Grip strength/endurance is an indicator of overall health and a predictor of life length and quality. Several studies have also linked grip strength with mortality, rehabilitation, cognition, and depression.
So, if you increase your grip strength will you add years to your life? Not necessarily, but a stronger grip may help you perform the sort of daily activities that will. A weakened grip may be a warning sign of other issues.
We use grip strength to support movement, manipulate objects, and hold onto things. How many doors, boxes, or jars did you open or close today? How many things did you pick up? How many did you drop? Your grip strength factored into all of it.
You’ll find the key muscles that allow you to grip in your hands and forearms. That’s right, the forearms aren’t only for wrist control- although that can be part of grip strength as well.
There are three types of grip strength that we’ll focus on:
– Pinch Strength
– Crush Strength
– Support Strength
Pinch – the strength between your fingers and your thumb – imagine lifting a flat object like a book or plate.
Crush – the strength between your fingers and your palm – used when squeezing two things together or opening a jar, for example.
Support – the strength to “hang on” under load. Think carrying a suitcase, doing a pull-up, or swinging a kettlebell.
Pinch and crush strength are more about force generation, and support strength is more heavily tied to endurance. They’re all important, but support strength is the factor many find most limiting. You might have the upper arm and back strength to perform 12 pull-ups, but only if you can hold on long enough to finish.
There are two ways that we train or improve grip.
– Direct training
– Indirect improvement
Direct training focuses on improving the grip. Indirect improvement covers gradual gains from using your grip in any way. You probably aren’t deadlifting to increase your support grip strength, but it works.
Direct grip exercises are intentional. You choose movements, volume, and duration to focus on grip. You might lift a lower weight for higher reps, or without touching the ground to build support strength. You may also perform special exercises like plate pinches. The focus is grip, with other improvements secondary.
Indirect improvements come from any activity that requires grip strength. The activities of daily living require you to pinch, crush, or hang on to more things than you might realize. Most lifting and pulling exercises rely on grip. Almost all competitive sports require grip to some degree.
Your grip will likely improve from moving, playing, and living an active life. The downside is that without training grip specifically, anything that relies on grip will be limited by it.
How to Improve Grip
Many of the exercises you already do improve grip, but here are a few of my favorites grip-testers:
1. Bar Hangs – it’s hard to pick a simpler exercise. Assume a pull-up position and just hang, feet off the ground. You can improve your grip while stretching out your upper body.
2. Rope/Towel Pulls – pull the sled while gripping a fat rope or looping a towel through the handle. Handles are great, but we’re targeting crush grip strength here.
3. Plate Pinch and Carry – same idea as a farmer’s carry (do those too) but you stand plates up on their edges, squat down to lift them between fingers and thumb, and then carry them around.
Accessories like gloves, straps, or chalk can aid grip, allowing you to lift or pull more weight than you would be able to otherwise. That’s a positive if you’re after the gains that come from lifting heavy. It can also be a negative, because your grip isn’t tested as thoroughly, meaning it doesn’t grow alongside those pulling muscles. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link.
I prefer a mixed approach. When I’m going for a maximal effort lift, I’ll use chalk to improve my grip on a bar. When I’m going for volume, working on form, or hitting accessories lifts, I skip it. This way my grip is improving over time, but my gains in other areas aren’t limited by grip alone. As always, variety is key.
There are plenty of gadgets that come with promises to improve grip strength. I’d argue you can probably get the benefits of most of these by using things you can already find in the gym, but sometimes toys are fun.
One word of caution on grip strengthening tools and overtraining: the muscles in your hands and forearms are susceptible to overuse, just like the rest of you. If you’re training your grip more often than anything else, you’re probably overdoing it. Especially if your weekly sessions include grip endurance exercises like pull-ups, deadlifts, or carries. Sitting at your desk squeezing a crush-grip trainer compulsively may lead to overworking those muscles and tendons.
To wrap up, grip is tied to quality of life, but it isn’t something you need to pour a lot of mental effort into. If you’re already working with a personal trainer, they’re likely paying attention to your grip strength and putting you through movements that will improve your grip.
If grip has been a limiting factor or frustration, there are things you can do to strengthen it. You aren’t doomed to struggle with the peanut butter jar for the rest of your life. Unless of course, you use that newfound grip strength to over-tighten it.
Hyatt Strength + Wellness is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.