Fat-grip (aka fat-bar) training has become extremely popular in recent years. It is mentioned regularly by pro bodybuilders and strength coaches as a “secret” for building strength and muscle, and building up your upper body’s weak links. The only problem, until recently, was that few gyms stock thick bars or have thick pull-up bars. But now, for about $40, you can buy portable rubber grips, toss them in your gym bag, and take your grip and arms to the next level.
Count me among the believers in fat-grip training. I’ve seen the simple addition of a larger grip do pretty amazing things for strength and muscle gains in athletes, and they’re an indispensable accessory in my gym.
Like anything, fat-grip training can be done right or wrong. Here are the most important things to keep in mind, and my favorite moves to use with thick grips.
Why Fat-Grip Training?
When you increase the thickness of a weight-training implement, the demand placed on the hands and arms increases significantly. You’re forced to exert more muscular force to grip the barbell or dumbbell, which means greater mechanical tension in the muscles all the way up the kinetic chain.
Don’t believe me? Try this: Put your left hand on your right biceps, then make a fist with your right hand—as hard and fast as you can. What happened? Your biceps contracted nearly as hard as the muscles controlling your hand. This illustrates the major ways that fat grips will support strength and muscle gain by increasing mechanical tension in the arm muscles.
Fat-grip training can also increase your grip strength. Grip strength is often the key for unlocking hidden gains. Do you struggle with chin-ups, the single best back builder in existence? Grip strength is the most likely thing to help you. Do you drop your deadlift—the other best back builder—as you approach your max? A stronger grip allows you to lift more weight and really bear down on the bar, which builds more muscle and strength.
Don’t just add grips to every heavy thing you do and expect it to work, though. Follow my five rules for getting the most out of fat-grip training, and you’ll limit the risk and maximize the reward.
Rule 1. Limit Heavy Upper-Body Pulling Exercises
Compound exercises are the foundation for a good program because they build strength in more than one joint. But as every experienced lifter knows, it’s easy to make a compound lift too stressful on our joints. Fat grips can definitely push you over that limit.
The chin-up is a perfect example. Chin-ups performed with fat grips can take elbow stress through the roof because the forearms have two-joint action, meaning that the forearms contract to both flex the elbow and to curl the wrist. Because it’s doing these two jobs at once, the muscle can become quickly overwhelmed, potentially resulting in cramping and tearing.
For this reason, intensity on the following upper-body exercises should be kept low when using thick bars. Do them sparingly, and listen to your body. Yes, I’ve used these myself and trained others with them successfully, but as soon as we go too hard or too often, I get complaints of elbow pain and serious soreness. You don’t want elbow tendinitis or a torn forearm muscle. Trust me—I’ve had both.
2. Go for High Reps or Finishers
Forearms respond well to high-rep sets. The high time under tension gives both forearms and upper arms that “full” look. And since high-intensity upper-body exercises can be dangerous because of the two-joint action, a safer approach is limiting weight on fat-grip exercises and focusing on higher reps and longer time under tension.