Eugen Sandow’s Grip Dumbbell

by Al Myers

Eugen Sandow's New Grip Dumbbell. This dumbbell is on exhibit at the York Barbell Museum.

After reading Thom’s story last week about gripper training,  I wondered “what did the old time strongmen do for grip training before the modern day grippers were developed?” Several old time strongmen were known for their exceptionally hand strength – men like Hermann Goerner, Thomas Inch and Arthur Saxon. These guys primarily developed their gripping strength through the use of over-sized dumbbells and barbells.

Last fall when Chad and I toured the York Barbell Museum I was intrigued by a gripping dumbbell  I saw there developed and marketed by Eugen Sandow.  Sandow was famous for his herculean physique and posing abilities, and his ability to mesmerize a crowd with his show performances, but I  never thought of him as a “grip guy”.  So seeing this gripping device of his interested me even more!  In a way, it is more of a gripper than a dumbbell.

Sandow introduced the New Grip Dumbbell in 1899. Eugen Sandow had this to say about his New Grip Dumbbell, “This appliance is very simple. It consists of a dumbbell made in two halves, longitudinally separated about 1.5 inch from one another, the intervening space being occupied by a small steel spring. Whilst exercising, the spring is compressed by gripping the bell and so bringing the two halves close together, in which position they are kept until the exercise is over.  The springs can be of any strength, and consequently the strain necessary to keep the two halves together can be varied to any extent.”

Sandow also developed an instructional  course in how these grip dumbbells should be used, and sold “stronger” springs to increase the training resistance as one improved over time. He had six different designs of this grip dumbbell.  The easiest dumbbell was for children, with models expanding to the most difficult men’s dumbbell. At the time, the men’s model sold for $3 a pair, which was quite a bit of money in the early 1900’s.  Whether Sandow spent a lot of time training with his New Grip Dumbbell himself, or if it was more of a profitable business venture capitalizing on his name, is unknown.  It is definitely true that Sandow was way ahead of his contemporaries in his ability of self-promotion, and knew how to market himself for a profit.  Regardless, his New Grip Dumbbells were, in some part, the precursor of modern day grippers, and he deserves credit for that.

Eugen Sandow always knew how to inspire others in the benefits of exercise.  I want to conclude with Sandow’s testimony in which he gave in his “sales pitch” for his New Grip Dumbbells.  Sandow said, “the object of exercise is to rehabilitate the frame and give it the vigorous strength, the health and the grace intended by Nature, and so fit it to endure the daily task with joyous ease, and make the cup of life a perennial and refreshing draught, like the ambrosia of the Olympian Gods.  With these words I commend to you my new dumbbell.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Get a Grip on a Gripper

by Thom Van Vleck

Last Monday night the Jackson Weightlifting Club did one of our Strongman Shows at a Bible Camp near Clarence, Missouri. As we had done this camp for 6 straight years I was trying to come up with some new feats so that those that had been there several times would not be seeing the same old stuff. As I scanned the JWC Training Hall I noticed my “Captains of Crush” Grippers and came up with an idea for something to do with them.

Once at the camp and during the show, I called up the head camp counselor and gave him a regular store bought gripper and I closed the #2 then we switched. He struggled to put a kink in the #2. Then I gave him the “easy one” (a #1) and he failed with it after much straining and groaning. The kids got a kick out of it and I managed a few reps with my #2 to at least make it look like I had some grip. I don’t claim to be a “grip master”, but 10 reps with my #2 is my best.

There are all kinds of grippers out now. The Captains of Crush put out by Ironmind, Heavy Grip Hand Grippers, JB (John Brookfield) grippers, and many others. But what was the original? It got me to thinking and I did some research.

I found some info that gives credit to Thomas Inch as having what were called “nutcracker” grippers that he challenged people in the audience to try. I know there were probably others, but I was thinking in terms of the more modern, steel spring “Super Gripper”.

I had recalled seeing a “Super Gripper” in an old Ironman magazine and after some research (me looking thru my collection of old Iron Man mags!), I found it. It required a reputed 220lbs of pressure to close and was sold from 1964 to 1977. They evidently enjoyed very limited success, but were the inspiration for the Ironmind “Captains of Crush” grippers that started the “Gripper” revolution in 1990 that goes strong today!

I know there is a whole sub culture of strength that now wraps around grippers and training not just to build grip strength but to be able to close a stronger and stronger gripper. I like to break mine out every so often in my training rotation, but I don’t rely on them solely for my grip strength. Personally, I like to train mine with a straight arm as I don’t want to develop the habit of “bending my arm” as I flex my grip. You don’t want to flex the arm on a clean or snatch, nor in highland games or many strongman events. So why not train grip with a fully extended arm?

A final note, if you go out and buy yourself some heavy duty grippers, work into them slowly. I have had at least one training buddy, and myself, sprain a knuckle going too hard, too fast and not warming up enough. That was a painful injury that took a long time to heal and interfered with my other training (and it even made work difficult as I type a lot!).

So, get a grip on a gripper!