When it comes to building muscle, everyone focuses on the arms and chest. Probably no one gives a damn about their hands, but take a second to think about how misguided that is. Your hands allow you to throw a ball, hang from a pull-up bar, and climb mountains. Virtually any and all upper body exercises start with you gripping some type of free weight.
Believe it or not, the most limiting factor in your workout may be your grip strength. If you’re looking to increase the weights you’re lifting and can’t seem to do so, focus on exercises that strengthen muscles in your wrists, forearms, and hands.
Stronger lifts are just one of the benefits you’ll earn by targeting your gripping muscles. Below, we touch on six benefits of grip strength and outline some ways to add some juice to your squeeze.
Benefits of Strong Grip Strength
- Lower Mortality Risk
- Improved Quality of Life
- Predictor of Cardiovascular Risk
- Lift Heavier Weights
- More Endurance on the Pull-up Bar
- Improved Sports Performance
A strong grip won’t make you immortal, but it may help you increase your lifespan. A 2015 study measured the correlation between grip strength and potential health benefits, including a lower mortality risk. This is due to the correlation between grip strength and bone, cardiovascular, and overall health.
Grip strength was not only “inversely associated with all-cause mortality,” but every five-kilogram decrease in grip strength was associated with a 17 percent risk increase. (1)
Having a strong grip not only improves our performance in exercises like the farmer’s carry and rope climbs, but it also improves our daily life. Have you ever tried to open a jar that was on so tight you thought the Hulk himself screwed it back on? Since grip strength is associated with muscular strength, it helps you unscrew that stubborn lid, change a tire, paint your house, and even put your shoes on.
This is especially important as we age because, as a study from 2015 suggests, grip strength can be a predictor of “decline in cognition, mobility, functional status and mortality in older community-dwelling populations.” (2)
A strong, healthy heart is essential for living a long life, and regular exercise can help improve your heart function and decrease your chance of heart disease. According to a study where researchers measured 140,000 people from varying backgrounds, weak grip strength is associated with cardiovascular death in those who develop cardiovascular diseases. The study stayed consistent across age and gender. (3)
A study from 2014 measured grip force production and wrist action and how the muscles in the forearm and fingers contribute. In this study, seven males and three females around 25 were tested with a barbell-simulating apparatus increasing and decreasing in size. The grip force of the subjects decreased by 25% over time. This experiment suggests that more grip strength leads to less required power to move the apparatus. (4)
Therefore, you can deduce that someone who has a stronger grip requires less force to move an object so that you can add heavier weight plates to the barbell.
Hanging from a pull-up bar requires muscle activation in multiple muscles such as the lats, traps, shoulders, wrist, and hand and requires even more strength when more weight is involved. However, these muscles may mean nothing if the grip is not strong enough to hang on.
Grip force emerges when the muscles in the hand and fingers are activated. When one trains their grip, not only is the strength increased but the ability to grip for more extended periods is increased. (4)
Hand strength has been associated with muscle strength and overall athletic performance. A 2017 study recruited 50 sportsmen and 50 sedentary adults between 18-25 and compared their grip strength. The study found that the athletes consisting of tennis players, baseball players, basketball players, rock climbers, and others had a greater grip strength overall. (5)
By this theory, more muscle strength (typically found in athletes, especially compared to an inactive population) correlates with a greater grip and may help improve performance in sporting activities.
A stronger grip is beneficial for sports such as tennis and baseball because it can withstand more force when a ball hits the racket or bat. Basketball players can control their dribble better, and rock climbers may not only be able to climb for longer periods but be able to grasp smaller surfaces with a better grip.
Training Grip Strength in the Gym
There are many reasons why lifters love the deadlift. Repping out sets of deads can strengthen your posterior chain — your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back — and it engages many muscles for a greater calorie-burning effect.
As for grip strength, your hands need to wrap around the barbell and stay shut to pull the move off. (Resist the urge to use lifting straps during deadlifts if a firm grip is the goal.) As you add more weight to the barbell, your grip will need to be stronger and stronger. Different hand grips like the overhand grip, hook grip, or the mixed grip has their benefits and can all help strengthen your forearm muscles, which contribute to grip strength.
If you’ve never performed a deadlift, start with light weights on the barbell. Perform six to eight reps for three to five sets and add weight as form allows. As the weight on the bar nears your one-rep max, lower your reps to two to three.
It may seem simple, but the farmer’s carry is a great way to target muscles in your forearms, hands, wrists, back, and shoulders, contributing to a firmer grip. Ultimately, the more weight you can hold and the longer you can hold, it will help improve overall athletic performance. It might take time and practice to build weight with this movement, but just the act of gripping the bar and carrying it can improve your grip.
The farmer’s carry is also a functional movement. For example, each time you walk from your local grocery store with a bag in each hand to your apartment, you’re essentially performing a farmer’s carry.
For beginners, a good weight to start is 20-30 pounds in each hand. Walk for 30 seconds, then rest. Increase weight as form and grip strength allows.
Hanging from a pull-up bar sounds easy, right? But wait until you perform the dead hang and feel the burn in your hands and shoulders. Although challenging to hold for long periods, the dead hang can most definitely improve grip. The muscles in your upper body have to hold your entire body weight up, so much strength and endurance are required.
Hang on the bar for 10-30 seconds or for as long as you can. Make sure to engage your lats and pull your shoulders away from your ears. When you start to lose this form, drop and rest before performing another set.
If your rope climbs suffer due to your grip strength, sled pulls are a great way to practice while staying grounded because they work similar muscles. The movement also imitates that of a rope climb and helps your hands acclimate to the texture of the rope. In this case, you’ll want to attach a rope to the sled, face the sled, and pull it towards you. (You can also attach a suspension trainer to the sled if a rope isn’t available.)
For beginners, pull the sled without any weight for 25-50 feet. More advanced lifters may want to add weight or increase the distance. Perform eight to 10 reps, resting in between each rep.
Grip strength is one of those things taken for granted, and if you start to lose it, it has ramifications in and out of the gym. You can’t get strong without it — so embrace it and get tough. Here are some other training articles from BarBend.
- Use the Dumbbell deadlift to Perfect Your Pull
- The Ultimate Guide to Building Your Own Bodybuilding Workout Plan
- The Snatch-Grip Deadlift is an Underrated Strength-Building Exercise
- Perna, Frank M., Coa, Kisha, & Troiano, Richard P. Muscular Grip Strength Estimates Of The U.S. Population From The National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey 2011–2012. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016; 30(3). doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001104
- Rijk, Joke M., Roos, Paul Rkm., & Deckx, Laura. Prognostic Value of Handgrip Strength in People Aged 60 Years and Older: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. National Library of Medicine. 2016; 16(1). doi: 10.1111/ggi.12508
- Mearns, Bryon M. Hand Grip Strength Predicts Cardiovascular Risk. Nature Reviews Cardiology. 2015. 12.
- Ambike, Satyakit, Paclet, Florent, & Latash, Mark L. Factors Affecting Grip Force: Anatomy, Mechanics, and Referent Configurations. 2014; 232(4). doi: 10.1007/s00221-014-3838-8
- Wagh, Dr. Purushottam, Birajdar, Dr. Gurunath, Nagavekar, Dr. Meera. Comparison Of Handgrip Muscle Strength In Sportsmen And Sedentary Group. Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences. 2017; 16(7).
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