Editor’s Note: We were very sorry to hear of the passing of Charles Poliquin in September 2018 aged 57. He was responsible for popularising so many of the training methods used today in gyms the world over and, as much as anyone, changed the way we all lift weights for the better. For that, we will be forever grateful.
Charles Poliquin is one the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic medalists in 17 different sports. He is based in The Rockies, Colorado.
I first read about the advantages of thick-grip training back in 1982 from US strength coach Ken Leistner. I was intrigued so looked into more and the earliest reference I could find recommending thick-grip training was in the 1924 book Super Strength, by Alan Calvert, one of the true pioneers of weight training methodology.
So I bought an Olympic dumbbell but couldn’t find a satisfactory way to make the handle thicker. When I was at strength coaching convention in Dallas I met a guy who made medicine balls. I asked him whether he could use the same material to fashion a handle for dumbbells. He said yes and I had my first set of fat-grip weights. The first time I used them it gave me DOMS from having to squeeze it so damn hard to keep my grip.
But I’ve not stopped training with thicker grips since and every gym I now kit out only has fat-grip dumbbells. Only recently I was on holiday and the gym only had traditional dumbbells and using them felt like playing with a toy. I simply did not have the same feeling of overload. I believe anyone interested in increasing muscular size and strength should seriously considering adding thick-bar training into your programme because once you do, you’ll never go back to normal weights.
We know it works
We don’t know for sure why thick-grip training is so effective for improving strength, but one theory I like is that they increase motor unit activation in the muscles, especially the faster-twitch muscle fibres. This could be because using thick handles may prevent the central nervous system from inhibitory reflexes that reduce the amount of strength that can be produced.
Nobody is utter convinced of the mechanisms behind why it works and I don’t really why. All I care about is that it works. And 30 years of using this technique has never failed to work for me or my clients, who report back to me that they can handle 10% to 12% more weight when they return to using regular dumbbells having trained using thick grips.
Better grip, more strength
Thick-grip training dramatically improves not only grip strength but also muscle strength. For most people who strength train their grip strength is always a limiting factor. On many upper-body moves their grips fails well before their working muscles do.
I once trained a judo national champion once and she kept losing her grip and it was costing her matches. So I got her to do chin-ups for sets of five and every workout I added a layer of duct tape to the bar to make it gradually thicker. Once she could do five chins with the bar as thick as I could make it I made her try weighted chins. At 105lb (47.7kg) she did five chins with a 45lb (20.4kg) plate attached. Not only had she improved her grip, which was essential to success in her sport, she also got a lot stronger.
Upper body only
You should only ever use thick grips for upper body moves. There is no benefit on using them for squats or deadlifts. Indeed, it’s counter-productive. Think how much you’d have to reduce your weight on the deadlift to cope with gripping such a thick bar. It makes it redundant.
When you start using thicker grips you will need to drop the weight you lift by between 10% and 20% depending on the exercise but in my experience you’ll be back to using your old weight in about three weeks. A nice plateau-buster I like is doing thick-grip dumbbell biceps curls to failure at around eight reps, then immediately continue curling with normal grip dumbbells of the same weight. You should be able to crank out another four reps, and this is a great set-extending strategy that almost everybody has never tried.
Another benefit of thick-grip training is that it helps to reduce your bilateral deficit, or the strength imbalance between your arms. The average Joe is about 10% to 12% stronger in their dominant arm, and this difference is often exacerbated with doing single-arm work. Think about it: often your dominant arm can continue long after your weaker arm is shot to pieces.
For some reason, and again no one has been able to ascertain exactly why, lifting weights with a thick grip eliminates this strength discrepancy between your arms. So if you want to increase muscle size and strength, and bring your weaker arm up to speed, start lifting with thicker grips on all of your upper-body moves.