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For Competitive Grippers, the Grip Is the Goal

The strange allure of the loneliest sport imaginable

It required a pedestrian mechanical malfunction for me to learn about the outer limits of humanity’s skill at closing hand grippers — which most people know only in their cheap Wal-Mart variant. To be more specific, I was driving my 1993 Honda Accord during a brutal Texas heatwave four summers ago when the air conditioning system gave out.

I found myself in the waiting room of an automotive garage, preparing for a staggering repair estimate, when a technician approached me. He was holding a heavy-duty Captains of Crush hand gripper. Boasting aircraft-grade aluminum handles and nearly indestructible springs, this device, manufactured by a California-based company called Iron Mind, was considered the Louisville Slugger of the grip world.

“I have a couple of these things,” I told him. “I’ve been using them to train my overhand deadlift grip.”

“The other guys in the back asked me to see if you could close it,” the technician said. “You’re a big boy. Is that all for show?”

“Yeah, I guess I’m blessed with bigness. Let me see what I can do,” I replied. I took the gripper, measured at 237.5 pounds of resistance, and mashed it shut with my left hand. Next, I tried to close it with my right, almost succeeded, and released it. “I own this particular gripper,” I said. “I can get it with one hand but not the other.

He nodded. “That’s good for not knowing the credit card set [the official way of putting a heavy-duty gripper in the starting position], so I’m going to show you one more thing.”

A few minutes passed before he returned with a dumbbell weighing 100 pounds, a relatively modest amount, but boasting the fattest handle I’d ever seen. He rolled the dumbbell toward me, and I bent down to pick it up. I managed to hold it for only a few seconds.

“Not bad,” the technician said once again. “I made the handle myself. I call it my ‘Hammer of Thor.’ Have you checked out the Metroflex Gym in Fort Worth? The membership is cheap and they don’t air-condition the place, but it’s got guys working with atlas stones, tractor-trailer tire flipping, grip, whatever. Great equipment.”

I shook my head. “I just moved here and haven’t joined a gym. I’ve been doing stuff at home.”

“Well, check it out. You could maybe be a grip guy like me,” he said.

A “grip guy” — i.e., someone who lifts fat bars, crushes nails, shatters almonds, finger-walks sledgehammers up and down his hands, and most importantly, manages to achieve certified closes of Captains of Crush grippers labelled “3” (280 pounds of pressure), “3.5” (322.5 pounds) and “4” (365 pounds, a feat accomplished by only five people ever).

Why would someone want that? was my first thought. It was followed quickly by, But why wouldn’t they?

I left that encounter with a $350 repair bill, a resolution to join the Metroflex Gym and a renewed fascination with grip strength. When I was a kid, my father had crushed small apples in his ham-sized fists, a parlor trick intended to impress the employees at his car dealership while also encouraging his two meathead sons, my half-brother and me, to include some form of grip training in their 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 a year before he died.

I had no desire to strangle the life out of anyone, but I did harbor an urge to participate in grip sports. 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 grippers were the oldest and most respected product but far from the only game in town. Competing devices like the Gillingham High Performance gripper, a newer device that provides equivalent amounts of resistance but features grooves for finger placement and distinct knurling for the palm and finger sides of the gripper, had their supporters, even if most veteran grip athletes preferred the heavier, more austere-looking Captains of Crush.

Gillingham High Performance and Captains of Crush grippers

After I joined the Metroflex, I would discuss progressive training routines to close grippers, lift awkwardly shaped objects, and even smash various fruits and nuts with John Pankoff. Pankoff was a two-time Texas powerlifting champion, 50 years old and vibrantly mustached, and one of my regular lifting partners. Grip sports encompassed both these strange lifts and other feats of hand strength, commonly seen in strongman and Highland games events, as well as slamming shut these near-mythical grippers.

For Pankoff, mashing together the two handles of a heavy-duty gripper — which is how you train the crush grip — is 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 Pankoff’s opinion, achieving a “certified close” of a Captains of Crush gripper, as verified by Iron Mind personnel following Iron Man certification standards, is a way of writing your name into the pages of eternity.

“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,” he tells 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 Pankoff’s opinion — backed up by some 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 levels to the point at which she’s extremely competitive in Olympic lifts and the squat, even against most guys. But grip is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak: You look at the Captains of Crush certification lists, showing the people who closed these grippers, and you’ll see no women on there. And you probably never will unless you start human growth hormone supplementation early in life, getting her musculoskeletal system nice and dense.”

Pankoff cites an article by lawyer and erstwhile presidential candidate David French in the National Review — “a magazine you should be reading,” he adds — about the declining grip strength of American men, a prospect that fills him with terror. “If you have sons, like I do, this ought to scare the hell out of you,” he says. “I want my boys to grow up to be famous grippers like Juha Harju or Jedd Johnson or Joe Kinney. Amazing men. I don’t care about anything else my boys do. Well, I do, but you get the picture. 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.”

Harju, the 43-year-old self-titled “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 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 all pretty ridiculous on the surface, I know,” Pankoff once told me. “But I wouldn’t dream of using a Gillingham High Performance Gripper. 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, two years after my fateful trip to Pep Boys to get my air conditioning fixed, and the second in 2016. The Metroflex was always hosting or promoting such competitions, so sign-up was easy and attendance often ran into the hundreds of people, dozens 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,” 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. I was always better working by myself in the gym, or with a patient, thoughtful partner like John Pankoff spotting me.

“The grippers are a personal challenge. You close them to know you can do it, and you certify with Iron Mind, following the rules and getting their name on the web page, to let other grip guys know you can do it. But it’s all your thing, your challenge, your journey,” Pankoff explains, reiterating advice he gave me throughout the time we trained together. “The strongman events we participated in were about practical applications of grip. There are competitions where the grippers are used, but strongman 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?” Pankoff says. “Even the guys who do it really well, like Jedd Johnson, say there are better ways to train for different activities. But you’re asking the wrong question. We trained for a year for those two strongman shows, and your thing was always, ‘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.”

He was right. The grippers were something I could close on my own, perhaps recording the closes for posterity, before moving on to anything and everything else. I had invested three years in serious grip training because that was my time, given to me to use however I saw fit. I smashed those aircraft-grade aluminum handles together, exhaled deeply, and went on with the rest of my life.