Weightlifter Derek Palmeri was in his first semester of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Russell Sage College when, thanks to his anatomy lab, he found a solution to the elbow pain that had been nagging at him — and a hidden talent.  

“We were just getting to the point of looking at and dissecting the forearm in the anatomy labs when I thought that maybe the elbow pain had something to do with grip muscles, since most of those attach to the elbow,” said Derek, who is pursuing a DPT degree after a nine-year career in nanotechnology. 

He decided to exercise his grip muscles and ordered a set of IronMind Captains of Crush grippers with a range of strengths, from the trainer model to No. 2.5.  (Grippers are small devices with two handles connected by a spring. The spring provides resistance when the handles are squeezed; the highest strength grippers can have several hundred pounds of resistance.) 

Captains of Crush is a model of grippers popular with athletes. Derek said he found the set on a fitness website — he wasn’t sure what to get and didn’t think he would need any of the grippers described as “very heavy.” 

Then he closed all of his new grippers on the day they arrived. Derek said he didn’t think much of it, at first. 

“Somebody in a fitness group tried to explain to me how significant that was and encouraged me to try the Captains of Crush No. 3, which did not take me long to be able to close, especially after starting to experiment with applying actual technique,” Derek said.

“I have the personality type that will hyperfocus on one topic and learn as much as I possibly can about it,” he continued. “I ended up going after a lot of different grip strength certifications.”

Crushing the Competition

You won’t see it on ESPN but grip strength is a competitive sport of sorts. Several gripper brands like Gillingham High Performance, Mash Monster and, yes, Captains of Crush (manufactured by IronMind) certify individuals who can close their most difficult grippers.

Derek is now ranked 45th in the world in the Gillingham High Performance Gripper Challenge. During the Mash Monster Elite challenge, he became just the 14th person in the world to close the MM1 gripper left handed and the 124th to close it right handed, and he was the 76th person in the world to earn IronMind’s Crushed-to-Dust certification after he completed a weightlifting and gripping challenge. 

PT Education Offers Competitive Edge

Derek said that his physical therapy education has given him an “upper hand” when it comes to training for grip challenges.  

For example, his neuroscience classes have given him a better understanding of the brain’s role in precise hand movements and the role of diet, sleep and stress management in brain and physical training. 

Derek is completing the classroom portion of his physical therapy degree this semester and will begin his full-time clinical rotations in summer 2023. 

Those hands-on experiences will help him choose an area of PT to specialize in.

“I had thought about specializing in hand therapy,” he said.”I do like the forearm area a lot and, in general, the whole upper extremity.” 

He also mentioned pulmonary rehabilitation and pediatric neurology as areas of interest, as well as positions that combine physical therapy and strength coaching. 

In grip challenges, Derek’s next goal is to officially certify on the Gillingham High Performance Level 8 gripper, and move up that leaderboard. 

“This gripper requires about four times the average male grip strength,” Derek said. “I have gotten to about one millimeter away from closing it, but still have a lot of work to do. Because of the way torsion spring grippers are designed, the further they are closed, the more resistance they put out as the spring continuously deforms.”

As a grip champ with a green thumb, Derek is never far from competitive inspiration. 

“I’ve been growing carnivorous plants for over five years, many exotic species from around the world,” he said. “I grow the fastest-moving plant in the world, which produces 600 Gs of force when capturing prey, compared to fighter pilots who experience 9 Gs of force.”

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