Grip Strength: What It is and How to Improve It

Grip Strength

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

Grip strength not only comes from hand grasp but also the muscles and flexor tendons of the forearm, extending from the elbow, through the wrist, and along with the fingertips. Explained in further detail by mindset and movement expert Nadia Murdock, grip strength “is the force that is used by the hand when pulling on or suspending from objects which utilizes a specific part of hand strength, with pull-ups, using a rope and even barbell holds as examples which require grip strength.” To measure such strength, NASM-certified personal trainer Jesse Barton explains: “The heavier the object, and the longer you can hold onto it, the stronger your grip strength.”

To get the full download on grip strength, its importance, and how you can improve yours, keep reading.

Meet the Expert

  • Kathryn Kelly is an award-winning fitness competitor and recent first-place winner in the Team USA 2020 Jr. Master’s fitness competition.
  • Jesse Barton is an MYXfitness Coach and NASM-certified personal trainer.
  • Nadia Murdock is the founder of Nadia Murdock Fit, is a Mindset and Movement Expert.

Where is Grip Strength Applied?

The power we generate from a workout setting often translates into enhanced grip strength for many daily activities. “Tasks such as lifting real-world objects such as groceries, toddlers and heavy bags, tearing and bending items, and preventing injury when participating in sports, alongside other related physical activity, are all outcomes of strong grip strength,” says award-winning fitness competitor Kathryn Kelly. 

Even actions as seemingly insignificant as gripping “cooking utensils, vacuuming, swinging a golf club, or baseball bat utilizes grip strength,” adds Barton. 

Each function may require a different type of grip strength across several categories:

  • Crushing: With a solid handshake
  • Pinching: Lifting an object between the surface of one or more fingers and the thumb
  • Supporting: Such as holding oneself and pulling up on a bar 
  • Extending: Opening the fingers away from the thumb to offset the motion of flexion (such as typing on a keyboard)

The reality is we use our hands for everything (even to hold our phones!), which explains why wrist ache and tendon pain can creep in, stressing the importance of maintaining and improving our grip strength as we age.

Why is it Important?

As already touched upon, grip strength plays an important role in everyday movements and has been proven as a key indicator in our physical health as we age. “When you're moving awkward boxes around, carrying heavy things from your car, or opening tight jars of food, what always gives out first? Grip,” says Kelly, “given its importance to our daily life, physicians typically measure handgrip strength to determine physical fitness and physical well-being, especially as we age, and those with a stronger handgrip are also associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and possible strokes.” 

The importance of grip is so much so that it’s a measure for general strength alongside muscle mass, both of which decline naturally with age. “In fact, both physicians and researchers use grip strength to predict certain illnesses, given it’s related to overall muscle mass,” outlines Kelly. Findings from a 2015 international study testing handgrip strength (with a dynamometer device) on over 140,000 adults aged between 35 and 70 prove just that. The research highlights that grip strength is a strong predictor of cardiovascular mortality, more so than systolic blood pressure, and a link exists between decreased grip strength and an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Those with weaker grip strength are more likely to be diabetic and have high blood pressure, whereas, on the flip side, there's a correlation between strong grip strength and better shoulder health, as solid grip strength can better activate the rotator cuff muscles,” explains Barton. “And from a strength-training point of view, you will want a good grip to safely perform heavy lifts, such as the deadlift.”

How to Improve Your Grip Strength

Whether it’s to improve your grip through day-to-day activities or increase your grip in the gym, there are many ways to start out. “Resistance training is an excellent way to build strength in the body and can be coupled alongside exercises you can do while watching TV to practice your grip,” outlines Murdock. She suggests clenching a tennis ball or stress ball 100 times a day with your hands, or only using your fingers with your thumb (make sure to repeat on the other hand), and even finger extensions with rubber bands to increase blood flow to the hands.

Additionally, Barton suggests adding the following two exercises to your workout regime:

  • Dead Hangs: Hang onto a pull-up bar for as long as you can, or put your feet on the ground for added support. Start with ten to 20 seconds and build it up from there. 
  • Farmer's Walks: Hold a set of heavy-ish dumbbells while walking back and forth until you feel your grip starting to slip. Repeat for three rounds. 

Another technique is to add a few minutes of rope pulling to your workout, suggests Kelly. “Grip strength can also be improved by making small adjustments to your everyday life such as challenging yourself to carry in groceries further from home, or keeping a handgrip nearby for when you're feeling overwhelmed, as a way to relieve stress and improve grip.”

Keep in mind, many weight lifting exercises double-up as grip strengthening exercises. “Any time you grab a dumbbell to add weight, such as with sumo squats, you’re automatically working on your grip strength, and as your body gets used to heavier weights, your grip strength will equally increase.”

Additional Exercises for Grip Strength

  • Dumbbell head grab: With your hands pronated (facing down), grab onto the end of two dumbbells and hang on in there!
  • Plate curls: Grip a weight plate (you can change up the grip position) and curl towards the body. The heavier the weight, the harder the exercise. As a bonus, this exercise is also a wrist strengthener that targets the biceps.
  • Wrist curls: This isolation movement targets the forearm muscles and is excellent for improving grip strength. Grab two weights with palms facing up and in a seated position, adjust your wrists to hang over your legs, and bend your wrists down and up to work the forearms.