Although our era has lessened the frequency of hard physical labor as a lifetime profession, there are still many situations that require a good, strong grip to handle matters properly and, often, ensure your safety. When you are clinging to a crag with nothing but a thousand feet of frosty blue sky beneath you during mountain climbing, or working at logging, fishing, or farming, engaged in sports like wrestling, or simply doing heavy yardwork, the muscular development of your hands themselves can spell the difference between success and failure – or at least, quick success and slower success.
The basic hand exercises such as squeezing a metal “strength tester” can be very effective at building hand strength, but they still suffer from two disadvantages. In the first place, the motion is the same every time, so some muscles will be developed more than others. Yet, when wrestling steers or scaling Everest’s second step, it is often the most unexpected muscles that prove most useful when a strong grip needs to be exerted at an unusual angle.
The other problem with these perfectly symmetrical, predictable exercises is that they get tedious after a while. You should still make them part of your hand exercise program, but being able to “switch off” to a different and perhaps more challenging exercise on alternate days will be refreshing, and keep your interest and diligence high.
Raising a bucket partly filled with water or sand (both very heavy substances that are either cheap or free, depending on where you live) is a good way to improve grip strength as well as building up your wrists and forearm muscles. There are several different variations on this exercise, allowing you to pick the one best suited to your circumstances and preferences.
One variation is to literally simulate the age old activity of raising a well bucket, which provided sturdy arm muscles to many a farm lad or farm wife. You can do this by erecting a sturdy pole or a scaffold (with two upright poles and a crosspiece) and suspending a pulley near the top. Thread a rope through the pulley, tie one end to the handle of a bucket filled with water or sand, and raise and lower the bucket slowly. This does not sound like much, but once your muscles feel the effects, you will realize that this is a very effective exercises.
You should note three things when raising a bucket like this. First, wearing gloves is probably a very good idea – rope burns are vicious and your hands might even be badly cut or skinned by the rope if your grip slackens enough for it to slide through for several feet. Second, you should always use a pulley because simply dragging the rope over the top beam will cause it to fray and eventually snap. Third, the position of your arms has a strong bearing on which muscles are exercised; if you let your arms slope upwards, your back will be doing most of the work, while if your forearms are horizontal or sloping downwards, your hands and arms will be bearing most of the weight and will be exercised more vigorously.
For those who do not want to or cannot construct this exercise structure, it is also possible to fill a bucket with sand or water, then tie a short piece of rope to the handle. Tie this in turn to a towel you have rolled up into a tubular shape (tying off the towel with twine every few inches will help it keep this form). Then, take the towel in one hand and manipulate it upwards, lifting the bucket off the ground one-handed. Alternate between hands until you have received a thorough workout.
Buy a small, rugged canvas bag which you can hold in one hand (not necessarily cup in one hand – just small enough so that it can be effectively gripped). Fill it with sand, and throw it from one hand to the other. The bag should be slightly floppy, rather than packed taut, so that the weight will shift as you catch it and necessitate a constantly changing grip to successfully hold it. Toss it back and forth a number of times until your hands feel thoroughly exercised. Increase the weight of the contents (for example, with buckshot) when the exercise becomes too easy thanks to muscular development.