If you're a casual gym goer, you may not have thought about how to train your grip strength.
If you are a serious weight lifter, chances are you haven't thought much past your grip strength in relation to your deadlift max or your pull-up performance. But grip strength is so much more important than its role in a single lift. It is a huge indicator of our overall health, longevity, and quality of life as we age.
Understanding Grip Strength
There are many metrics we can measure that give us a view into our physical health and athletic performance.
While movement screens such as the overhead squat are valuable, and step tests have their uses, many exercise scientists argue that your hand grip strength is one of the most critical health measurements available. That's because the simple act of squeezing a device with your hand can tell us more about your strength, muscle mass, fall risk, and aging outlook than almost anything else.
Hand grip strength is such a reliable predictor of our health as we age that in 2019, scientists from Campbell University advocated that it be designated as an official biomarker or vital sign.
Many other studies have shown that hand grip strength reliably predicts the following:
- Overall muscular strength
- Frailty & sarcopenia
- Early death, disability, and disease
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Grip Strength as a Metric for Longevity & Function
By building strong hands, we can fight off muscle and bone loss, weakness, frailty, and disability far better as we age. This could mean living at home longer, enjoying a higher quality of life, and less chance of developing metabolic diseases.
The good news is that you don't need to measure your grip strength with fancy lab equipment to track your progress. You can work your grip throughout your workouts and even throughout your day and measure your endurance in seconds.
Additional Benefits of a Strong Grip
While the health benefits of a firm grip are huge for older adults in particular, there are still loads of performance perks for people of all ages and in different sports.
Improved Sports Performance
Many sports require a strong grip, and here are just a few:
- Olympic weightlifting
- Javelin throwing
- Jiu Jitsu
- Arm wrestling
- Racquet sports
By developing strength and dexterity in the lower arm, wrist, and hands, athletes in these sports will have improved performance.
A strong grip is non-negotiable if you're a powerlifter, Olympic weightlifter, or CrossFit athlete.
While many strength athletes use wrist wraps during training, you cannot use them in competition, and they're actively hindering the development of your grip strength if that is a weakness in your game.
That's not to say wrist wraps are bad. They're phenomenal for training exercises where your grip gives out long before your muscles do, such as stiff-legged deadlifts and barbell rows. But if you're actively working to improve your grip strength, use them minimally.
Better Functional Strength
Whether opening a jar, carrying a bag, or pinching up something small off the floor, you depend on your grip strength and hand dexterity for countless daily tasks.
By developing your grip strength, everyday activities will feel easier, and you'll become the champion jar opener for the people in your life (a title I've worn proudly for many years).
Better Cognitive Health
One study published in BMC Medicine looked at data from 40,000 participants in the UK and found that a stronger grip was correlated with the following:
- Better cognitive function
- Higher life satisfaction
- Greater well-being
- Less depression & anxiety symptoms
While the study does not prove that their stronger grip strength caused these cognitive outcomes, it certainly supports the greater body of evidence that shows strength is a significant indicator of how well we will age.
Reduced Injury Risk and All-cause Mortality
The most fascinating aspect of grip strength training is just how reliably it predicts disease, disability, and death risk for older adults. This is thought to be because your grip strength correlates very strongly with your overall strength, particularly leg strength.
Older adults who do not have adequate bone and muscle mass lose significant strength, balance, and coordination over time. These losses result in a loss of balance and the functional strength to perform the activities of daily living.
Over time, these losses compound, resulting in frailty and considerable fall risk, opening the door for fall-related injuries. Falls resulting in hip fractures can be catastrophic for adults over 60 and exponentially increase their chance of dying within one year.
How to Measure Grip Strength
In the laboratory setting, hand grip strength is measured using a dynamometer that displays the force created in kilograms or pounds. But you don't need fancy equipment to measure your own grip strength from anywhere.
One of my favorite ways to assess grip strength is with the dead hang. Climb up to a pull-up bar and let yourself hang there. Measure how long you can last, and that is your baseline.
If you cannot jump or climb to a high bar, you can also hang off of the Smith machine bar. Try to add time to your hang each week, and you'll build stronger hands and forearms.
Different Grip Types
There are three main grip types humans naturally employ and that we can train. Each has the fingers and thumb in a different orientation to accomplish a different task.
You must develop strength in all three ways to have well-rounded hand and wrist health.
Crush grip is when you squeeze something between your fingers and your palm. Think about crushing an empty soda can. This is the grip we use when we lift a barbell or hold a racquet.
Pinch grip is a much finer motor pattern and involves holding something between your thumbs and fingers only. Imagine grabbing a penny off the floor, but you use all your fingers, not just your pointer and thumb.
The support grip is when you use your fingers and thumb to grip an object. You use your support grip during a dead hang, and your forearm muscles are the limiting factor for your endurance.
Medical Conditions that Affect Grip Strength
There are a variety of medical conditions that can impair your grip strength. Any sudden neurological symptom that develops, such as muscular weakness, is an urgent concern and should be evaluated by your doctor immediately.
Some conditions that may cause weakness in the hands include the following:
- Age-related frailty
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Pinched Nerves
Exercises to Improve Grip Strength & Wrist Mobility
Increasing your grip strength is not complicated. You regularly strength train, you are likely building grip each workout by grabbing dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells. But if you want to take your grip strength to the next level, these exercises won't disappoint.
The farmer's carry is a simple exercise but is hugely effective: you just pick up a heavy weight and walk with it.
Your focus should be on keeping a proud chest, with your shoulders back, and resisting movement in any direction.
The concept is simple, but the execution is brutal when lugging around heavy weights. Not only is this exercise great at building grip strength, but it's also fantastic for building anti-rotational core strength and even provides conditioning if you move fast enough.
There are many different variations of farmer's carries that will challenge you in different ways. Check out my favorite variations here.
The dead hang has to be one of the very best exercises to develop your grip strength, and boy, is it harder than it looks. As the name implies, you must hang from a bar without swinging. In fact, you want to stay perfectly still.
This exercise challenges all your core muscles, as well as the muscles in your hands, arms, and shoulders. Learn how to perform different dead hang variations here.
The plate pinch is another deceptively simple exercise that will have your forearms and hands on fire.
Grab a weight plate and pinch it between your thumb and fingers like this. Hold the plate as long as you can, and try to add time each week.
The plate pinch is the best exercise for developing your pinch grip strength and endurance.
Front Rack Mobility Work
Wrist mobility is another aspect of hand and forearm health that can limit you in the gym. For some people, that can show up as pain during push-ups or an inability to get in the front rack position for the front squat or clean.
If you lack wrist mobility, check out these exercises to increase your range of motion and help you build solid and stable wrists.
Deadlifts are a foundational strength movement and also challenge your grip considerably. However, if you have weak hands, you'll never be able to hold onto the bar long enough to adequately challenge your big back and leg muscles.
While you work your grip strength every time you deadlift, you can further challenge your grip with an overhand rather than a mixed grip.
You can buy devices called hand grip strengtheners that are small, affordable, and allow you to build your crush grip strength from anywhere. Do a few sets of 20 to 30 reps daily for stronger hands and a better grip.
The wrist curl is a limited range of movement exercise that is excellent for developing the muscles in your forearms. Make sure you use weights that are light enough to avoid strain, as the flexor muscles in your forearms are small. Check out this video for a quick wrist curl tutorial.
If you're an experienced lifter and want to challenge your grip even further, try incorporating a towel into your training. There are many different ways to use towels in your strength training to further develop your grip strength, such as wrapping the bar during a deadlift or wrapping two towels from the bar and grabbing them for deadlifts, pull-ups, rows, and dead hangs.
Gripping a towel instead of a bar provides even more of a challenge for your crush and support grip and also allows for a greater range of motion for some exercises compared to traditional handle attachments.
Equipment Options to Build A Stronger Grip
You don't have to buy equipment to develop your grip strength, as your typical gym has everything you need to build stronger hands and forearms.
If you're building a home gym, here are a few options that can come in handy:
- Hand grippers
- Fat Gripz bars and handles
- Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells
- Pull-up/chin-up bar
Safety Tips for Training Grip Strength
If you're experiencing a weak grip due to a medical issue, get cleared with your physician or physical therapist before you start a new exercise program.
The muscles in your forearms that create the movement and dexterity of your hands need significant endurance to hold things for extended periods. It can also be helpful to build muscle in the forearms for greater strength.
As with any exercise program, ensure the exercises you select and your training volume match your goals and training status.
If you're new to strength training, don't expect a 2-minute dead hang on day one. Start by timing yourself for each exercise to establish your baseline. Jot down the weight used for each exercise and the time in a notebook or on your phone.
Try to add a few seconds each week and progress to harder exercises when you feel ready.
Watch Your Toes
When your grip gives out, it can be sudden. So ensure you're prepared for the weights to slip, and don't hold heavy plates over your face or toes.
If you work a desk job and spend hours a day typing, you are at risk for pain and stiffness that can reduce your wrist mobility and limit the lifts you perform.
Incorporate daily desk stretches to combat this and improve your wrist mobility over time.
Modify Exercises as Needed
Exercises like push-ups can feel uncomfortable if you don't have adequate wrist mobility and strength. Instead of avoiding them, use movement modifications if you're experiencing pain. This will build your strength and range of motion so you can perform the strict push-ups eventually.
Your grip strength is a crucial indicator of your overall health, strength, and an accurate predictor of your quality of life as you age. There are three types of grip strength–crush, support, and pinch–and they must each be trained.
Exercises such as farmer's carries, deadlifts, dead hangs, wrist curls, and plate pinches are excellent for developing well-rounded grip strength. You don't need a gym membership to get stronger hands, but regular strength training using dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells will train them effectively while providing many other health benefits.
Grip Strength Training FAQs
What are the benefits of having a strong grip?
By developing your grip strength, you'll enjoy better sport-specific performance, stronger lifts such as the deadlift and pull-up, better function in daily life, improved cognitive function as you age, and a huge decrease in risk of injury and all-cause mortality, especially for adults over 60.
How does grip strength relate to overall health?
Your grip strength correlates strongly with your overall strength, which is a good predictor of how you will age. If you have a strong body, you'll have strong hands. And strong hands tell us you are less likely to become disabled or frail later in life.
How often should I train grip strength?
You can train grip strength every time you're in the gym or throughout your day using a gripper hand strengthening tool, towels, or by challenging yourself with holding cumbersome items.
See how long you can hold something in a crush or pinch grip, then try to add time each week.
Can grip strength be improved without using equipment?
Yes, you can improve your grip strength without equipment simply by picking up and holding heavy items you have at home.
You can also use affordable home gym equipment such as a chin-up bar, hand grippers, and towels to develop powerful hand and forearm strength.
If you go to the gym, you develop your grip strength every time you pick up a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell and hang off a bar.
More Strength Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- Ultimate Guide to Strength Training
- Ultimate Kettlebell Strength Training Guide
- Optimal Strength Training Frequency
- Functional Strength Training Benefits
- Best Strength Training Exercises
- Resistance Band Strength Training
- Understanding Reps in Strength Training
- Ultimate Guide to Olympic Weight Lifting
- Building the Ultimate Powerlifting Home Gym
- How to Start Powerlifting
- Bodybuilding Guide
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. A Brief Review of Handgrip Strength and Sport Performance.
Experimental Aging Research. Correlation between Health-Related Quality of Life and Hand Grip Strength among Older Adults.
Clinical Interventions in Aging. Grip Strength: An Indispensable Biomarker For Older Adults.
Journal of Sport and Health Science. Handgrip strength and health outcomes: Umbrella review of systematic reviews with meta-analyses of observational studies.