Thick bar grips are a must have gym accessory for training grip strength.
Recently, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of old school strongman style training, which champions the use of thick handles.
Although some might be sceptical of old training methods, there is a body of scientific research that demonstrates that thick bar grips will stimulate greater muscle activation in certain body parts.
In particular, greater muscle activation is likely to occur in the hands and forearms, as well as in the upper arms and possibly even the whole upper body.
As a result, thick grips can help to develop bigger, stronger forearms and increase your grip strength.
What are thick bar grips?
Thick bar grips are cylindrical pieces of silicone (or similar material) that fit around barbell and dumbbell bars and other fitness equipment to increase the thickness of the area gripped.
This essentially turns a regular barbell or dumbbell into a thick one.
A “standard” or Olympic barbell/dumbbell bar is approximately 1” (2.54 cm) to 1 1/16” (2.70 cm) thick in diameter. In contrast, a thick barbell is between 2” (5.25 cm) to 3” in (7.5 cm) diameter.
Why use thick bar grips?
Sellers of thick grips can sometime exaggerate the benefits of using this equipment. Therefore, it can be confusing to know what results can be expected and what is just marketing bluster. To help, we have set out a fair, evidence backed summary of the main benefits of using thick bar grips.
1. INCREASE YOUR LIFTS
One of the primary benefits of using thick bar grips is increased forearm and grip strength.
This will undoubtedly have a knock on effect on the maximum amount you can lift for exercises such as deadlifts and shrugs.
It will also increase your grip endurance meaning you will be able to farmer’s walk for miles!
You may often find that your grip gives out on certain exercises before the main muscles being targeted have been exhausted. This can be incredibly frustrating, as it limits your muscular growth and strength development.
If you feel held back buy your grip strength, it makes sense to invest in a pair of thick bar grips so you can ensure that you aren’t let down by your grip and can keep progressing with your lifts.
Renowned strength coach, Charles Poliquin, provides the following explanation for why increasing grip strength will result in you improving on your lifts:
“when your grip strength improves, less neural drive is needed for the forearm and hand muscles to perform other exercises. That is why many trainees report breaking training plateaus in a host of lifts, ranging from dead lifts to curls, after doing a grip specialization routine.”
2. No need for straps!
If you don’t do any grip training, you will get to a point where your grip strength has not kept up with the maximum amount your muscles are capable of lifting.
If this happens you may find that you have to depend on using straps to compensate.
Having to use straps wouldn’t be the end of the world. However, it may feel a bit like cheating and, for the purists, using straps doesn’t seem as impressive as lifting raw.
Also, once you begin to depend on straps you will be working your grip less and less. This means that the gap between:
(i) the grip strength you have, and
(ii) the grip strength you need
will actually widen. Once this happens, it becomes very hard to get your grip strength to where it needs to be and so you may find that you need to keep using straps – possibly forever!
3. ALLEVIATE IMBALANCES
Using a thick bar grip could potentially help to alleviate certain muscular imbalances.
For example, gripping a thick bar makes the forearms extensors (the muscles on the top of the forearm) and forearm flexors (the muscles on the bottom) work more evenly.
Lack of an adequate grip and forearm strength often causes a host of debilitating injuries, such as:
- tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis), which is a disabling pain on the outside of the elbow, and
- golfers elbow (medial epicondylitis), which is pain anywhere on the inside of the elbow and forearm.
If you use a computer frequently, you may develop one or both of these issues.
Charles Poliquin explains that such ailments…
“are often caused by improper strength ratios between the elbow muscles and the forearm muscles. If the elbow flexors, like the biceps and brachialis, are too strong for the forearm flexors, uneven tension accumulates in the soft tissue and results in elbow pain”.
Studies also suggest that there is correlation between the health of the rotator cuff and grip strength.
A study conducted by Yasou et al (2005) found that:
“grip strength had a significant correlation with the muscle strength of 45 degrees shoulder abduction and external rotation in the affected (injured) side.”
4. EFFICIENT TRAINING
By applying thick bar grips to any piece of gym equipment, you can train your grip as part of your usual gym routine.
This keeps your training efficient, which may be important if you are short on time.
However, there are some drawbacks to this approach.
A study conducted by Ratamess et al suggests that using a thick bar is likely to reduce the amount you can lift when compared with normal sized grips.
The study found a reduction in the 1 rep max of pulling exercises with greater bar thicknesses. However, the results did not show any changes of 1 rep max in pushing exercises when a thicker bar was used.
Having said that, it is possible that the neural drive of the hands and forearms to hold and stabilize a thick bar could have an effect on performance in higher repetition ranges.
As using thick bar grips is likely to reduce the amount you can lift, you shouldn’t use them all the time. It is important to strike a balance. This could mean you lift heavy to start and then throw on some thick bar grips after a few sets.
Brooks Kubik, author of popular manuals on strength training, recommends a similar approach:
“1. Train your deadlift or Trap Bar deadlift (or
any other pulling exercise) with a regular-sized bar,
and pile on the weight to build total body strength
2. At the end of your workout, use the thick bar
for thick bar deadlifts or timed holds or whatever
else you feel like doing. You won’t be able to use
as much weight, but that’s fine. You’re not doing
the exercise to build all-around strength and
power — rather, you’re using it to build grip
Thus, you do your deadlifts TWICE — with two
different bars — at two different times in your
5. IMPROVE PERFORMANCE IN SPORTS
Strong grip strength is useful for many sports, such as brazilian jiu jitsu, climbing, gymnastics, powerlifting, wrestling and tennis. In fact, it has become common for many sportsmen and women incorporate dedicated grip training into their routines.
6. REDUCE INJURY
It is claimed that thick bar grips make weight training safer, as the weight is spread over a larger area of the hand. Therefore, thick grips could help to prevent injury, such as from a bar slipping during a bench press set.
This claim seems to mainly be anecdotal. In fact, thick grips more may not necessarily be safer for everyone, especially if being used for the first time.
Why use thick bar grips instead of thick bars?
Most people simply won’t have the option of using a thick bar at an ordinary commercial gym. I have been a member of many different gyms and have never seen a thick bar at any of them! They seem to be virtually non existent.
You can of course buy your own thick bars for use at home. This might make sense for those who are fanatical about developing grip strength. But for the rest of us, the cost outweighs the benefit.
Such bars are more expensive than normal ones and so the cost may not be worth it if you only plan to use them rarely. It doesn’t make sense to buy a thick bar when you can get grips for a fraction of the price and still reap the same benefits.
A further benefit of thick bar grips is that they can be attached to a range of different fitness equipment. For example, they can be used with barbells, dumbbells, cable machines, kettle bells, or pull up bars. This is helpful, as it isn’t always possible to buy certain gym equipment with thick grips built in.
What’s the science behind using thick bar grips?
In 1924 Alan Calvert recommended using thick handles in his book Super-Strength.
Since then there has been an ongoing discussion as to the advantage of thick handled bars over thin ones. For the most part, it seems that “thin” handle bars are considered superior overall and have become the standard.
However, more recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in “old school” strongman training. One reason for this revival is Brooks Kubik’s book Dinosaur Training, which extols the benefits of using dumbbells with thick handles.
Whilst books like Super-Strength and Dinosaur Training provide interesting anecdotal evidence about the use of thick handle barbells and dumbbells by old strongmen, it is also valuable to look at a results of scientific studies.
Affirmation of thick bars
Although there hasn’t been a huge amount of research on the benefits of using thick grip bars, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that they do improve grip strength.
According to Ratamess et al,
“these bars have the potential of enhancing grip strength because of the higher degree of difficulty performing exercises while grasping the bar in an area of range of motion where gripping ability is relatively weak. Studies have shown an ascending/descending strength curve such that grip force declines in proportion to the diameter of the bar or cylinder used (22).”
In addition, a 1992 study published in The International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics concluded that using thick handles triggers a greater neuromuscular response than using smaller handles. This study is not directly about weightlifting but still provides a useful insight into way in which neuromuscular activity is affected by use of three different diameter handles.
Study: An Analysis of Handle Designs for Reducing Manual Effort
The 1992 study involved measuring the Maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) strength of the right hand and forearm of the research subjects using standard isometric test techniques.
The subjects were asked to perform a simulated industrial assembly task using three handles:
- a handle with diameter matched to the inside grip diameter of the subject (fit diameter),
- a second handle diameter 1.0 centimeters (cm) smaller than the fit diameter, and
- a third handle having a diameter 1.0cm larger than the fit diameter.
The researchers recorded the grip force and electromyographic activity of the forearm muscles.
Manual effort was evaluated by comparing the force exerted on the handle during the tasks to the maximum force generating capacity. Rather unsurprisingly, the greatest grip forces were exerted when the largest handle was used.
Maximum grip strength increased 39% on the average for each 1.0cm decrease in handle diameter.
Peak and average grip force exertion were not significantly affected by handle diameter, but did vary directly with resistance imposed by the handle and test apparatus.
The electromyographic data indicated that muscle effort increased with increasing handle diameter.
The authors conclude that small changes in handle diameter, on the order of +/-1.0cm, can have significant effects on manual effort.
Criticism of thick bars
A 2008 study entitled, “The influence of bar diameter on neuromuscular strength and activation: Inferences from an isometric unilateral bench press” examined the influence of two different bar diameters on neuromuscular activation and strength.
The researchers concluded:
“[o]ur data does not support the hypothesis that bar diameter influences performance during an isometric bench press exercise. Our data does not support the use of a fat bar for increasing neuromuscular activation“
However, it is important to note that the study was based on only one exercise – the bench press (with a barbell).
It seems strange that the bench press was chosen for the study, as a pushing exercise does not challenge the grip in the same way as a pulling exercise.
This problem was recognised by the authors of the article, who noted:
“…it is important to stress that these findings are specific to the bench press, a pushing exercise. In light of the previously noted possibility that pushing and pulling exercises may differ with regards to how they are affected by bar diameter, further investigation of neuromuscular activation is warranted in pulling-type resistance training exercises.“
So why was a pushing exercises used as the basis of the study? The answer comes down to the practicality of measuring readings. It is harder to get accurate electromyographic readings with a pulling exercise. However, the body can be stabilized during the bench press meaning that more accurate readings can be recorded.
Although the study has some shortcomings in terms of its methodology and cannot be used to make general statements about the benefits of using thick bars, it does have some useful insight. It indicates that thick bar grips are not particularly effective in stimulating muscle activation when performing pushing exercises. Therefore, you will see better results from pulling exercises, such as pull ups and rows.
Thick grip products
- PRICE: $24.99 (on Amazon as at 9 October 2016)
- A set of Gorilla Gripz includes 2 pairs of thick bar simulator grips – 1 Pair of the Gorilla Gripz Original, and 1 pair of the Gorilla Gripz Jr.
- Gorilla Gripz Jr. are thinner and so suitable for those with smaller hands.
- The grips are made from high density silicone rubber and so should not compress or slip.
- PRICE: $31.55 (on Amazon as at 9 October 2016)
- Fat Gripz are used by NFL players, champion bodybuilders, Special Forces soldiers, UFC fighters, and Crossfit athletes.
- They have a specialized design and military-spec material. As a result, Fat Gripz claims that they are almost indestructible.
Iron Bull Alpha Grips 3.0
- PRICE: $39.95 (on Amazon as at 9 October 2016)
- These are known as being particularly hardcore grips, so are only suitable for more advanced lifters or those looking for challenge.
- They have a 3 inch diameter but this will increase when applied to a bar.
- PRICE: $20.99 (on Amazon as at 9 October 2016)
- These are ball shaped grips which have a slightly different feel to conventional thick bar grips. For example, they put more stress on your thumbs.
- They can be applied to all kinds of gym equipment and mean that you don’t have to splash out on cannonball grips.
- PRICE: $19.95 (on Amazon as at 9 October 2016)
- These are more suitable for beginners. They have an outside diameter of 1 3/4 inches and are 4 5/8 inches long. Inside diameter is 1 inch.
References / Further Reading
- Fioranelli D., and Lee C.M., The influence of bar diameter on neuromuscular strength and activation: Inferences from an isometric unilateral bench press, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
- Grant, K., Habes, D., et al, An Analysis of Handle Designs for Reducing Manual Effort: The Influence of Grip Diameter, 1992 10, 1999-1206, International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics.
- Petrofsky J.S., Williams C, Kamen G, Lind AR. The effect of handgrip span on isometric exercise performance. Ergonomics. 1980 Dec; 23(12):1129-35.
- Blackwell J.R., Kornatz KW, Heath EM. Effect of grip span on maximal grip force and fatigue of flexor digitorum superficialis. Appl Ergon. 1999 Oct; 30(5):401-5.
- Ratamess N.A., Faigenbaum A.D., Mangine G.T., Hoffman J.R., Kang J. Acute muscular strength assessment using free weight bars of different thickness. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb; 21(1):240-4
- Channell S., – The Fat Bar – 1990 – Strength and Conditioning Journal 12(4), 26-27.