by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Rugby players need an acceptable level of physical strength to safely train and compete. Often, the focus of a rugby player’s strength training is based on preparing to play a sport other than rugby. In this piece, let’s focus on an important element of strength training that rugby players should include in their fitness programs: grip strength.
Grip strength, or the ability to hold onto or suspend an object, can vary depending on how the fingers and opposed thumb are asked to work together. In a crush grip, or handshake to you and I, the object being held is held against the palm and fingers. When employing a pinch grip, the thumb and fingers are placed on opposite sides of the object being held without touching the palm. A third grip is referred to as a support grip and is most commonly used when carrying the handle of a pale or bucket.
Grip strength is an important aspect of playing rugby, but is commonly overlooked. Passing and receiving the ball, binding in the scrum, lifting in lineouts, and tackling require the use of over thirty muscles involved in movements of the hand and forearm. Although a majority of the flexors in our hands create grip force, our extensors are engaged as stabilizers of the wrist. Since our grip is a product of force, we can train the muscles involved in a number of ways.
Although grip strength has long been considered a predictor of overall strength, this is based more in the locker room than the laboratory. There are several variables that need to be considered before a strong grip can be equated to overall strength. For example, elbow positioning and body posture have both proven to play an important role in the testing and subsequent results of grip assessment. The device used in this biomechanical assessment is called a dynamometer and can be used to establish initial and post training cycle scores.
Common ways to increase crush grip strength include pulling movements such as pull-ups, rope pulling, seated cable rows, and supported dumbbell rows. Here at Cal, we employ several additional training tools to improve this area of our strength. One such tool is the oversized bar. Oversized bars, either Olympic bars or select drive equipment accessories, place the flexors of the hand in a range of motion that decreases gripping ability. Since grip strength declines as the diameter of the implement being grasped increases, the use of these bars, in conjunction with already difficult pulling movements, is a challenge and you should expect the number of completed repetitions to drop significantly.
The pinch grip doesn’t have direct application to our sport, but is useful in increasing grip strength. Performing plate pinches, where an athlete uses their fingers and thumb on opposing sides of a weight plate to lift it from the floor, is a challenging and competitive way to increase grip strength. Begin with a five-pound plate and work your way up, advancing to a forty-five pound plate. Pinch the plate, as it is standing vertically, lift it to a standing position, and set it back down. Complete as many repetitions as possible before fatigue ends the set.
If your team has limited access to strength training equipment, consider investing in a several five-gallon buckets and fill them with dry rice. Bury your hands in the rice past the wrists and alternate opening and closing your fists as many times as possible for ten, twenty, or thirty seconds. Pull your hands out of the rice and immediately carry or hold a bucket in each hand for a similar amount of time. Combining the flexion and extension movements in the rice with a support grip hold or carry immediately following will improve your grip strength for rugby.
Using oversized bars, pinch plate exercises, and rice buckets are just a few ways to improve your grip strength and improve your play.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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