What Is Grip-Strength & Why It's Important
Grip strength is the force generated through our forearms, wrists, hands and fingers to hold, carry and pull on objects. Every time we sign our name, drive our car, carry groceries, text our friend or unscrew a jar we should thank our grip-strength.
Having weak grip strength can be a major detriment as it reduces our ability to confidently use our hands. We’re less able to carry heavy loads and become more susceptible to dropping things. This can become more of an issue as we age.
Some of us may relate grip-strength to strong man competitions in which athletes lift and carry very heavy objects for extended periods of time, requiring great amounts of forearm strength and endurance.
For athletes, having a strong grip has been shown to help them overcome plateaus because less neural recruitment is required from the forearm and hand muscles while performing other exercises (2). Grip strength can also be used to measure fatigue and has been linked to performance levels in weight lifting events. (2)
However multiple studies have shown a relationship between grip-strength and our baseline levels of health. One study found that low grip strength, used as an indicator of overall muscular strength, is related to an increased risk of of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. (1)
"Grip strength reflects your overall muscle status and a general sense of how much muscle mass you have" according to Richard Bohannon, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Connecticut. "If you have more muscle in your upper body, you probably have more in your lower body as well." And if your muscles are wasting, you're further down the road to frailty. (5)
Because, like our neanderthal ancestors, we rely on multiple tools throughout the day, our grip-strength is extremely necessary for daily functioning. However, these muscles can become easily overused and susceptible to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), the most expensive upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders, which affected over 5 million U.S. workers in 2010 (3) and resulted in costs for surgical interventions to reach $2 billion in one year (4).
In order to prevent injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome we must not neglect the muscles in our hands, wrists and forearms and work to keep them in balance.
The Science of Grip-Strength
Our hands are amazing tools, we use them to grab, grip, crush and pinch.
The flexor muscles of our hands, fingers and wrists allow us to close our hands (fist bump) and to use our fingers for fine movements. The extensor muscles allow us to release our hands and span our fingers (high fives). The flexors and extensors balance each other in opposing pairs while the thumb serves as a stabilizer during movement.
Research has shown that the flexor muscles in the fingers are actually stronger (62% stronger) than the extensor muscles in our fingers, which serve more as stabilizers. (2)
How to improve your grip-strength
Many exercises designed to build grip strength involve strengthening the forearm through wrist flexion and extension exercises.
Other techniques for building grip-strength include:
Gripping and squeezing exercises
Pulling exercises such as deadlifts, bent over rows, pull-ups and even rock climbing
Pinching exercises such as pinching books, yoga blocks, etc. can also be done to strengthen the finer muscles invovled with grip
This Nerd Fitness article outlines their five types of exercises for strengthening grip which include crush, pinch, support, extension and wrist support exercises.
Most traditional ways of strengthening grip involve flexor-based (closed fist) movements.
We learned earlier that the flexor muscles of the fingers are already 65% stronger by nature than the extensors. By practicing extension-based movements (open fist or high five) we can reduce the strain on our hands and wrists because we’re engaging the extensors as opposed to the already-stronger flexor muscles of the hands.
This video explains quickly why it's important to strive towards balance between extensors and flexors of the hand.
The Gravity Ball Method™ is a method of active extension-based resistance exercise. Using your hands in an extended position is now possible because the weight secures to you with high strength Velcro. You can lift a weight with your hand fully extended, an entirely new way to use weight.
All of these types of exercises can benefit your grip strength. Our hands allow us to do a countless number of things each day. Whether you’re able to pinch a 25 lbs iron plate in the gym or a foam yoga block, remembering these muscles and trying out different ways to keep them balanced is a great place to start.