Grip strength keeps popping up in fitness-related headlines. Why? Because it is so fundamental to daily function and it has been shown to be a clear indicator of cardiovascular health and mortality. Plus, it’s obviously cool—many classic strongman feats involved grip; an impressive grip is baked into our social norms as something extraordinary and impressive.

 
But the point is, its not just for stunts and tricks and strongman feats. Grip strength makes your daily life better and gives your a healthier future.
 
Let’s take a look at what the research shows and at how to train grip strength.
 

Grip Strength Points to Heart Health

Grip strength, as recent Harvard Medical School research1 confirms, means more than just being able to deliver a firm handshake. In fact, there's a growing body of research that points to grip being a predictor of one’s risk for having a heart attack or stroke, or dying from cardiovascular disease.
 
For example, as part of the ongoing, international Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study, researchers used a dynamometer to measure grip strength in almost 140,000 adults in 17 countries, and they followed their health for an average of four years.
 
The results? Over the time span of the study, every 11 pounds of grip strength lost was linked to:
 
  • 16% greater risk of dying from any cause
  • 17% greater risk of dying from heart disease
  • 9% greater risk of stroke
  • 7% increased risk of heart attack
 
Another example can be found in results published in The Lancet2, even accounting for other factors such as smoking, exercise, age, etc., researchers still found that grip strength’s relationship to cardiovascular disease and death remained strong. So much so that even blood pressure was found to be a weaker predictor of cardiovascular health and death than grip strength.
 
Researchers are also confirming what seems obvious: this is a cheap and easy way to add valuable data to health assessments. In a statement3 released to the press, lead author Dr. Darryl Leong, from the Population Health Research Institute at Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University in Canada, said, “Grip strength could be an easy and inexpensive test to assess an individual’s risk of death and cardiovascular disease.
 
The PURE study’s findings are not unique and are not new. The connection that grip strength has with future disease/disability, death, and the likelihood of cardiovascular disease in adults has been documented in other research. But the PURE study is the largest one to have confirmed this connection. And if that weren’t enough, the study found that grip strength’s significance was consistent across high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries, lending further credence to the findings.
 
Is Grip Strength a Measure of Biological Age?
The idea of “biological age” is not precisely defined. It just points to how the body is functioning in comparison to its chronological age (which we can know precisely).
The key things that influence biological age are just what you’d expect: things like overall physical fitness, the presence or absence of certain medical conditions, and muscle strength. And grip strength seems to be another key factor in determining biologocial age.
Researchers Avan Aihie Sayer and Thomas Kirkwood of the University of Southampton and Newcastle University, both in the United Kingdom, published an editorial4 along with the PURE results. In it, they state plainly that “grip strength might act as a biomarker of ageing across the life course.”
 

How to Train Grip Strength

Grip training can be less programmatic that other types of strength training yet still be quite successful. Grip legend Odd Haugen (the "Visegrip Viking"), when asked what exercises to prioritize or how to structure one’s efforts when starting grip training, gave this advice: Just start using your grip, all the time. He then turned the question around, asking who were the people in the world with strong grips? Of course, it’s people who work with their hands, who use their brawn in their daily laboring—fishermen, construction workers, and such. His point was, that by simply picking up hard-to-grip objects, trying to hold on to things for long periods of time, or maintaining grip against a rotational or torque force, you can improve your grip strength. For everyday folks, it really does not need to be much more complicated than that.
 

68 year old Odd Haugen competes against world streongman competitor Martins Licis and social media sensation Jujimufu.

 
You can think of grip more as a capacity than a specific “exercise.” As such, grip does not have a lot of technique or fine points that might need coaching or remediation. Can you pick up the Thomas Inch Dumbell? Then you have that amount of grip strength. If you can’t pick it up, then you don’t. There’s no measure of degree; it’s a pass-fail test and there’s no prize for “almost.” And to improve, all you need to do is keep on picking up something you can barely lift until it gets easier, then move to the next thing that’s challenging. Just keep trying to pick stuff up or hold onto stuff, and rest adequately between efforts.
 
Of course, at a competitive level, you can’t train so randomly. You’ll need a good coach and a solid program to assess your specific strengths and weaknesses as relates to the events you will compete in.
 
But for the rest of us, we can start grip training right now, and keep training pretty much all the time.
 
It should be noted that the studies mentioned above, like most such studies, used a dynamometer, which only measures one kind of grip strength. But to build real-world grip strength and enjoy the benefits of a well-rounded strong grip, you’ll want to train all three of the main grip-strength categories. According to nail-bending, phonebook-tearing strongwoman and hard-rocker Melody Schoenfeld, these are:
 
  • The Crush Grip is the grip between your fingers and your palm—the one you use for shaking hands and crumpling beer cans.
  • The Pinch Grip is the grip between your fingers and your thumb. This can be further subcategorized into individual fingers + thumb grip.
  • The Support Grip is the ability to maintain a hold on something for a while—think pull ups or long and productive shopping trips.
 
Of course, this variety of types of grip ties into a whole range of daily activities and lifestyle choices you can make that will yield huge benefits. Building grip exercises in to your daily routine can be a very effective way to improve this important function. And there’s lots of ways to do that.
 
The point is, to improve grip strength, you don’t have to spend the money to go to a gym and you don’t even have to set aside the time for working out. Sure, training this way, you’ll probably never reach a competitive level. But you can make significant improvements in grip strength—and in many aspects of your fitness—through simple, daily activities that challenge you. For example:
 
  • Park further from the entrance of the grocery store, and carry your bags to the car.
  • When you’re on the phone or standing around – like in line or when pumping gas – find a way to work your grip. A simple way is to simply hold onto something and lean back (a fingertip grip on a doorjamb is great). Start slow, you don’t want to lose your grip and fall.
  • For those especially deconditioned or elderly, it can be as simple as lifting the milk carton for several reps every time you take it out or put in back in the fridge.
  • Get something squishy or pliable, or shop for something purpose-built at and keep it handy with you or on your desk. Use it throughout the day. Just type "grip strength tools" into the search field, and your browser will show you a wide world of options.
 
A Few Caveats
Change equipment and movements from day-to-day to avoid repetive-stress injuries and make sure you rest your grip between hard efforts. Varied practice also helps avoid boredom and plateaus.
 
Grip strength can be a sign of heart health
 
In attending to grip strength, it’s like anything else. If you have a condition or injury that will limit you or that poses special considerations, check with a qualified professional for advice.
 
And you can’t ignore nutrition and sleep. If your diet is not optimal, you might want to research fish oil and other supplements to support your body’s healing fight inflammation, and support joint health. Adequate sleep is vital for recovery and healing of stressed tissues. Aim for seven to eight hours per night. That will give your body time to repair muscle tissue and replenish your muscle’s energy stores.
 
So let's go. Grab something and hold on... for your life.
 
References:
1. LeWine, Howard, M.D., Grip strength may provide clues to heart health. Harvard Health Publications, Harvard medical School, Posted May 19, 2015, 12:11 PM , Updated September 08, 2016, 5:16 PM
2. Leong, Darryl P., Koon K. Teo, Sumathy Rangarajan, Patricio Lopez-Jaramillo, Alvaro Avezum, Andres Orlandini, Pamela Seron et al. "Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study." The Lancet 386, no. 9990 (2015): 266-273.
4. Sayer, Avan Aihie, and T. B. Kirkwood. "Grip strength and mortality: a biomarker of ageing?." Lancet (London, England) 386, no. 9990 (2015): 226.
 
 
 
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