Grip strength may not be on your radar. There’s no big aesthetic pay-off for having a strong grip, and — let’s face it — we’re motivated by defined abs, biceps, and glutes.
Plus, those spring-loaded hand strengtheners feel like a relic of the fitness industry’s past.
But, whether you think about it or not, grip strength plays a significant role in your functional movement, and spending time to develop it has big pay-offs — both in and out of the gym.
What Is Grip Strength?
“Physiologically, grip strength refers to an individual’s ability to maximally contract and apply force with the fingers, hands, and forearms while holding an object,” says Jake Harcoff, MS, CSCS, TSAC-f, CISSN.
When you crumple a piece of paper with one hand, carry a dinner plate pinched between two fingers, or hang from the monkey bars on a playground, you are using grip strength.
Beyond playing a crucial role in crushing, pinching, and holding, your grip strength may also offer clues about your overall health.
“Grip strength can also be used as an indicator for overall upper body strength, athletic preparedness, and even the risk of all-cause mortality,” says Harcoff.
Some research links better grip strength to a lower incidence of heart-related health issues.
One systematic literature review found that grip strength had “a predictive validity for the decline in cognition, mobility, functional status and mortality in older [60+ years] community-dwelling populations.”
Benefits of Grip Strength
“Grip strength is definitely important for everyday life,” says Amanda Lopez, Beachbody’s Technical Fitness Advisor. “There are certain tasks you don’t even think about that use grip strength.”
Your ability to lift grocery bags, open doors, twist lids off of jars, carry items, or do pretty much anything with your hands is largely determined by it.
“As we age, grip strength is something we need to continue to work on so we don’t lose the strength to perform those everyday tasks,” she says.
Your grip strength also affects your ability to exercise effectively, especially when it comes to strength training.
“Due to the physical size of the muscle fibers in the hands and forearms, the muscles utilized when gripping an object, compared to those of the posterior chain such as the lats and hamstrings, it is more likely that grip strength is the limiting factor in exercises like the deadlift, and barbell row,” Harcoff says.
“Realistically speaking, an exerciser is only as strong as their weakest link, and regardless of how strong their leg and back muscles are, the bar isn’t getting off the ground if their grip strength is lagging,” he explains.
In other words, if you want to continue to build and strengthen all the muscles throughout your body, don’t ignore your grip strength.
Grip Strength Exercises
While there are plenty of specialized devices that isolate and train grip strength, Harcoff recommends using free weights and traditional resistance training.
“I like to do exercises such as deadlifts, lunges, rows, and loaded carries to develop hand and forearm strength,” he says.
“The best part about training grip strength with this method is that it also allows the exerciser to train other muscles of the legs, back, and shoulders concurrently,” he adds.
1. Farmer’s Carry
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of heavy dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in. Tuck in your chin so that your ears are directly over your shoulders.
- Keeping your chest up, shoulders back, and core engaged, take slow, steady steps forward until you reach a designated point. Don’t let the weights rest/touch your sides when you walk.
- Turn around and walk back to your starting point.
- Assume a dead hang: grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width and hang at arm’s length with your arms straight and your ankles crossed behind you.
- Without swinging or kipping (using momentum to propel you upward), engage the lats and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull your chest to the bar (or at least your chin above it).
- Pause, and then lower yourself back to a dead hang.
3. Romanian Deadlift
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of heavy dumbbells in front of your thighs with an overhand grip (palms facing back).
- Keeping your back flat, core engaged, and shoulders pulled back and down, push your hips back and lower the dumbbells to mid-shin level, keeping them close to your body and bending your knees only slightly.
- Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
4. Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Brace your core, push your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel to the floor.
- Let the dumbbells hang at arm’s length with your palms facing in/each other. Engage your shoulder blades to keep your shoulders pulled back. This is the starting position.
- Without moving your torso, and while keeping your elbows tucked and back flat, row the weights to your sides as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Pause, and then lower the weights back to the starting position.
5. Triceps Rope Pushdown
- Hook a two-handled rope attachment up to a cable machine, and set the pulley around shoulder height.
- Grasp the handles with your palms facing inward, and step back a foot or two in order to create tension on the cable. Then hinge forward with your torso about 30 degrees.
- Keeping your elbows at your sides, extend your arms fully toward the floor.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position and repeat.
6. Dead Hang
- Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Hang at arm’s length with your arms straight, and your ankles crossed behind you.
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