One of the contributing factors for successful high performance shooting lies in your ability to control your handgun during the recoil cycle. While there are a myriad of biomechanical and neural processes involved in precisely how we create that control, none are more fundamental than strength in the hands, wrists, and forearms.
Strength is a commodity that we tend to take for granted, unless we don’t have it. After having a complicated series of wrist reconstruction operations over a three-year period, I was faced with severely limited strength in my shooting hand, wrist, and arm. I was faced with the daunting task of learning how to shoot all over again. I had to learn to grip the gun in a new way as I gained strength back in my upper body, arm, and hand.
When I first returned to the range after surgery, one of the first things I noted was how much more the gun flipped due to my reduced strength. I knew what to do, I just couldn’t do it. Prior to surgery I was capable of shooting accurate splits in the .12 - .15 range out to 10 yards. Post-surgery I found myself running splits in the .22-.26 range at 5-7 yards with only marginal control on the target.
Having a background in strength training, I knew I would need to do specific training to bring myself up to speed quickly.
For students of strong man or Olympic weightlifting contests, IronMind® will be a company that you recognize. Specializing in strength tools for serious practitioners, their products are found worldwide.
I contacted Dr. Randall Strossen, founder of IronMind® regarding specific training for shooting strength. We agreed to do some research into the subject and he provided me several tools for my strength and conditioning program.
For my research I obtained six of the Captains of Crush® Grippers: the Guide (60 lbs), the Sportsman (80 lbs), the Trainer (100 lbs), No. 1 (140 lbs), No. 1.5 (roughly 170 lbs), and the No. 2 (195 lbs).
In addition, Dr. Strossen designed a series of mini-grippers called IMTUGs® that would isolate specific fingers or finger combinations. These were designed in increments going from the No. 1 through No. 7. Numbers 2-5 will do the majority of what you are going to do with them.
I also used a device called Titan’s Telegraph Key® to develop pinch grip strength. Pinch grip strength is useful in shooting when you wish to exert more pressure side to side against the gun.
For rotational arm strength (to control gun torque in recoil) we decided on the Wrist Reinforcer® leverage bar with a weight attached on the end.
Lastly, to balance out the muscles of the forearm and to keep the hands healthy, I used a set of Expand-Your-Hand® rubber bands of varying strength to work the extensor muscles on the back of the forearms and a soft rubber ball called the IronMind® Egg to warm up and work the hand muscles prior to heavy training or to recover on off days.
While my reason for strength training was to recover from a serious medical issue, you may want to consider strength training as part of your regular training routine. Shooting repetitively tends to overwork the muscles and tendons of the hand, wrist, and forearm. This, combined with the shock of recoil forces, creates a very common complaint among shooters known as “tennis elbow.”
Tennis elbow is caused by an inflammation of the tendon attaching the inner and/or outer elbow and can be debilitating. Building the muscles to withstand repetitive gripping and recoil shock, as well as evening out the strength of the different opposing muscles, is crucial to maintaining healthy hands and arms.
The key to grip strength is to build your strength to a level where you can control the gun while still keeping a sizable reserve of strength. This reserve is critical to fine motor skills and shooting performance. If you have to use all your strength to hold onto the gun and try to control recoil, you will not be able to move the trigger finger with the finesse and speed required to shoot precisely at that speed.
While reserve strength is needed, you do not need massive levels of strength to shoot well. What you do need is to have enough strength to set the grip firmly without straining and then isolate the trigger finger without releasing your grip. The two middle fingers of the shooting hand do roughly 90 percent of the gripping action of that hand. Don’t neglect the pinkie finger though.
I would estimate that top male shooters have a grip strength of between 120 and 170 pounds on average. Curiously, the support hand tends to be stronger than the shooting hand in many shooters I have tested.
Grip training not only strengthens the muscles of the hand and arm but the tendons and soft tissue as well. Over time, both muscles and tendons will grow in strength and resistance to injury. While you won’t get “popeye” forearms, you will get pure, functional strength and conditioning from a proper shooting grip strength program.
The key to developing a high level of grip strength is to use more resistance with fewer reps. Tennis balls, conventional grip devices and other low resistance exercises done for a lot of reps are not going to take you where you want to go. Remember, if you are already dry firing and live firing, you are getting a lot of gripping reps already.
These grippers come in varying resistance levels that go far beyond conventional grip tools. These are at the core of my shooting hand strength program.
The grippers are rated as follows with approximate poundage:
Make sure you seat the grippers correctly in your hand. Use particular care not to let the coil part sit down in your hand in the event the spring should break. One rep means going from a full open to a full closed position with the gripper. If you can’t close it, you didn’t do it.
“Break in” program: First two or three weeks.
Use the IronMind® EGG to warm your hand up. Squeeze it 20-30 times with each hand. Take two grippers, your choice.
This program would be done 3 times a week.
Use the Expand-Your-Hands® bands at the end of the workout to train the extensors as you did in the beginning program. Use the squeeze ball to keep your hands supple on the off days.
Note: Try to do weight training after skills training. Your hands will thank you when you are shooting.
Use the appropriate level of resistance that is right for you. The models in parentheses are just examples, not absolutes. You are in charge of what feels right for you.
Warm up - use the IronMind® EGG for 20 reps (each hand)
1 set x 10-15 reps with very low resistance (Guide)
Workout (each hand) Rest as needed but not longer than 2 minutes between sets
For pure pinch grip strength you can also use Titan’s Telegraph Key®. This is a phenomenal piece of equipment. I think training the pinch grip helps me control the gun that much more over conventional grip tools.
For rotational arm strength the Wrist Reinforcer® device is superior to anything I have used in the past. Start out with light resistance, sit down and place your forearm flat on your thigh. Now rotate the bar from side to side, slowly. Use your other hand as a catch in case it gets too heavy. Work a 180 degree arc of motion. Make sure you maintain control of the motion, particularly at the extreme ends.
As you gain strength in these exercises you are going to notice that recoil feels “lighter” when you shoot. You will see a definite increase in the precision in which you are able to shoot at the same speed you were shooting before. This is good.
Remember, train lower reps, higher resistance and only 3 times a week. Use the bands at the end of each workout and the soft “egg” on the off days to recover.
I am happy to report that I have been able to increase my grip strength in my hands to 190 pounds. My splits are in the .12-.15 range and, on a good day, I can do this speed out to 15 yards in practice with really good hits. What is really cool is how minimal the muzzle rise is when I shoot.
After two and a half years, I have worked most of the bugs out of my new system of operating and I don’t feel like I am giving up anything in terms of performance. I feel that I have increased my performance from what I was doing prior to surgery and I know I can better my performance over time. The grip training was an integral part of the training program that helped me come back.
I know that grip training will work for you too. Give yourself time to build strength and you will see the rewards in your shooting. Good luck in your training!
Ron Avery, co-founder
Tactical Performance Center