How To Build Grip Strength For Obstacle Course Racing

When running an OCR Race, whether it’s a Tough Mudder or a Spartan Race, you’ll inevitably encounter obstacles that require grip strength. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, it’s vital to include grip strength exercises as a part of your training regimen. For those that are on the fence for doing their first OCR event are often concerned with monkey bars and climbing over walls. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a superhero to conquer these obstacles. By having some will power, determination, patience, and persistence, you’ll be prepared to overcome all challenges and more importantly avoid a penalty for not completing an obstacle.

Things you need to know about Grip Strength & OCR races

When we train in the gym, we have near-perfect conditions, we’re not outside, not covered in mud or have wet hands. As a result, we can focus on building grip endurance. It’s important to remember when going outdoors and at the OCR event, these conditions are going to be less than ideal. Therefore, from my experience, I’ve found it’s best to gradually build-up grip strength. You don’t want to overdo it, as this could result in painful blisters forming quickly. Even when doing monkey bars swings, I’ve experienced getting blisters through wearing heavy-duty protective gloves.

So, should I wear gloves for grip strength training? 

If you’re new to grip training such as doing pull-ups and deadlifts, it seems logical to wear gloves to reduce blisters. With grip strength, you need your hands to meet the surface you’re trying to grip hold of, whether it’s a monkey bar, rope or a kettlebell.

Pull-ups are difficult for newbies. Just remember that you’re lifting your entire body weight and it’s going to take practice to build the mental and physical endurance to become successful.

However, there are some fantastic benefits for doing pull-ups, including:

  • Strengthening the back muscles
  • Strengthening the arms and shoulders
  • Developing the grip strength on the fingers which can improve performance in rock climbing, obstacle courses and carrying heavy weights
  • Lifting your body weight is a fantastic way for strength conditioning

Although it takes time and commitment to do 10 to 15 pull-ups consistently, it’s important to remember it’s worth it when training for an OCR event.

Should you wear Mud Run Gloves for a Tough Mudder? Are gloves that useful during an OCR race? 

Throughout the years, I’ve tried running with gloves and without gloves. Often gloves can protect your hands from cuts and splinters. Usually, gloves can provide you with more grip. If you can keep your gloves dry and mud-free, this is when gloves are most-effective. It’s often the case that it’s incredibly challenging, if not impossible, to maintain a fresh, clean pair of gloves. Go to a Tough Mudder event, and I can assure you there will be dozens upon dozens of wet gloves scattered around the course.

From my experience, from doing Tough Mudder Classics right up to Europe’s Toughest Mudder, gloves are useless when they’re wet! There have been instances where I’ve wiped my wet, muddy hands down the back of a volunteer’s jacket. At 3 in the morning, the grass is damp and boggy, and you need to do whatever you can to reduce moisture on your hands and the surface that you’re climbing or swinging on.

By building grip strength without solely relying on gloves, not only this prepares you for whatever obstacle you encounter at an OCR event, but it also helps you to build the mental clarity to persevere.

The three types of strength grip areas: 

Crush Strength

Think of squeezing a ball or shaking someone’s hand – this strength is generated between your fingers and your palms. If you open your hand and then close it into a fist, this is a good example of a crush strength motion.

Pinch Strength

Imagine pinching your thumb and fingers together. When you do this, you’re building the strength between your fingers and your thumb.

Support Strength

Support strength is where you’re holding something or hanging from something. An example of support strength would be carrying shopping bags or heavy items across a certain distance.

It’s important to do these exercises gradually, you don’t want to overdo these. Exercises such as monkey bars, will require crush and support strength. Equally, you’ll be swinging your body towards the next bar. This exercise takes time, practice and momentum. It’ll come with consistency.

Types of exercises to build grip strength for OCR

The Farmer’s Walk

Contestants of the World’s Strongest Man will often do the farmer’s walk. This exercise is brilliant for grip strength. You can use kettlebells, dumbbells, 25 litre water drums or jerry cans.

The farmer’s walk is a powerful compound exercise that strengthens your legs, hips, arms, core, back, shoulders and improves your grip strength. This exercise can be added in your exercise plan as a circuit. All you need to do is grab your weights and walk! If you’re going shopping and carrying heavy bags to the car or home, this is the same principle!

Pinch Plate Hold 

For beginners, the pinch plate hold is going to be tough. Therefore, it’s recommended to start with a 5kg plate and gradually work upwards. Look for a smooth iron plate and pinch your fingers and thumb around the plate. This may feel strange initially, but over time it’ll help to build the strength between the fingers and thumb.

It’s recommended that you have two 5kg plates, one for each hand, you can either stand still holding these plates or walking for as long as possible. It’s a good idea to time yourself to see how you progress in the weeks and months to come.

Monkey Bars

If you’re fortunate to have access to an OCR rig, you can practice monkey bars. Or you can use a playground in a park to practice. You will find that the monkey bars on an OCR rig or playground are on average around 1.25″ in diameter, whereas at a Tough Mudder you’ll most likely be swinging from scaffold poles which are around 1.9″ in diameter. Where possible, try and get accustomed to varying levels of objects to grip hold of.

To succeed with monkey bars, it requires a leap of faith. Where possible, make sure you can touch the ground with your toes if you’re new to this as this can help to build your confidence gradually. The best advice is not to overthink getting across to the other side. If you’re new, you want to think about getting the first few swings right – as this will build confidence. Over time, you will build momentum. Ultimately, you want the monkey bar swings to be as natural as possible and the more relaxed you are in the process, the easier this exercise will be. In the beginning, it’s also important work on the monkey bars gradually. It’s going to take some time. Equally, if you rush into exercise, you’ll most likely get hand blisters from the monkey bars. 

Dead Hangs

If you’re struggling with monkey bars, let’s take a step back and look at dead hangs. The dead hang is where you hang from a bar with both hands. For a beginner, this is an excellent way of building mental grit and strengthening your fingers and palms. Initially, you want to test yourself with a 30-second hang. I’d rest for a minute and do this again for up to 5 rounds. Also, it’s crucial to build this up gradually.

Rock Climbing 

Many OCR racers love rock climbing, it’s a full-body workout and allows you to challenge your grip strength. There are many rock-climbing facilities open in town and cities plus you don’t need to be a full-time member to join. Many rock-climbing centres allow you to go on a pay-as-you-go basis.

James King has competed in multiple OCR events including Europe's Toughest Mudder from 2019 to 2022, multiple mud events, 10k runs and currently for his first marathon. James includes useful tips and experiences about OCR on his blog

James King has competed in multiple OCR events including Europe's Toughest Mudder from 2019 to 2022, multiple mud events, 10k runs and currently for his first marathon. James includes useful tips and experiences about OCR on his blog