We all know, or should know, that strength training is one of the best forms of exercise we can integrate into our routines. Not just for the gains, strength training improves quality of life in the elderly, improves sleep and brain function as well as helping to control type 2 diabetes (related article).
There are plenty of exercise programs available online from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength to Pavel Tsatsouline’s Enter the Kettlebell that provide insights into improving our strength through concise and challenging routines. But when it comes to strength training, many of us ‘try to save time’ and are ignoring the areas we use most in everyday life: our forearms, wrists, hands and fingers.
Grip strength is possibly one of the most neglected areas for the casual gym member, and they are leaving their gains on the table.
What is Grip Strength?
Grip strength is the amount of force your arm or hand exerts on the object it is gripping. It has three variables: friction/drag/gravity, the strength of the grip (the amount of force required to exert the desired strength) and how far the object can be grasped. The greater the resistance (the more force it requires), the greater the grip strength required to prevent the object from slipping or dropping away.
Strength (or force) comes from resistance and can be the force an athlete needs to exert to hold an object in their hands. Because they are in a relatively closed system, any change in friction is proportional to any change in force.
Suppose an athlete is hanging off a pullup bar. His musculature from his fingertips down to just below his elbow are isometrically contracting to prevent him from falling. If we add some chalk to prevent his sweaty hands from slipping off the bar, friction can remain somewhat constant and we find that we are testing the athlete’s crushing grip strength. (We’ll come back to this subject later).
Muscles Involved in Grip Strength
We have 35 muscles responsible for moving our hand and forearm in each of our upper limbs. When we grip an object or bar, these muscles contract antagonistically to stabilize and control the load. The muscles in the anterior and posterior forearm compartments are separated into three categories: superficial, intermediate and deep compartments (Source).
Gripping involves a flexion mechanism that allows the hands to make fists or grasp an object and an extensor muscles in the forearm to stabilize the wrist (Source).
Your wrist can move in multiple ways: flexion, extension as well as deviating radially and ulnarly. When these 4 movements are combined, it is known as circumduction, where hand makes a circular motion anchored at the wrist.
Rotating movements like supination and pronation are only possible with the forearms, much like the opposable thumb, they allow us to manifest our imagination and leave a creative imprint on the world. (They also let us pick up heavy things and put them back down).
Supination (e.g. when curling with palms facing up) is made possible with 2 muscles: the supinator – attaching to the radius – and the biceps. Since the biceps contribute a lot to supination, its effect is limited by simultaneous contraction of the triceps. Supination is therefore more powerful than pronation.
Pronation (e.g. when performing triceps pushdowns with a straight bar) occurs via the contraction of 2 other muscles: the pronator teres – inserting halfway along the lateral side of the radius, just below the supinator insertion – and the pronator quadratus, inserting into the anterior surface of the radius.
A good training program will include methods for strengthening all of these movements to prevent inflammatory pains like tendonitis and both medial and lateral epicondylitis (golfer’s and tennis elbow respectively). If you do have any signs of repetitive movement injury, it’s best to see a professional and begin therapy as the recovery process can take a while due to the poor blood flow.
Why Grip Strength is Important
Regarding the strength you have, there’s one thing that is critical, and that’s the ability to move as an athlete. You might think that a grip workout won’t be necessary, but, if your hand is weak in any way, it’s pretty much certain to be weak enough to hurt you in competition whether it’s in a raw powerlifting meet or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament.
When your hands and the rest of your upper limbs are strong, you’re able to complete more repetitions compared to your weaker competition. If your goal is to improve endurance, you’ll complete more repetitions per set and more sets per exercise; with the increased output you’ll generate the necessary stimulus to build more muscle and retain more in your weight cutting phase.
More Strength and Better Injury Recovery
When you have a strong grip, you’re able to apply more force when squeezing the bar. Through a process known as irradiation, you activate the nearby muscle groups to contract more and lift more weight. You can try this next time you’re in the gym. Try cable curling 80% of your training max (be honest with yourself here) with your normal grip; then ‘white knuckle’ the bar by squeezing as hard as you can as you curl, you’ll notice that you’ll be lifting the same weight much more easily than before.
Imagine if this is what’s possible in 1 minute, what could you lift if your grip was even stronger?
This concept of irradiation doesn’t just apply to forearms and biceps in the gym. It’s been applied in physiotherapy for stroke patients in the UK as well as athletes recovering from injury (Source). Irradiation doesn’t simply apply to the muscle groups on the same side but the contralateral (opposite) side too (Source). Clearly the crossover activation effect isn’t 100%, nor should it be, but in my opinion, the potential for reducing post-injury recovery time is excellent.
It Could Make You a Better Police Officer
Interestingly, a 2017 study looking at police recruits found significant correlations between grip strength and task performance, specifically marksmanship and TACOPS – tactical options to neutralize threats with minimal force. The recruits with the stronger grip were more successful and had fewer injuries (Source). Since police officers are presented with unpredictable and often violent cases, improving their performance is arguably more important than the casual athlete.
According to a 2016 meta-analysis of 63 studies, grip strength appears to be highest among men from developed countries and universally declines with age.
Grip strength has also shown to be a good indicator of cardiovascular risk. Data from 17 countries showed that each 11lb/5kg decrease in grip strength was linked to a 16% increase in all cause mortality, 17% higher chance of dying from heart disease, 7% more from heart attacks and a 9% higher risk of stroke (Source). The link between grip strength and cardiovascular disease was still strong and significant after correcting for confounding variables like smoking and age.
Grip strength was also a superior health indicator for cardiovascular events compared to systolic blood pressure. Interestingly, in developed high income countries, grip strength was positively correlated with cancer risk but middle and low income countries didn’t show the same connection (Source).
A Powerful Handshake
Whether we like it or not, we are judged, not only by our appearance and skill but also our drive. A strong grip builds a powerful handshake in the modern world where we are free to negotiate and leverage our skills for what we find valuable. When used properly, it can demonstrate competence and confidence as much as it can convey egoism when not.
In contact sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling, a strong grip can be the difference between winning the round and losing the fight.
Types of Grip Strength
Crush grip: wrapping the fingers around a narrow object, like a barbell, and squeezing towards your palm. This is a movement you’ll do most in the weight room.
Pinch grip: this involves a static or dynamic hold using the fingers in opposition to your thumb.
Supporting grip: usually an isometric contraction where most of the weight is being supported by your fingers like in a heavy deadlift or weighted pull-up.
Open crush grip: incomplete wrapping of the fingers around an object like opening a jar or using fat gripz or fat bars in your training (Source).
Extension: this is the antagonistic component of all of your grips, it involves opening your fingers and thumb. Typically the hand is in a slight flexion when relaxed as the extensor muscles are weaker, it is a sign that our hands are made, one way or another, for grasping objects.
Exercises for Grip Strength
Grip training can be deceptively difficult at first so it’s best to leave it for the end of the workout, starting light with 2 sessions per week would be a great for beginners. Remember to train the extensors.
Thick bar training or Fat Gripz (open crushing grip)
Plate pinches (pinching grip)
Grippers (crushing grip)
Bar hangs, double/single handed (supporting grip)
Dumbbell holds from the side (open crushing grip)
Rubber band hand extensions/finger pushups (extensors)
For more grip strength exercises, check out the video below
A Note On Joint Care
It’s important to take care of your joints during and after training. If you tend to overwork muscles too much, you’ll find it harder to recover fully. Adequate sleep (related article), nutrition and supplementation (related article) will accelerate your progress without limiting your recovery and get you back in the gym.
There are no shortcuts, train your grip.