Why Grip Strength Matters—and 10 Ways to Build It

Why Grip Strength Matters—and 10 Ways to Build It

The scientific literature
is awash in correlations between a person’s health status and
various biomarkers, personal characteristics, and measurements. As
we hoard more and more data and develop increasingly sophisticated
autonomous tools to analyze it, we’ll stumble across new
connections between seemingly disparate variables. Some will be
spurious, where the correlations are real but the variables don’t
affect each other. Others will be useful, where the correlations
indicate real causality, or at least a real relationship.

One of my favorite health markers—one that is both modifiable
and a good barometer for the conditions it appears to predict—is
grip strength.

The Benefits of Grip Strength

In middle-aged and elderly people, grip strength consistently
predicts
 mortality risk from all causes, doing an even
better
 job than blood pressure. In older disabled women, grip
strength predicts
all-cause mortality
, even when controlling for disease status,
inflammatory load, depression, nutritional status, and
inactivity.

Poor grip strength is also an independent risk
factor for type 2 diabetes
 across all ethnicities, and it can
predict the
presence of osteoarthritis in the knee
. Among Korean adults,
those with lower grip strength have a greater risk of
clinical depression
.

Even when hand grip strength fails to predict a disease, it
still
predicts the quality of life in people with the disease
. The
relative rate of grip strength reduction in healthy people is a
good
marker
for the progression of general aging. Faster decline,
faster aging. Slower (or no) decline, slower aging. Stronger
people—as indicated by their grip strength—are simply better at
navigating the physical world and maintaining independence on into
old age.

Health and longevity aside, there are other real benefits to a
stronger grip.

You command more respect. I don’t care how bad it sounds,
because I agree. Historically, a person’s personal worth and
legitimacy was judged by the quality of their handshake. Right or
wrong, that’s how we’re wired. If you think you feel
differently, let me know how you feel the next time you shake hands
and the other person has a limp, moist hand. Who are you more
likely to respect? To hire? To deem more capable? To befriend? To
approach romantically? I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying
it’s simply how it is. We can’t avoid our guttural reaction to
a strong—or weak—handshake. To me, that suggests we have a
built-in sensitivity to grip for a very good reason.

So, how does one build grip?

10 Exercises To Build Grip Strength

Most people will get a strong-enough grip as long as they’re
lifting heavy things on a consistent-enough basis.

1. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are proven grip builders. Wide grip deadlifts are also
good and stress your grip across slightly different angles.

2. Pullups and 3. Chinups

Both require a good grip on the bar.

Any exercise where your grip supports either your weight or an
external weight (like a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) is going
to improve your grip strength. But there are other, more targeted
movements you can try to really turn your hand into a vise. Such
as:

4. Bar Hangs

This is pretty simple. Just hang from a bar (or branch, or
traffic light fixture) with both hands. It’s probably the purest
expression of grip strength. As it happens, it’s also a great
stretch for your lats, chest, shoulders, and thoracic spine.

Aim to hit one minute. Progress to one-hand hangs if two-handers
get too easy. You can use a lower bar and keep one foot on the
ground for support as you transition toward a full one-handed
hang.

5. Sledgehammer Work

Grab the heaviest sledgehammer you can handle and use it in a
variety of ways
.

If you had to pick just one sledgehammer movement to target your
grip, do the bottoms up. Hold the hammer hanging down pointing
toward the ground in your hand, swing it up and catch it with the
head of the hammer pointing upward, and hold it there. Handle
parallel to your torso, wrist straight, don’t let it fall. The
lower you grip the handle, the harder your forearms (and grip) will
have to work.

6. Fingertip Pushups

Most people who try fingertip pushups do them one way. They do
them with straight fingers, with the palm dipping toward the
ground. Like this.
Those are great, but there’s another technique as well: the
claw.  For the claw, make a claw with your hand, like
this
, as if you’re trying to grab the ground. In fact, do
try to grab the ground. This keeps your fingers more active, builds
more strength and resilience, and prevents you from resting on your
connective tissue.

These are hard for most people. They’re quite hard on the
connective tissue, which often goes underutilized in the hands and
forearms. Don’t just leap into full fingertip pushups—unless
you know you’re able. Start on your knees, gradually pushing your
knees further back to add resistance. Once they’re all the way
back and you’re comfortable, then progress to full pushups.

7. Active Hands Pushups

These are similar to claw pushups, only with the palm down on
the floor. Flat palm, active “claw” fingers. They are easier
than fingertip pushups.

8. Farmer’s Walks

The average person these days is not carrying water pails and
hay bales and feed bags back and forth across uneven ground like
they did when over 30% of the population lived on farms, but the
average person can quickly graduate past average by doing
farmer’s walks a couple times each week. What is a farmer’s
walk?

Grab two heavy weights, stand up, and walk around. They can be
dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or trap bars. You can walk up
hill, down hill, or around in circles. You can throw in some
shrugs, or bookend your walks with deadlifts or swings. The point
is to use your grip to carry something heavy in both hands.

9. Pinch Grips

Grasp and hold weight plates between your thumb and each
finger.

10. Hammer Curls

Next time you do some curls, throw in a few sets of hammer
curls. These are identical to normal bicep curls, except you hold
the weights in a hammer grip, with palms facing toward each
other—like how you hold and swing a hammer. Make sure to keep
those wrists as straight as possible.

The thing about grip is it’s hard to work your grip
without getting stronger, healthier, and faster all over.

Deadlifting builds grip strength, and it also builds back, hip,
glute, and torso strength. Fingertip pushups make your hands and
forearms strong, but they also work your chest, triceps, abs, and
shoulders. That’s why I suspect grip strength is such a
good barometer for overall health, wellness, and longevity. Almost
every meaningful piece of physical activity requires that you use
your hands to manipulate significant amounts of weight and undergo
significant amounts of stress.

For that reason, the best way to train your grip is with
normal movements.
Heavy deadlifts and farmer’s walks are
probably more effective than spending half an hour pinch gripping
with every possible thumb/finger permutation, because they offer
more full-body benefits. But if you have a few extra minutes
throughout your workout, throw in some of the dedicated grip
training.

Your grip can handle it. The grip muscles in the hands and
forearm are mostly slow-twitch fiber dominant, meaning they’re
designed to go for long periods of exertion. They’re also gross
movers, meaning you use them all the time for all sorts of tasks,
and have been doing so for decades. To make them adapt, you need to
stress the heck out of them with high weight. Train grip
with high reps, heavy weights, and long durations.
This is
why deadlifts and farmer’s walks are so good for your grip—they
force you to maintain that grip on a heavy bar or dumbbell for the
entire duration of the set with little to no rest.

Oh, and pick up some
Fat Gripz
. These attach to dumbbells and barbells and increase
the diameter of the bar, giving you less leverage when grabbing and
forcing you to adapt to the new grip conditions by getting
stronger.

Now, will all this grip training actually protect you from
aging, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and early all-cause
mortality? Maybe, maybe not.

But it—and the muscle and fitness you gain doing all these
exercises—certainly doesn’t hurt.

How’s your grip? How’s your handshake? How long can you hang
from a bar without letting go?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, be well, and go pick up
and hold some heavy stuff.

References:

Sasaki H, Kasagi F, Yamada M, Fujita S. Grip strength
predicts cause-specific mortality in middle-aged and elderly
persons
. Am J Med. 2007;120(4):337-42.

Leong DP, Teo KK, Rangarajan S, et al. Prognostic value of
grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural
Epidemiology (PURE) study
. Lancet. 2015;386(9990):266-73.

Rantanen T, Volpato S, Ferrucci L, Heikkinen E, Fried LP,
Guralnik JM. Handgrip strength and
cause-specific and total mortality in older disabled women:
exploring the mechanism
. J Am Geriatr Soc.
2003;51(5):636-41.

Van der kooi AL, Snijder MB, Peters RJ, Van valkengoed IG.
The
Association of Handgrip Strength and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in
Six Ethnic Groups: An Analysis of the HELIUS Study
. PLoS ONE.
2015;10(9):e0137739.

Wen L, Shin MH, Kang JH, et al. Association between
grip strength and hand and knee radiographic osteoarthritis in
Korean adults: Data from the Dong-gu study
. PLoS ONE.
2017;12(11):e0185343.

Lee MR, Jung SM, Bang H, Kim HS, Kim YB. The association
between muscular strength and depression in Korean adults: a
cross-sectional analysis of the sixth Korea National Health and
Nutrition Examination Survey (KNHANES VI) 2014
. BMC Public
Health. 2018;18(1):1123.

Lee SH, Kim SJ, Han Y, Ryu YJ, Lee JH, Chang JH. Hand grip strength
and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Korea: an analysis in
KNHANES VI
. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis.
2017;12:2313-2321.

Iconaru EI, Ciucurel MM, Georgescu L, Ciucurel C. Hand grip strength
as a physical biomarker of aging from the perspective of a
Fibonacci mathematical modeling
. BMC Geriatr.
2018;18(1):296.

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Grip Strength Matters—and 10 Ways to Build It
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