Fat Bar Training – weapon of choice for the strongman

One question I am often asked is “should I do grip training, and if yes what should I do?”

Concerning grip, the answer is always “yes”.

The follow on is “if you train with a fat bar you will probably not need much else, except of course for the motor miracle of pinch lifting.”

The fat bar, and why it’s awesome

Barbells are great. They allow you to lift a lot of weight in a huge variety of ways. They are common to find and easy to use, so if you know how to use one you can probably get a workout in at nearly any gym. One minor problem with a barbell is that it really doesn’t tax the hands that much, unless you use a ton of weight for a given movement.

Fat bars (also known as “Axle”) allow you to train the grip and wrist while doing your favorite motions. It’s getting two for one; you do your goal movements and you get more finger and thumb strength.

Shown for size comparison, a 3", 2.5", 2", and standard 1 & 1/8" diameter barbell

I own a few different sized bars, which allows me to test and find the best diameter for a given movement.

At base level you can use an axle for anything you would use a barbell for assuming you can hang on to it. Deadlifts and other pulls off the floor, rowing motions, pressing of all sorts, the only limit is your imagination.

In the beginning

Barbells and weights at the turn of the 20th century where not like the ones of today. Materials were not the same, manufacturing processes were not as advanced. Many of the barbells and dumbbells of the time had thicker handles because thin ones were not sturdy enough.

The second part of this was the “challenge weight” such as the famous Thomas Inch dumbbell. Many challenge bells and bars had extremely thick handles to prevent casual lifters from matching the owners feat.

One of the most famous fat bar lifts was the US Olympic lifting champion John Davis who clean and jerked an actual axle with a pair of wheels from a train which weighed 402 lbs (known as the Apollo’s wheels). The difficulty of this feat was compounded by the thickness of the axle (which I am not 100% certain of, but I have to imagine it was over 2.0″) and the solid nature of the bar. The wheels were rusted frozen to the bar so there was no rotation as the lift was performed. While many of the current WSM competitors could now match that feat, Davis was under 215 lbs at the time, making it a truly impressive display of both grip and total body power.

The sad decline….

As body building got more popular, a lot of gyms moved away from thick bars. Most people training for general fitness in the average gym do not think about hand strength, and certainly do not wonder why the bar is not harder to lift from where it already is. Fat bars declined nation wide, while wimpy hands increased by no less than 6,130%.

The upswing….

Strongman sport uses the Axle bar for clean and press, deadlifting, and other generally awesome activities. Other lifting federations such as the radically bad ass USAWA use fat bars in both 2″ and 3″ sizes for a variety of lifts. It looked like we were on the brink of destruction, and then it all got better….

The 500 lbs Sorinex Axle being taken for a ride by Jedd Johnson at the Mighty Mitts Competition held at the Arnold Classic.

The epic returned

Grip Sport, the pinnacle of human motor ability and talent. Your newest obsession, assuming  you get started on it as I have directed. Could there be anything more awesome than picking things up then putting them down? I think not.

The overhand deadlift becomes a standard event in more and more contests due to the ease of judging and wide spread availability of equipment. Dudes like US Grip Champion Andrew Durniat lift more with a pronated grip on an axle than you can pull with straps. The awesome increased more and more, as fat bars popped up all across the country. I have no doubt this will turn the whole economy situation around and likely bring about a new age of knowledge and wisdom.

The fat bar and you

More and more people are getting in to fat bar lifting with popular pieces of equipment such as the ingenious “FatGripz” and the new “Grip4orce” handles which can attach to any piece of gym equipment to get your hands back into the game. For many people that is going to be more than enough additional grip work just by adding those to their rows and pulling movements. I can’t think of a $40 dollar investment for equipment which will be a higher pay off to your strength than one of these things.

For the serious lifters out there, you are going to want to get a real axle. Before you buy anything, measure your hands. Take a tape measure and start it at your middle finger tip. You will measure from the tip to the crease of your wrist. I am assuming you have measured a few other things from the tip before and will figure this one out.

I have no doubt that immediately after measuring you will want to know what the average is, so you can tell all your friends how you are bigger than average…

The average hand is between 7.5 and 7.75 inches.

Hand position with a 2" diameter bar, middle finger can just barely touch the thumb but still an open hand lift.

If your hands are under 8″ a 2 inch diameter barbell will work well. This size axle will probably allow your middle finger to almost or just touch the thumb when you gorilla grip it, preventing you from hooking it but still allowing decent friction.

If your hands are between 8″ and 8.75″ a 2.5″ diameter bar will likely be a better fit. I do not know of anyone who makes them, but they are really easy to have fabricated using standard size fence post materials. You don’t even need special skills to make one, you can simply cut a piece of stock to the size of your barbell (from inside collar to inside collar) and unscrew the sleeves to slide it on. It takes two Allen wrenches and less than 60 seconds to do. You will figure it out….

If your hands are over 8.75″ inches you have seriously huge hands. I am guessing you are either like a 6’8″ tall man or an inbred mutant with enormously disproportionate features. You will be able to hook a 2″ diameter bar and easily handle a 3″ axle. If you get in to grip training you will probably be good at it.

hand position with 3" diameter axle, hand is in completely open position

On the market there are a few companies who sell axles. In my opinion the best one is made by Submit Strength Equipment, who were formally known as Swagger strength. If you have been reading my page for a while you will know I have been using an SSE axle for several years and I really like it.

2" diameter bar shown in reverse curl position for hand placement

I had my friend Joe Tebbe fabricate a 3″ diameter axle for me recently. I dig it. It’s been humbling to deadlift with, you’d be surprised at how hard it is to lift a mere 240 lbs with it. I have included some photos holding the axles to show you how it changes hand position. Since you are now wondering, my hands are 7 & 7/8″ long, but I’m sure you have known for a while I am bigger than average.

3" diameter axle held in reverse curl position, you can see it leaves a huge gap in the hand position making it an exceptionally challenging bar to lift with.

God damn dick jokes in a grip article.

So here’s the deal

Fat bars = more hand strength. Fat bars = more wrist strength. Fat bars = more PR’s for you, which in turn brings more muscle, less fat, and more awesome.

In math there is the transitive property. It states that if A =B, and B= C, than A = C. To this end Fat bars = Awesome.

Be well





10 thoughts on “Fat Bar Training – weapon of choice for the strongman”

  1. Great article I agree completely!! I have been using my fat gripz on most of my barbell lifts with great results. I have also always loved using my thick dumbbells for a variety of movements, my only problem with the fat gripz is that I didn’t think of it first, but it sure feels great to put a weight overhead that many people can’t pick up. keep up the good work Adam!

  2. “God damn dick jokes in a grip article.”

    Better than grip jokes in a dick article…

  3. Quick question here good sir, do the Fat Gripz fit on kettlebells? (I’ve got DD bells, not competition bells). Thanks for your time!

    1. I’ve put FatGripz on my kettlebells, both cast iron and prograde. Fits better on the cast iron, but I haven’t used DD bells specifically.

  4. Thanks, Piers! If they don’t fit, I guess I could trim an inch or so off one of them without hurting its overall capabilities (I’m sure there’s a potential dick joke in there, but I’m not even going to bother…).

  5. Man great write up…I use the Grip4orce grips, I get a lot more work out of these especially in my thumbs and wrists. I feel with the Grip4orce grips your getting double the work then the current axel bars. Both are great tools, bottom line is if you want to get stronger you best add some grip work!
    Keep the grip articles coming!!

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