By Fritz Nugent
What if I told you that having a strong grip would help you live longer? Here’s a little secret: grip strength is more important than many of us realize. Interesting connections exist between grip strength and absolute strength, all-cause mortality, and chronic diseases (1, 2).
The important message here is simple – increase your grip strength and you’ll live a longer life (probably), and most likely also a healthier one with less disease. At least you put the odds in your favor. We don’t really know why, yet, but there are some interesting hypotheses which researchers are currently exploring.
What we do know is that if you are overweight or obese with a weak grip, you aren’t going to live very long. If you are overweight or obese and your grip strength is high compared to your sex and age group, this hedges some mortality risk and increases life span. The optimal option is lean with a strong grip.
What is grip strength?
Grip strength is exactly what it sounds like – the amount of crushing force that we can produce when making a fist or gripping something. But it’s not just as simple as that. When we squeeze, the amount of force we produce is connected to our whole body. This value is measured by pressure. An inexpensive hand dynamometer is a valid way to test grip strength. With this data, we can compare ourselves to others in our category of age and sex.
I’ll show you the connection between your grip and your entire body. Try this now – make a fist. The muscles of your hand and forearm harden. Tighten that fist. In addition to hand and forearms, now biceps and triceps are engaged. Make that fist as tight as you can now. You’ll feel even more musculature being recruited in the shoulder, pecs, lats.
When we grip with maximal force, producing that force demands that we utilize irradiation – the principle of one muscle’s tension recruiting surrounding musculature. The higher the force demanded, the more irradiation is required, utilizing force production from a large number of motor units within those muscles.
Performing tasks that require large amounts of grip strength force and time under tension, or how long you are performing tasks for, will facilitate the adaptations to muscle quality and quantity, connective tissue, and bone.
Grip Strength Testing
Many sports and athletes utilize tests to determine acute readiness state of an athlete’s nervous system. For example, testing an athlete’s vertical jump provides insight to the nervous system’s ability to produce force that day.
A high jump would suggest a hard training day because the athlete is rested and powerful on this day. An average jump may signify a moderate training stimulus, and a low jump height would suggest a rest day. However, testing vertical jump takes time and energy that would be better spent on training instead of testing. Enter grip strength testing.
Grip strength can be utilized in a similar manner. Let’s say I have my own hand dynamometer in my desk drawer. Every day for a few months before I lift, I test my grip strength that day and I note how I feel during my training sessions. [Side note: I got this idea from rumors by Charlie Francis and Charles Poliquin who alluded to stories of Soviet strength and conditioning scientists utilizing grip strength to estimate elite athlete training readiness on a daily basis]
Eventually, I could decipher a pattern linking my tested grip strength with my potential to lift heavy. I actually did this for a few years as a competitive athlete (many years ago). After establishing a baseline, I went by a specific set of guidelines.
If my grip strength was (+/-) 2% that day, I would hit a moderate volume and/or intensity session. If my grip strength was +2-5%, I would train hard that day and could usually go pretty heavy. And if I was 5-10% above, then I would attempt a PR. Whether placebo was in effect here is hard to tell, BUT the PR’s were very consistent with large grip strength squeezes on the hand dynamometer.
On the other side of that, if I was 2-5% below baseline, I would rest that day, and if I ever started out a week with a 5-10% test below baseline, then I would take a deload week. The next week, my grip would always be back above baseline unless I had been burning the candle hard for a while. Then two weeks did the trick.
Grip Strength Training
Essentially, grip strength in its purest form, is how much force can be produced and maintained for a few seconds. This is maximal strength. To train this, high resistances are required. For improvements here, think heavy deadlifts and farmer carries.
In addition, some counter-intuitive and intensely performed movements like Russian Kettlebell Swings can produce a ton of force on the hands. Think about how much force is experienced on the downswing at the bottom of a hinge during a hard-style swing. With a 53-lb kettlebell, close to 10 TIMES the kettlebell weight has been measured in elite athletes, meaning that the speed and intention of one movement can turn a 53 lb weight into over 500 pounds of force on the joints, bones, body tissues, and of course, grip.
How to Improve Maximal Grip Strength
Here are some of my favorite approaches to improving maximal grip strength:
Double Overhand Deadlifts
End each set with a 5-10 second top hold and accompanying MAXIMAL SQUEEZE. If you’re a real badass, you will maintain that gnarly squeeze on ALL your reps. Keep sets to 5 reps or less. And take lots of rest to allow for that same quality of maximal grip squeeze each set. Once quality fades, cut the workout and pick back up another day.
Heavy Farmer Carries
Steadily build up carrying two farmer bars for about 60-100 feet.
How to Improve Grip Strength Endurance
There is another useful type of grip strength as well – strength endurance. There are plenty of athletes with strong grip but do not have strength endurance.
How long can you hang from a pull-up bar until you drop from your grip giving out? How many unbroken hard-style Russian Kettlebell Swings can you perform? How many kipping pull-ups?
These all demand slightly differing quantities of grip endurance and also elements of absolute strength. Even someone with impressive maximal grip strength may not be able to hang for long if they have not challenged endurance as a component of grip work in their training. To improve this quality, there are literally endless ways. Here are some of my favorite approaches to improving grip strength endurance:
Similar approach here – find your MAX bar hang. Once you have this, cut that time in half and collect a ton of sets with a ton of rest between to allow you to keep quality and hang duration consistent. Training this way rapidly improves grip strength endurance.
Hard-Style Russian Kettlebell Swings
Find out what your max rep hard-style set is and hit HALF the reps each set without breaking form. Rest 10-15 minutes. Complete this for 5-8 rounds. Is all that rest necessary? Why yes, it is, if you are collecting sets at maximum intensity. The goal here is performance consistency across your sets. The power produced and the number of reps should remain high. I put this one in the strength endurance category. However, if you swing with a heavy resistance which decreases your reps, this can blur the lines between grip endurance and absolute strength.
Plate Pinch Walks
Pinch a pair of plates and take them for a 100-meter ride. Challenging? Of course! Train this way two days a week and your grip endurance and strength will improve.
On-par with hanging, pull-ups increase grip strength. Is there a difference between strict and dynamic (kipping, butterfly) pull-ups here? Of course there is. At the bottom of a controlled strict pull-up, an athlete’s speed is relatively constant, which maintains a uniform force on the grip throughout each rep. However, with a dynamic pull-up, athletes are descending to the bottom of each rep at higher velocities which increases the force on the grip. This requires strength to stay on the bar and endurance to collect large sets of work. This movement has its drawbacks and many hate on it. However, the effect on grip strength and one’s ability to
This is perhaps the most obvious. If you think that your grip strength and endurance are solid and you’ve never been to a climbing gym, give that a go and get back to me. Climbing requires BOTH grip strength and endurance.
Best Grip Strength Exercises
My favorite exercises for grip strength are weighted carries and deadlifts, but any movement can be turned into a grip strength builder by SQUEEZING THE S%$* out of your chosen implement. Don’t be surprised if you cannot complete as many repetitions with a white-knuckle squeeze compared to utilizing Dumbbell or kettlebell presses and rows – squeeze here. Pull-ups? Squeeze. For grip strength endurance, hanging is always a favorite. Tackle this task frequently enough, and your overhead mobility can improve as an added bonus.
Grease the Groove
Here is a fun protocol called “grease the groove”, promoted by Pavel Tsatsouline of Strength First. To grease the groove, pick ANY task (doesn’t have to be physical), and get a few reps in throughout the day. Let’s say you pick push-ups. You could set an alarm every 30-60 minutes to bang out a set. Throughout the day, you will accumulate a decent amount of repetitions. If you continue this for a week, you will collect an impressive amount of volume. Keep doing this for months on end while slowly increasing the amount of work you do during each single bout of reps, you will earn a surprising level of success.
I practice greasing the groove for grip strength during group classes when I coach. I’ll single and double-arm swing on the rings for a few seconds all throughout the day. My grip strength is getting better. I can feel it. And the hand dynamometer backs it up!
Benchmarks for Grip Strength
Here are some grip strength and endurance benchmarks for you to play with. If you aren’t at the “decent” level upon first testing, keep training with patience and intelligence and work towards mastery.
- Farmer Carry (70 feet)
- Decent = Carry ¾ of body weight in each hand
- Good = Carry body weight in each hand
- Great = 1.25+ x body weight in each hand
- Double overhand grip deadlift (no hook grip)
- Decent = 1.5 x bodyweight
- Good = double bodyweight
- Great 2.25+ x bodyweight
- 3-minute unbroken hang – grip any way you desire
- 1-minute unbroken single arm hang
Lastly, back to grip strength and mortality. Can I JUST isolation-train my grip strength to increase my lifespan, you ask? Why of course NOT. Training your grip with hand-grippers or squeeze tasks WITHOUT loading your entire body won’t extend your life. Grip strength can be associated with nervous system potential and whole body strength. So a person with a strong grip is also (usually) strong in other physical ways. Have you ever met a strong person with a weak grip? Nope, never. We use our hands to get strong. And if we are strong, we use our hands. It works both ways. So get out there and carry some heavy $h&t today and every week until you die.
Do you know what else helps your grip strength? Weightlifting and we have two options for you in our online programs – 3-Day and a 5-Day per week programs where you will receive workouts and feedback from Invictus Weightlifting Coach, Jared Enderton. The next cycle starts in February so reserve your spot now!