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Hand & Wrist Strength in Close Quarter Combat

By David Horne

From some of the earliest combat books I’ve read right through to the modern self defence books one thing is evident: being able to control your opponent with your hand and wrist strength is incredibly important whether you fight with or without weapons. If you lose your grip in a conflict situation you could be facing death. Talhoffer’s 15th century book on medieval combat has some fantastic illustrations depicting scenes with and without weapons, and shows how much grappling with the sword is done when the combatants get close, which obviously happened a lot on a battlefield. The grappling would be done to regain a fighting distance, throw the opponent off balance and of course kill him. This close-quarter life and death scene must surely have used up every last bit of wrist strength and body reserve – the contest became one of grip and endurance. Now we come to the present day, where the pavement has become another battle field of sorts.

If your wrists and hands fail you due to lack of strength, then no matter how strong the rest of your upper body, it cannot be used to its full potential. Most athletes now realise that being strong is an important asset to any sportsman; as are better techniques, nutrition and speed. It is surprising how many will neglect to train their hands and wrists when these are the very tools that they are using to execute their exercise. They are particularly important muscle groups for grapplers and close quarter combatants. A strong wrist = a strong strike, and a strong holding grip = strong holds and locks.

A quick look at the anatomy of the lower arm and hand shows that there are muscles that flex and extend the fingers, thumb and wrist. The wrist also has a full circular movement; this is achieved by the various flexors and extenders of the wrist working when they are called upon. The muscles that supinate (Supinator and Biceps) and pronate (Pronator Quadratus and Pronator Teres) are also very important in utilising the hand to the full.

I have trained all these areas over 20 years of competing, and in so doing have very limited weak areas. This has allowed me to win more grip strength competitions than anyone else in the world. The recognised areas of all-round ‘grip’ strength are; wrist, pinch (tests the thumb), supporting (holding), crushing (closing of the hand) and supination/pronation. Training these areas will allow you to dictate a close-up situation, letting go of your opponent only when you want to, and allowing you to move onto the next move. A strong grasp on someone’s throat will definitely put them off their stride!

There are so many different types of ‘grip/wrist’ exercise, hundreds in fact, and these will be covered in sections in my series of DVDs due out in a few months. We will also be putting out a special DVD devoted to grip training for grappling, which will be specifically useful to martial artists, self defence and combat athletes. It will show you some impressive exercises that have helped me, and will take your training to another level. So I will cover the basics here, and my full, more advanced training ideas will be on my DVD along with more detailed information and routines.

Here is a basic grip training routine, this is what I give most beginners; these can be done quickly after your normal fight training, or on separate days. I train my ‘grip’ between 4-6 days a week, depending on what events I have coming up. For your purposes though 2-3 times a week should fit the bill.

Basic training routine

Always train all your body; it's not beneficial to your body to have a strong grip, but a weak and unhealthy body. Two to three days per week training on the rest of your body is sufficient, and use the basics, i.e. some kind of squat, deadlift, press, bench press, dips, chins, and curl.


Pinch (tests the thumb)
1. Two Hands Pinch Lift for holds, also use work gloves to protect your skin.
If you haven’t got the apparatus (see pic) then just use the end of an Olympic Bar as illustrated in this routine
Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 seconds holds.

Why wear gloves when pinching?
You can easily tear the skin in between the index finger and thumb, which would put you out of action, especially since you will be pinching 3 times a week. This initial program for the beginners is all about strengthening, and the gloves will make it a tougher exercise, but safer for the skin.

Crushing (closing of the hand)
2. Finger curls with an Olympic Bar, overhand grip. Hold it on the last set when you can't do anymore finger curls. This is an easy exercise to learn for the beginner and doesn't have the techniques of setting a gripper. Grippers can be brought in later when the athlete wants to excel at this implement.
Perform 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.

3. Two Hand Wrist Curl. Normal, with a comfortable range of motion. Do not let the bar go into your fingertips like some bodybuilders do, also do them with your thumb under the bar as you are training your wrists and don't want to fight against the thumb digit on top of the bar.
Perform 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.

4. Two Hands Reverse Wrist Curl. Use an ordinary or ez bar, and perform the exercise with the knuckles facing upwards, and curl over a full range of motion.
Perform 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps.

Do all the exercises in one session in the order stated.

Hopefully this will help, and be a start to advance on to specialised grip training for combative athletes.


Train hard, train smart, train grip!

Copyright David Horne 2006