Where tech aligns

Getting a Grip

An online subculture is obsessed with a question: “How hard can I squeeze?”

I grew up in awe of the crush grip. “I’m going to choke the life out of you,” my father would scream at me and my mother, waving his ham-hock-sized fists in the air. And he sometimes even gave it the old college try, leaving purplish indentations on our necks after a few primal squeezes. 

Dad wouldn’t choke us in the conventional way, with the forearm laced around the neck, closing the circle in a not-so-fond embrace of the sort that jiu-jitsu professionals Gordon Ryan and Craig Jones deploy to end grappling matches. He certainly could have – he had a rudimentary understanding of judo that he conveyed to me and my half-brother – but that wasn’t the point.  The point, as when he popped an apple in his big mitt, Danny Hodge-style, was to make a brutally simple point: your lives are in my hands.

My old man delighted in such parlor tricks, using them to impress the employees at his car dealership or bar while also encouraging his two meathead sons – my half-brother and me – to include some form of grip training in our exercise programs. He claimed that grip and grip alone had won him a scholarship to play football at West Virginia University. “I squeezed the life out of them… I wanted to strangle people and enjoyed doing so,” he wrote to me in a grisly email sent before he died, in which he described how he attempted to asphyxiate a 300-pound teammate following a fight over a box of stolen doughnuts. 

Although I had no desire to strangle the life out of anyone, I did harbor an urge to participate in grip sports. For myriad reasons, the source of a man’s strength is said to be in his arms. Soldiers have historically been referred to as “men-at-arms;” a good handshake is allegedly able to make or break an in-person job interview; lovers melt beneath the firm caresses of powerful hands; advisors to leaders serve as their “right hands:” and the ability to slam another man’s hand down on the table in arm-wrestling match is considered the ne plus ultra of stripping a rival of their masculinity. If the arms grosso modo represented the source of my power, then the forearms constituted its fountainhead.

As I sought to tap this primordial source during my early twenties, I began lurking on the GripBoard, observing as posters argued about proper form and the best heavy-duty grippers with which to practice. Captains of Crush (CoC) grippers were the oldest and most respected product, sold in increasing numerical increments from one to four based on the amount of resistance they provided, but far from the only game in town. Competing devices like the Gillingham High Performance (GHP) gripper, a newer device that provides equivalent amounts of resistance per numbered increment but features grooves for proper finger placement and distinct knurling for the palm and finger sides of the gripper, had their advocates, even if most veteran grip athletes preferred the heavier, more austere-looking Captains of Crush.

Dr. Randall Strossen, who designed the Captains of Crush grippers, scorned the GHP gripper – the product of one of his proteges, the grip prodigy Wade Gillingham.  “Wade was a great grip man [he closed the Captain of Crush “3” level gripper with both hands back in 2000, something only 100 or so people have done since] but Wade’s device simplifies the act of the crush grip beyond what is justifiable within the parameters of any sport based on closing these grippers,” he explained. “As a training tool for other grip events, perhaps it has utility, insofar as anything that offers resistance might. But I believe the CoC is the superior piece of equipment. It favors bigger hands, yes, but men with bigger hands generally have stronger grips.”

For Strossen, mashing together the two handles of one of his heavy-duty grippers – which is how you train the crush grip – equates to the ideal exercise, one that taxes both heart and soul. To drive those handles together until the device clicked was to achieve a greater understanding of your limits, as you sought to transcend them. In Strossen’s opinion, achieving a “certified close” of a Captains of Crush gripper, as verified by himself or other IronMind personnel following his IronMind certification standards, served as “a way of writing your name into the pages of eternity.”

Wade Gillingham, a hulking strength athlete whose early career grip feats occurred in part because of his work with IronMind products, politely disagreed with Strossen’s assessment of the two grippers but agreed on the centrality of grip.  “The first thing people need to know about the crush grip, as opposed to the pinch grip or hook grip or that false grip people use in gymnastics, is that it’s basically a testosterone test,” Gillingham told me. “When you go to close the gripper, to crush it, you’re putting your system’s T to the test: not just the amount circulating through the bloodstream right now, but the muscle-building done over the course of a whole lifetime.”

In Gillingham’s opinion – backed up by studies of grip strength and dominance – the crush grip remains one of the last bastions of true male superiority. “If you’ve worked with androgenic drugs for a long time, or you at least know how they work, you know you can take a woman and boost her testosterone levels to the point at which she’s extremely competitive in Olympic lifts and the squat, even against most men. But grip is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak: You look at the Gillingham Gripper Challenge for reps or the Captains of Crush certification lists, showing the people who closed these grippers, and you’ll see no women listed there. And you probably never will unless you start human growth hormone supplementation early in life, getting her musculoskeletal system nice and dense. You’d need to do a science experiment, a Captain America ‘Super Soldier’ kind of project, to make something like that happen.”

Randall Strossen cites an article by lawyer, military officer, conservative pundit, and erstwhile presidential candidate David French in the National Review about the declining grip strength of American men, a prospect that fills him with terror. “If you have kids, this ought to scare the hell out of you,” he said. “You should want your son or daughter to grow up to be a famous grip man like Juha Harju or Jedd Johnson. A weak grip is a disaster. I love powerlifting and I’ve had some success with it, but closing the grippers like Kinney or Harju do ought to be the national sport.”

The aforementioned Juha Harju, a 43-year-old who calls himself the “King Kong of Grip,” cuts a hulking figure. This huge, bald man, who maintains a vast YouTube library of unusual grip accomplishments, can deadlift 500 pounds using only four fingers on each hand, perform a penny lift with 20 kilograms, and close the Captains of Crush “3” 50 times in a row from a credit-card set position.

Harju maintains a lively correspondence on YouTube with Jedd Johnson, a rising grip superstar who is a decade younger, and the pair frequently compare notes on Captains of Crush grippers versus rival products. “It’s silly on the surface, I know,” Jedd Johnson told me. “But I wouldn’t dream of using a Gillingham High Performance Gripper unless I had to. It’s like how in cycling, you don’t wear silly gloves, and you would only wear a hat specific to the sport. I see the GHP as a kind of faux pas. It’s too easy, I think – a gripper for amateurs. I’m a Captains of Crush guy all the way.”

Not that either product necessarily makes for a better weightlifter. In fact, Harju, in a video discussing how heavy grip training has impacted his powerlifting career, is philosophical about the possibility that overexerting his grip has negatively impacted his powerlifting totals. “There is a helpful overlap, and there is a not-so-helpful overlap at times, when your grip is exhausted,” he says. “I am more of a grip specialist.”

In the hopes of seeing if I possessed any promise as a grip specialist, I entered two grip-specific competitions – the first in 2015, the second a year later. The Arlington, Texas-based Metroflex Gym hosted many such competitions, so sign-up was easy and attendance often ran into the hundreds of people, most of whom were also participating. 

However, neither of these events featured challenges involving heavy-duty grippers. Instead, competitors toted around heavy dumbbells with fat grips during a “farmer’s walk,” flipped tires, took turns picking up barbell plates with a pinched grip, held car batteries suspended in front of their faces and deadlifted using only four fingers on each hand. My performances were fine – middle-of-the-pack placements in the 198-to-220-pound weight class, with no “did not finish” marks sullying my record – but also nothing to write home about.

And part of me was okay with that. I was never someone who performed well when the rubber hit the road, never a true competitor. I’d stop paying attention and lose my grip on an atlas stone, cease flipping the thousand-pound tire a few feet ahead of the finish line because I was unaware of where I was on the course, or waste extra time turning the corners in a farmer’s walk at a precise right angle. I had no “fire in my belly,” as my father never tired of reminding me, no thirst to “strangle the life” out of opponents. All things considered equally, I preferred the grippers.

“The grippers are different – a personal challenge,” agreed Wade Gillingham. “You close them to prove you can do it, and you certify with IronMind or GHP, following the rules and getting their name on the web page, to prove to other grip guys you can do it. But it’s all your thing, your challenge, your journey. There are competitions where the grippers are used, but strongman as a sport doesn’t really showcase them. You’re far more likely to encounter lifts with everyday objects like batteries, logs and heavy tires. That’s more fun to watch, much better for spectators.”

So why use these heavy-duty grippers at all? They aren’t the best training device for other sports—even seemingly related grip sports. On top of that, it’s about as lonely an activity as one can imagine. The heavy-duty gripper community exists almost exclusively on the GripBoard forums and in YouTube and Vimeo videos and comments.

“What’s the point of closing these grippers?” Jedd Johnson asked rhetorically. “Even the guys who do it really well, like Juha Harju, say there are better ways to train for different activities. But you’re asking the wrong question. ‘What will this help me do?’ That’s not how I think. I train because I want to get better at training. It’s not about what something will help you do; it’s about getting better at doing what you want to do. I’ve worked on the grippers because I want to close them, full stop. You want strength, you want to build your own strength. How much can I do, how hard can I squeeze? How much of a man am I right now, while I’m doing this?”

My own father, when reflecting on the time he and his college roommate came to blows over a box of doughnuts, saw the matter quite differently: once grip was involved, a man had to win at all costs, against all foes. “It was a matter of ‘L’ and ‘D’…I thought about killing that hog by strangulation after I had ripped him up with a coat hanger,” he wrote. “I should of [sic] killed him. I liked killing that way, turning on the black lights.”

From where I stand, Jedd presented the more compelling argument. The grippers were something I could close on my own, perhaps recording the closes for posterity, proving or disproving my powers before moving on to anything and everything else. I had invested three years in serious grip training because that was my time to test my strength. I smashed those aircraft-grade aluminum handles together, exhaled deeply, and went on with the rest of my long day’s journey into night. I wasn’t extinguishing anyone’s life with my primal grip, turning on the black lights. No, I was hanging on with all the strength I could muster, saving my own.