers goals and training programs to reach them. The advice is very specific, with lots of examples. A cross-reference table will help you match goals with exercises, and sports and activities with the strength needed most for them. It's not short - covering 8 pages in a 104 page book - and it's a great way to assemble a hand strength program.

Two appendixes cover making your own thick-handled dumbbells and your own kettlebells. Throughout the book, suggestions on how to improvise equipment or convert existing weight training gear, lumber, and bags of shot into grip gear abound.

Substance: 5 out of 5. If you want a stronger grip, this book will tell you how to train for it, thoroughly and creatively.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Like all Ironmind books, it's printed well, solidly edited, and the pictures are clear and relevant.

A revised edition - entitled Mastery of Hand Strength, Revised Edition - has just been released. This review is of the older, earlier volume.

Bottom line: Worth reading, and I'm eager to check out the revised edition. The older book is still excellent, and you could get pretty far into grip strength just working with its advice.

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