The human hand is almost the perfect gripping machine.
With our long opposable thumbs that allows us to grip, its is a throwback to our great ancestors that use to swing from the trees for long periods of time. Your grip strength is something you’re born with.
In a series of experiments in the late 19th century by Louis Robinson, a surgeon in England, he tested some 60 infant by having them hang from a suspended walking stick. With only two exceptions, the infants were able to hang on, sustaining their grip on the stick for at least ten seconds and many could do it for upward of a minute.(1)
But wait there’s more.
Our Papillary ridges, those tougher, thicker parts of the skin (where the sweat pores are and give us fingerprints) that allow us to grip and bear weight in our hands.
Grip strength in the training environment allows the lifter to deadlift, do chin up or pull ups and row heavier weights. If you can’t grip it, you can’t rip it and it’s a limiting factor whether you make the lift or not.
More often than when doing lifts that need grip strength (RDL’s and Carry variations) for moderate to high reps, it’s usually your grip that gives out first, which led to lifting straps being invented, so that grip isn’t a limiting factor.
However, you should know that if carries and hip hinge variations are not part of your routine, put them in pronto. But there is much more to grip strength than lifting weights. It has huge health benefits also.
The following is not meant to scare you but motivate you to keep up your grip strength levels, not just in the gym but with activities of daily living too.
1. Grip Strength Lowers Mortality Risk
Of course this doesn’t mean that training grip lowers your odds of ever dying, but it is linked to a lower risk of premature death. The Lancet published a study in 2015 that covered the health outcomes of nearly 140,000 people across 17 countries who were tracked over four years, via a variety of measures—including grip strength.(2)
Grip strength was not only “inversely associated with all-cause mortality,” but every 5-kilogram (kg) decrement in grip strength was associated with a 17 percent risk increase.
So why the connection between grip and mortality?
2. Grip strength improves your quality of life
You’ve all seen it in the movies: the hero is hanging off the edge of a mountain or building or helicopter skids. The only thing stands between the hero and certain death is the hero’s grip strength. Eventually the hero does a pull up or someone else grabs hold of their hand to save them.
It’s not like that in our day to day lives but your ability to grip stuff, sometimes for long periods of time is important to your quality of life. Things like changing a tire on the side of a highway, putting and taking your shoes off, painting your house, opening glass jars, or moving to a new house.
A reduction grip strength (if not trained) is associated with an eightfold risk of developing muscular disability among older adults, and poor grip strength has been associated with adverse weight gain among women and mortality among men.(3)
Yes, it’s that important.
3. Grip strength is a predictor of cardiovascular disease
A reduction in grip strength has been associated with an increase in heart attacks and strokes.(2) Grip strength is a stronger predictor of all-cause cardiovascular mortality, more than systolic blood pressure.
This doesn’t mean because you’re weak that you’re going to keel over. It means there’s a link between the two — just remember there are many other factors at play when it comes to heart disease.
Training Grip Strength in the Gym
Now we’ve established that grip strength is important in and out of the gym, here are ways you can train it to improve your big lifts and to open the tough pickle jar.
10-Minute Kettlebell Overhead Carry
This is an unusual variation on the traditional farmer’s carry: you’re carrying kettlebells over your head, upside down. The effort it takes to keep the bells from falling down requires next level concentration and grip. Depending on your strength level, start with one 20-, 25- or 35-pound kettlebell. Hold the bell overhead (bottom of the bell facing the ceiling) and walk, keeping your biceps by or behind your ear.
After you lose your grip, and the bell falls, stop and reset. When you lose your grip for the second time, bring the bell into the rack position and keep walking.
Once you lose neutral wrist position or your upper back is screaming at you, hold the bell suitcase style by your side and keep walking. Do this for a total of 5 minutes on each side.
Carries for Bigger Arms
A stronger grip has a huge carryover to most of your major lifts and at times can be your limiting factor. The longer you can hang on to the bar while you’re lifting, the better chance you have of building some muscle.
Save this circuit for the end of your training when you’re looking for extra arm work. Do this tri-set two to three times per week.
1A. Zottman curl: 12-15 reps
1B. Barbell wrist curls: 15 reps
1C. Dumbbell farmer’s carry: 40 yards (at least 25% of your bodyweight in each hand)
Repeat this circuit three times with minimal rest in between exercises.
[Refine your form: A Step By Step Breakdown of the Farmer’s Walk.]
Nothing fancy about this one. Use any two-handed carry variation (dumbbell, kettlebell or a trap bar), walk for 40 steps and place the weight down. Rest for 30 seconds and repeat. Stop when you can no longer walk for 40 steps without letting go.
Record the number of rounds and try to beat it next time. I recommend starting off by carrying half your bodyweight.
Carries for Strength
The overhead barbell carry is the cherry on top in the world of carries. Every single step is a challenge for the whole body. One false step and you, the barbell and the floor become one.
This is a taxing movement, so program these near the beginning of your training, just after your big strength movement for the day. Pairing the overhead walk in a superset with an upper body movement works well.
1A. Bent over barbell row, chin up or bench press variation
1B. Overhead barbell carry- 20 steps forward, then 20 steps back
[Learn more: 4 benefits of carrying weight overhead.]
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 — embrace it and get tough.
Your quality of life depends on it.
Featured image via Paul Biryukov / Shutterstock
- Darwinism in the Nursery. Southland Times. 1892 Jan 23;11951.
- Leong DP, et al. Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. Lancet. 2015 Jul 18;386(9990):266-73.
- Perna FM, et al. Muscular Grip Strength Estimates of the U.S. Population from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2011-2012. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Mar;30(3):867-74.