A RIDDLE: Who is stronger? Jeff, whose huge biceps pop up when he makes a "flexing" motion, as he frequently does; or his brother Jeremy, who has huge triceps thanks to endless skull crushers and "tricep kickbacks"? The answer may surprise you.
The answer: It's their unassuming brother Albert, who boasts neither big showy biceps nor arm-engorging triceps, but whose forearms are real strong, in an understated way, because he's been a carpenter his whole life, while his wastrel brothers both opened tanning salons and sold Ecstasy on the side. Albert, through a lifetime of hard work, developed the actual most useful arm muscle of all: THE HUMBLE FOREARM, home of the mighty GRIP.
Dudes think they need big arms to be strong. You don't need big arms to be strong. You don't need big arms for anything except filling up T-shirt sleeves as a visual representation of your own vanity. You don't need to be wasting hours doing curls, just so you can make the joke about "two tickets to the gun show"—which, come on, fellas, is not even that funny any more. You don't need to be wasting hours doing all those weird little tricep isolation exercises to give "bulk" to your "pythons." If you want to know the truth, my friend: I would be more scared of a dude with strong forearms than a dude with big huge biceps, because the dude with strong forearms probably actually does some shit that requires strength.
What are arms good for, really? Besides displaying tattoos of dragons, that is. In terms of strength, arms are good mostly for hanging on to things. No strong person's source of strength is his arms. Strength comes overwhelmingly from the big muscles in your body, like the back, and the hips, and the legs, and the glutes, and the chest, and—most importantly—the love. Arms have very little to do with a goddamn thing. You want to bench press? You're moving that weight with your chest, bro, not your arms. You want to lift a huge rock and/or a coworker's lifeless body off the ground (don't ask why)? That's your back and legs, not your arms. There is a name for dudes in the gym who spend all their time getting big arms, and that name is "something unkind I would not deign to publish in a family newspaper."
The single most important thing that arms do is hold stuff that you want to move somehow. Arms are the connectors that translate the source of your real power onto the thing you're manipulating, be it a barbell, a friend's couch, or your brother Jeremy, who just needs to get thrown through a plate glass window every once in a while. The arms do not generate most of the power, but they do translate the power. And to do that, something must be held. It must be gripped. Enter: grip strength (The Unsung Hero of Varieties of Arm Strength™)!
Your back may be strong as hell. Your legs may be strong as hell. Your back and your legs, working together, may be able to lift 500 pounds off the floor. But guess what, my macho friend: If your hands cannot grip 500 pounds and hold 500 pounds as it comes off the floor, then those 500 pounds are staying on the floor. The grip is quite often the weakest link in the strength chain. And, as many wise men have pointed out when they were imprisoned inside gyms for many years, "The chain is only as strong as its weakest link because the weak link breaks first, and, at that point, even if the rest of the chain is super strong, it's like, who cares?"
When some people think of "grip strength," they think—for some reason—of some old-timey strongman tearing phone books in half and bending quarters between his fingertips, all while wearing a leopard-print loincloth. I guess that's why you shouldn't depend on "some people" for a proper definition of grip strength!!! Old-timey strongmen are great and all, and I encourage all of you to actively incorporate phone book-tearing into your training regimens, but grip strength is generally built through more mundane activities: namely, anything in which gravity is trying to open your hand. Carrying something heavy with a handle on it? That's building grip strength. Pullups, rows, deadlifts, and any other pulling exercise? That's building grip strength. Literally just standing there, holding some kind of weight in your hand, with your arm at your side? That's building grip strength. Anything that causes your forearm to start burning as if it had been injected with Drano is probably building your grip strength. No, you don't have to be squeezing on a Captains of Crush™-brand Hand Gripper in order to be building your grip strength, although there is no particular reason not to be squeezing on a Captains of Crush™-brand Hand Gripper at any given moment, because what are you really doing right now, anyhow? There's no excuse not to always be building grip strength.
Grip strength! The unheralded keystone of all other strengths, residing mostly in the humble forearm, sorely forgotten by the vain muscle-flexers. A small, barely noticeable ripple in a forearm is often indicative of more real-world strength than a bicep the size and shape of a Big Mac. Grip strength! The only type of arm strength worth being obsessed with. Grip strength! A small bit of muscular ability that is a prelude to an entire set of physical-sophical beliefs, i.e. that strength is only meaningful insofar as you can actually do shit with it. Shit other than posing at the beach with your shirt off. Just because Sharon likes it doesn't make you smart, because—guess what?—Sharon herself has not even formulated a coherent philosophy of the mind-body connection, so who cares how pretty she is, anyhow? Not me.
There are many people at "the gym" who wear straps on their wrists, which they use to wrap around heavy weights, and then lift those weights, which are too heavy for their hands to hold, but which their larger muscles can move. Can these people actually lift these weights? No. They cannot hold them, therefore they cannot lift them. They use straps (or sometimes even hooks, like a bunch of extra-muscular pirate captains cast ashore and forced to deadlift their buried treasure) to cut their grip—the weakest link in their chain—out of the lift, allowing them to "lift" more, using only their bigger muscles. And the more they lift in this manner, the bigger the gap becomes between what their big muscles can lift, and what they can actually hold, in reality. Do you see the functional as well as philosophical problems with this state of affairs? Bueller? Great, you can lift a huge weight, and your traps are all swole up, but when the car falls off the jack and onto your friend's head while he's changing the tire, all that super "strength" will be for naught, because you can't grip the car to lift it up, because you neglected your grip strength in order to put up some gaudy numbers for your own ego. Now your friend is dead.
You thought you could cut out the weakest link in the chain. Looks like the weakest link in your chain ... cut out ... you, or something along those lines. Or, oh, looks like it cut off your friend's head. That's what I should have said. In any case, grip strength is highly functional.
This is an occasional column about fitness, and how you're doing it wrong. Image by Jim Cooke.