You can’t underestimate the value of good hand and grip strength.
It’s useful in things as mundane as carrying the groceries into the house to rock climbing. Even more compelling is the association of good grip strength with longevity, improved function in activities of daily living, and overall health.
And though the Covid era may have put the handshake on a hiatus for a lot of people, I’m sure no one likes the “dead fish” handshake where a person seems to have no strength at all! A firm, but not overbearing handshake denotes confidence and instills a sense of trust.
Often we tend to think grip, hand, and wrist strength require explicit exercises and equipment to improve. However, aside from recovering from injuries or participating in very specific activities like climbing or martial arts training, you really don’t need anything fancy to gain and maintain good grip strength that will serve you well in everything you do.
In this discussion on grip strength, we will explore the physiology of grip, hand, and wrist strength, uncover the diverse types of grip strength and their functions, and delve into the factors that impact its development.
We’ll also walk you through the process of a practical assessment of your grip strength, helping you identify if there are specific areas of improvement that need some building up and share some ideas on how best to do that.
And even if you decide that grip strength should be a focus for you, remember that it’s best to have a fundamental full body training program and add specifically what you require for your chosen activities. This can change too! Cycling in and out of things through the year not only keeps things interesting, it’s good for you.
Training Hand & Grip Strength
Before we move on to the nitty gritty of it all, here’s an example how we approach grip training in our programs, along with a couple of specialized exercises I include for my martial arts performance.
Along with improving your grip strength, locomotor exercises are great at building agility and coordination across all your major joints.
Below, I’ll explain more about why we recommend these exercises over some of the traditional grip exercises you’ve probably seen before. Though grippers and specific grip training have their place, I want to encourage you to explore training your grip within a movement context, because it’s more broadly applicable to daily life.
Let’s start there…
Grip Strength: Types and Impact on Daily Function
Grip strength is a complex interplay of various muscle groups throughout the hand, wrist, forearm, and elbow.
The intrinsic hand muscles are a group of muscles located within the hand itself. These muscles are responsible for controlling the intricate movements of the fingers and thumb, allowing for fine motor skills and precise grip strength. They are essential for writing, typing, and manipulating objects with precision.
Some of the main intrinsic hand muscles include:
- Thenar and Hypothenar Muscles: These muscles are located at the base of the thumb and little finger and are responsible for opposition (bringing them together).
- Lumbrical Muscles: Four lumbrical muscles run along the palm side of the fingers and play a role in finger flexion and extension.
- Interosseous Muscles: The palmar and dorsal interosseous muscles are situated between the metacarpal bones of the hand and are involved in finger abduction and adduction.
- Thumb Muscles (Adductor Pollicis, Flexor Pollicis Brevis, Opponens Pocllicis): These muscles lie deep within the palm and are responsible for moving the thumb.
While intrinsic hand muscles of course play a crucial role in contributing to grip strength, it is essential to recognize the involvement of other muscles cross into the hand from long tendons down from the elbow.
Some of the main extrinsic gripping muscles include:
- Flexor Digitorum Profundus and Superficialis: These muscles, respectively, flex the distal (closest to the fingertips) and the proximal (closer to the palm) interphalangeal joints of the fingers and are needed for a secure grip.
- Flexor Pollicis Longus: This muscle flexes the thumb at the interphalangeal joint and is crucial for grasping and pinching movements.
- Pronator Teres: The pronator teres muscle is involved in pronating the forearm (rotating the palm downward) and is important for grip stability.
- Palmaris Longus: This muscle runs along the palm side of the forearm and aids in stabilizing the wrist and hand.
- Flexor Carpi Radialis and Ulnaris: These muscles are responsible for flexing the wrist and are involved in wrist stabilization.
These extrinsic muscles work in conjunction with the intrinsic muscles to generate the necessary force and control for the wide spectrum of activities we need to perform, from holding and squeezing objects with varying degrees of force to performing intricate tasks that require fine motor skills.
This leads us to the main classifications of the types of grips:
The crushing grip involves firmly closing your hand around an object, exerting force to compress it. Crushing soda cans, squeezing out wet sponges and towels, and using tools like pliers and wire cutters.
This is probably the most common thing we think of with grip strength, and why it’s reasonable to assume you’d require hand grippers to work on it.
The holding grip focuses on maintaining a firm grasp on an object without unduly crushing it.
This is the grip we use so much everyday that we likely don’t think of it all. Carrying grocery bags, holding pens, steering wheels, handrails, and pots and pans. All require adequate holding grip strength, you don’t miss it until it’s gone!
The pinching grip involves holding an object between your thumb and fingers. Thumb strength is a crucial component of this grip type and is often considered it’s own particular area, due to its unique role in pinching tasks.
Again, this is so mundane and necessary it’s almost silly to list things out. Using scissors, turning keys and dials, sewing, and all fine motor skill hobbies.
The lumbrical grip is characterized by using the lumbrical muscles in the hand in a “flat C” shape.
This can a be a little bit harder to parse out from pinching, but it can help to think of activities where you use your hand and fingers to conform more to the shape of what you are gripping. You can pinch a pen to pick it up, but you hold it differently to actually write with it. Playing musical instruments, typing, gripping various thicknesses of clothing, and even using a touchscreen!
Now that you’re more familiar with the categories of gripping, what would be a meaningful grip strength be for you and what you like to do most?
Do you need a strong crushing or holding grip for using tools for your never ending home renovations? Or do you need more precision in pinching and lumbrical gripping for building craft projects or playing music?
This is the type of personal assessment that is necessary for you so that you can spend your limited training time – and energy! – well and make the most of it.
The Role of Grip Strength Longevity and Quality of Life
You may have heard of the research that unveiled a correlation between grip strength and longevity. Several studies have shown that individuals with stronger grips tend to experience greater resistance to aging and a longer lifespan.
However, it is crucial to recognize that grip strength serves as an indicator of overall health and physical activity levels rather than a direct causative factor. A strong grip often reflects an active and healthy lifestyle, which contributes to better cardiovascular health, muscular development, and overall well-being.
You aren’t going to live longer by using using a gripper everyday…
I remember a PT colleague who used to be a mechanic, we were testing our grips and he tested way higher than most of us even though we all lifted weights and did other sports. His consistent heavy work with wrenches and tools made his grip very strong. But what if he also smoked, was overweight, and was otherwise very inactive. Would you say that based on his strong grip he would live longer than someone who had a weaker grip but was very active, ate better, and was a non-smoker?
It’d be helpful now to talk a bit about what research has shown for reference values across the lifespan in grip strength. This gives us a bit more understanding of what a “weak” and “strong” grip would really be.
This is a box plot that describes hand-grip strength measurements (pounds) for (A) the dominant hand and (B) the nondominant hand. For each box, the center line represents the average (50th percentile), the height of the box represents the top and low quarter percentile and the top error bars represent minimum and maximum.
Basically, anywhere in the colored box is considered “normal”, and out of that range you would be considered pretty strong, or if on the other end, be recommended to exercise more.
To make things a bit clearer, I’ve made a table with the average dominant hand grip strength.
|Age||Grip Strength (pounds)|
You’d need a grip measurement tool to be exact, but if you don’t have one this gives you an idea of what “normal” is, and you likely have a sense of where you are in the range based on your activity level and what those activities are.
An example of a rough, but fairly accurate estimate, is if you are able to hang off a pull-up bar for even just a few seconds with both hands, your grip strength would be at least half of your weight.
Incorporating Grip Training Into Your Routine Vs. Specific Training
As we talked about above in the discussion of the different types of grip and how they relate to your life, what would it mean to have more than enough grip strength to handle what you need and like to do?
If I were still a betting man, I’d wager that if you are doing regular consistent training that involves any use of your hands with hanging, crawling, that you would be at least within the age/sex norms and maybe even above.
In the video above, you saw how grip, hand, and wrist strengthening and resilience are embedded in our training programs.
We incorporate wrist mobility and strength preparation exercises in every program, and these along with the variety of locomotion movements, necessarily and progressively build hand and wrist resilience. So while it’s pretty apparent that the exercises improve overall body strength, they are also very effective at developing functional gripping strength.
You can emphasize it further by shifting your weight and pressure to focus on specific areas of your fingers, and for varying amounts of time under load and intensity. You have to be more mindful and careful not to overdo it – that applies to everything – but it is a great way to integrate more grip and hand strength work in the training that you are already doing!
While specific grip training is essential for certain sports and activities with unique grip demands, it may not be necessary for everyone seeking to improve their grip strength and longevity.
Regular consistent training in activities like locomotion and basic pulling exercises provides sufficient grip strength development for everyday functional tasks and overall health. These activities engage the muscles of the hands, wrists, and forearms effectively, contributing to improved grip strength over time.
How to Approach Specific Grip Training (If You Decide You Need It)
The video above shares the martial arts grip training I’m currently doing, and provides a good example of how to apply grip work to specific needs. Brazilian Jiujitsu – both in the gi uniform and without – requires all of the types of gripping identified here (crushing, holding, pinching, lumbrical) to some extent. But primarily the holding and lumbrical, along with the wrist and forearm twisting you need when facing a resisting opponent.
You can see that you’ll need to do a bit of analyzing of your own sport/activity and decide which of the types of grip are essential. And again it’ll most likely be a mix but with one or two being primary.
Here is some general advice for adding specific grip training to your workout sessions if you’ve decided you really need it.
Training Crushing Grip
This type of grip strength requires lower repetition and more forceful work, since the goal is the expression of crushing strength for just a short period of time. When I’ve looked at the various strongman/woman training regimens, crushing strength is developed through a variety of sizes of tools for multiple sets of just a few repetitions. They also only do this specific work two to three times a week.
Hand grippers, or even the use of pliers in cutting a variety of objects, are the most efficient method of choice here. I’d advise you to do a lot of warmup to prepare well and prevent hand strain. So, as part of a balanced training program, performing this near the end of your regular training would be a good idea.
Training Holding/Pinching/Lumbrical Grip
I combine these because, in my opinion, the safest and most beneficial way for training these are relatively longer duration holds (twenty to sixty seconds) with objects of varying widths and textures.
You could say that pinching should be similar training to crushing, but in my experience it takes a high volume of work to safely condition your fingers and thumbs for heavy efforts. Unless you have a very specific need for it, it’s not worth the risk of finger injury.
There are lots of different implements (blocks, grippers, balls, etc) and I’ve tried most of them! But the use of towels, weight plates, and simply hanging off a pull-up bar will provide the majority of benefits for the majority of people.
Just as suggested for crushing grip above, I’d suggest doing this work at the end of your current routine, not more than three times a week. 3 to 4 sets of 2 to 3 exercises for hold times of 20 to 60 seconds will build a great grip within a few weeks.
Grip Training Devices – Do You Need Them?
Now you may have noticed that despite my assertion that most of us don’t need much of a specific grip training regimen, that I have a LOT of grip training implements – several hundred dollars worth and counting!
So what’s the deal with that?
Well for one thing, I just find it interesting… I’ve immersed myself in physical culture since I was a teenager. It’s my passion and I’ve been fortunate enough to have it as my lifelong career as well. And that’s one big reason I have so much equipment in my garage and do a variety of programs and training.
Also, this is literally my job.
I do this so that I can provide my clients, and readers, my best informed advice and opinions on all aspects of physical training. I do this so you don’t have to. It’s lucky I happen to really enjoy it too!
And having spent most of my life training and experimenting with different methods, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people do not need to train with grippers or specific devices to achieve a baseline of healthy grip strength. This opinion is also informed by the research I shared above and my clinical experience as a physical therapist.
You can easily exceed the necessary levels of grip strength required for a long, active life by consistently training as I’ve outlined above.
Build Your Grip Holistically
Grip strength is a significant aspect of human functional capacity and should absolutely be part of a comprehensive training regimen.
The hand/wrist/grip strength work in our programs contribute to an active and healthy lifestyle, fostering healthy longevity by building capability and resilience through strength, flexibility, and control.
Build A Resilient Capable Body
Our Elements program is designed to address all aspects of your functional fitness capacity. The program helps you quickly identify your personal limiting factors and gets you leveling them up right away.