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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 12 2018

Why Grip Strength Matters—and 10 Ways to Build It

By Mark Sisson
67 Comments

The scientific literature is awash in correlations between a person’s health status and various biomarkers, personal characteristics, and measurements. As we hoard more and more data and develop increasingly sophisticated autonomous tools to analyze it, we’ll stumble across new connections between seemingly disparate variables. Some will be spurious, where the correlations are real but the variables don’t affect each other. Others will be useful, where the correlations indicate real causality, or at least a real relationship.

One of my favorite health markers—one that is both modifiable and a good barometer for the conditions it appears to predict—is grip strength.

The Benefits of Grip Strength

In middle-aged and elderly people, grip strength consistently predicts mortality risk from all causes, doing an even better job than blood pressure. In older disabled women, grip strength predicts all-cause mortality, even when controlling for disease status, inflammatory load, depression, nutritional status, and inactivity.

Poor grip strength is also an independent risk factor for type 2 diabetes across all ethnicities, and it can predict the presence of osteoarthritis in the knee. Among Korean adults, those with lower grip strength have a greater risk of clinical depression.

Even when hand grip strength fails to predict a disease, it still predicts the quality of life in people with the disease. The relative rate of grip strength reduction in healthy people is a good marker for the progression of general aging. Faster decline, faster aging. Slower (or no) decline, slower aging. Stronger people—as indicated by their grip strength—are simply better at navigating the physical world and maintaining independence on into old age.

So, how does one build grip?

10 Exercises To Build Grip Strength

Most people will get a strong-enough grip as long as they’re lifting heavy things on a consistent-enough basis.

1. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are proven grip builders. Wide grip deadlifts are also good and stress your grip across slightly different angles.

2. Pullups and 3. Chinups

Both require a good grip on the bar.

Any exercise where your grip supports either your weight or an external weight (like a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) is going to improve your grip strength. But there are other, more targeted movements you can try to really turn your hand into a vise. Such as:

4. Bar Hangs

This is pretty simple. Just hang from a bar (or branch, or traffic light fixture) with both hands. It’s probably the purest expression of grip strength. As it happens, it’s also a great stretch for your lats, chest, shoulders, and thoracic spine.

Aim to hit one minute. Progress to one-hand hangs if two-handers get too easy. You can use a lower bar and keep one foot on the ground for support as you transition toward a full one-handed hang.

5. Sledgehammer Work

Grab the heaviest sledgehammer you can handle and use it in a variety of ways.

If you had to pick just one sledgehammer movement to target your grip, do the bottoms up. Hold the hammer hanging down pointing toward the ground in your hand, swing it up and catch it with the head of the hammer pointing upward, and hold it there. Handle parallel to your torso, wrist straight, don’t let it fall. The lower you grip the handle, the harder your forearms (and grip) will have to work.

6. Fingertip Pushups

Most people who try fingertip pushups do them one way. They do them with straight fingers, with the palm dipping toward the ground. Like this. Those are great, but there’s another technique as well: the claw.  For the claw, make a claw with your hand, like this, as if you’re trying to grab the ground. In fact, do try to grab the ground. This keeps your fingers more active, builds more strength and resilience, and prevents you from resting on your connective tissue.

These are hard for most people. They’re quite hard on the connective tissue, which often goes underutilized in the hands and forearms. Don’t just leap into full fingertip pushups—unless you know you’re able. Start on your knees, gradually pushing your knees further back to add resistance. Once they’re all the way back and you’re comfortable, then progress to full pushups.

7. Active Hands Pushups

These are similar to claw pushups, only with the palm down on the floor. Flat palm, active “claw” fingers. They are easier than fingertip pushups.

8. Farmer’s Walks

The average person these days is not carrying water pails and hay bales and feed bags back and forth across uneven ground like they did when over 30% of the population lived on farms, but the average person can quickly graduate past average by doing farmer’s walks a couple times each week. What is a farmer’s walk?

Grab two heavy weights, stand up, and walk around. They can be dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, or trap bars. You can walk up hill, down hill, or around in circles. You can throw in some shrugs, or bookend your walks with deadlifts or swings. The point is to use your grip to carry something heavy in both hands.

9. Pinch Grips

Grasp and hold weight plates between your thumb and each finger.

10. Hammer Curls

Next time you do some curls, throw in a few sets of hammer curls. These are identical to normal bicep curls, except you hold the weights in a hammer grip, with palms facing toward each other—like how you hold and swing a hammer. Make sure to keep those wrists as straight as possible.

The thing about grip is it’s hard to work your grip without getting stronger, healthier, and faster all over. Deadlifting builds grip strength, and it also builds back, hip, glute, and torso strength. Fingertip pushups make your hands and forearms strong, but they also work your chest, triceps, abs, and shoulders. That’s why I suspect grip strength is such a good barometer for overall health, wellness, and longevity. Almost every meaningful piece of physical activity requires that you use your hands to manipulate significant amounts of weight and undergo significant amounts of stress.

For that reason, the best way to train your grip is with normal movements. Heavy deadlifts and farmer’s walks are probably more effective than spending half an hour pinch gripping with every possible thumb/finger permutation, because they offer more full-body benefits. But if you have a few extra minutes throughout your workout, throw in some of the dedicated grip training.

Your grip can handle it. The grip muscles in the hands and forearm are mostly slow-twitch fiber dominant, meaning they’re designed to go for long periods of exertion. They’re also gross movers, meaning you use them all the time for all sorts of tasks, and have been doing so for decades. To make them adapt, you need to stress the heck out of them with high weight. Train grip with high reps, heavy weights, and long durations. This is why deadlifts and farmer’s walks are so good for your grip—they force you to maintain that grip on a heavy bar or dumbbell for the entire duration of the set with little to no rest.

Oh, and pick up some Fat Gripz. These attach to dumbbells and barbells and increase the diameter of the bar, giving you less leverage when grabbing and forcing you to adapt to the new grip conditions by getting stronger.

Now, will all this grip training actually protect you from aging, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and early all-cause mortality? Maybe, maybe not.

But it—and the muscle and fitness you gain doing all these exercises—certainly doesn’t hurt.

How’s your grip? How’s your handshake? How long can you hang from a bar without letting go?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, be well, and go pick up and hold some heavy stuff.

References:

Sasaki H, Kasagi F, Yamada M, Fujita S. Grip strength predicts cause-specific mortality in middle-aged and elderly persons. Am J Med. 2007;120(4):337-42.

Leong DP, Teo KK, Rangarajan S, et al. Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. Lancet. 2015;386(9990):266-73.

Rantanen T, Volpato S, Ferrucci L, Heikkinen E, Fried LP, Guralnik JM. Handgrip strength and cause-specific and total mortality in older disabled women: exploring the mechanism. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003;51(5):636-41.

Van der kooi AL, Snijder MB, Peters RJ, Van valkengoed IG. The Association of Handgrip Strength and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Six Ethnic Groups: An Analysis of the HELIUS Study. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(9):e0137739.

Wen L, Shin MH, Kang JH, et al. Association between grip strength and hand and knee radiographic osteoarthritis in Korean adults: Data from the Dong-gu study. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(11):e0185343.

Lee MR, Jung SM, Bang H, Kim HS, Kim YB. The association between muscular strength and depression in Korean adults: a cross-sectional analysis of the sixth Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (KNHANES VI) 2014. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):1123.

Lee SH, Kim SJ, Han Y, Ryu YJ, Lee JH, Chang JH. Hand grip strength and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Korea: an analysis in KNHANES VI. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2017;12:2313-2321.

Iconaru EI, Ciucurel MM, Georgescu L, Ciucurel C. Hand grip strength as a physical biomarker of aging from the perspective of a Fibonacci mathematical modeling. BMC Geriatr. 2018;18(1):296.

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67 thoughts on “Why Grip Strength Matters—and 10 Ways to Build It”

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  1. I can vouch for several of these points

    * Hang from a bar with one hand
    I think this is the most effective time wise, you get better fast. Don’t despair if you can do only five seconds, it works and it does not take a lot of time
    * Same for the fingertips pushups
    * Other one: hang from a bar using towels (I still cannot do it one handed, got it from the convict training book)
    * Thanks to all above I can do my very respectable farmer walks with two iron cast dumbells of 100 each for fifty-sixty meters (disclaimer: respectable for a 66 year old)
    * My weekly sledgehammer sessions on the beach sand (sledge hammers 16-20 lbs) may have been part of my improvement

    1. You are what Jack Donovan calls “A More Complete Beast.” I would very much like to have more men like you in my tribe.

      1. wow that’s high praise …
        count me in for the next antelope hunt 🙂

  2. How about a squeeze ball/spring grip squeezer while watching tv, reading, etc.

    1. Very limited usefulness on those kind of things, unless you’re rehabilitate an injured hand (dozens of reps at low intensity doesn’t build much in the way of strength). Heavier grippers (such as Captains of Crush and their many imitators) can be used to build enormous crushing strength, but they need the same serious approach to training as heavy deadlifts, squats, etc (i.e. you won’t be casually picking them up and repping out with them while you’re watching TV).

  3. Since our inception, the noble cast of our ancestors was the barbarian class. In the modern world, the noble cast is popularly defined as those with money and/or possessions of commerce. When I shake the manicured hand of a modern man and feel how smooth, soft and limp it is… it reveals a core character attribute. Suffice it to say, if the zombie apocalypse rears its head, I do not want this man in my tribe.

    Grip strength is more than just health, longevity and respect… it is an ancestral indicator of true nobility… you can’t fake it… you can’t buy it… it can only be earned.

    1. Like what Arnold says,

      “A well built physique is a status symbol. It reflects you worked hard for it, no money can buy it. You cannot borrow it, you cannot inherit it, you cannot steal it. You cannot hold onto it without constant work. It shows discipline, it shows self respect, it shows patience, work ethic and passion. That is why I do what I do.”

      1. Exactly! He also says “strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”

        The strength of a man’s hand resonates through his mind, body, and soul.

      2. Thank you for this! I just printed it out and it will get framed and hung in my home “gym”.

  4. Re handshakes – what about the fact that many cultures consider it rude to grip too hard when shaking hands? I don’t like a limp grip myself, but neither do I appreciate having my fingers crushed – once very painfully indeed!

    1. I agree…I dislike having to shake hands with most men. I’m usually wearing a ring and I don’t appreciate having my hand crushed. It’s often so painful it’s hard not to wince.

    2. Kate:
      I know the feeling! I had an idiot almostbreak the bones in my hand he gripped so hard. I yelled out in pain, shook my hand out, started crying and the a** hole said, “wow, wimpy?”
      I looked at him and said, “How stupid are you?
      I needed an X-ray the next day to prove a fracture in one of the bones!
      I no longer shake hands with anyone-ever!

    3. I don’t like the crushing hand shake. Firm had shake is appropriate and if I get “crushed” I refuse to shake that person’s had again. I don’t know why some have a “need” to crush but there are those who seem to not be able to do the polite/firm hand shake.

    4. A proper strong handshake is firm, not crushing. A good shaker can tense the muscles in their own hand, like an isometric, without putting any real pressure on the other person’s weaker hands. If you do the same with your hand, I think you’ll find that the isometric protects you from having your hand crushed.

        1. …and, I meant to reply to Kate’s OP here, not LogansRunner, but I agree with most everyone in this thread!

    5. Kate, please identify a single culture that encourages shaking hands “too hard”. I didn’t read anything in this article about the merits of gripping too hard…

  5. An aerial silks class is my favourite way to work on my grip strength. Also a daily trip (almost 1 mile each way) to the grocery store carrying groceries home in my hands (no bags). Today was a 4 lb box of oranges in one hand and a 12 pack of club soda in the other.

    1. If you are not gripping a 4 lb box of oranges using the handles on a bag that encloses it, how are you working your grip strength? Having trouble visualizing that.

      1. Imagine it’s 40 lbs and if the handles are structurely sound enough to accept the force, you twist it as if you are trying to bend it. same for riding a bicycle or performing an isometric contraction. Hope this helps!

  6. Interesting to note that in myself after a lifetime of hard work and inhumanly strong grip, measured at more than twice the grip strength of a normal man, I fell ill with West Nile Fever and almost 2 years later I could still not hold an 80lb dumbbell in my hand without it peeling my fingers open. I nearly died from that illness, rare but serious West Nile Viral Encephalopathy. The extreme fever caused Hypopituitarism, it took me 3-4 years and complex hormone replacement therapy: HGH, Thyroid, Adrenal, and Sex hormones to slowly regain the 40lbs I had lost and back to my 210 athletic body. Never before had I felt so vulnerable (physically health wise) and now I see that the grip strength is actually quite a good measure to go by.
    Many Thanks Mark!!!

  7. Not complicated!……..paint the outside of your house, wash/wax your car, garden, shovel snow, spring clean your house, prune a tree, change your vehicle’s oil…..you get the picture……get moving!

  8. You forgot rock climbing and bouldering! Those are both great for developing grip strength even as a beginner.

  9. I use the Pitbulll Gripper I got from Amazon. It’s made from aluminum and has springs for adjustable tension. Then I use thick rubber bands on each hand around my fingers and open and close for a reverse exercise.

  10. The U.S. Marines require a potential recruit to do 3 chin-ups to sign up. They have to turn down a significant number until they can accomplish this. I stopped by a Marine recruitment center in the mall. I’m almost 72 and as a joke I walked in and asked the recruiter if I could see if I would qualify. He laughed and said, “go ahead”. I did 30. The look on his face was priceless.
    I got the hell out of there before he recruited me!

  11. Perfect timing, as usual! My husband was just asking for one of those hand gripper gadgets for Christmas (although I don’t know why…his grip strength is already ridiculously strong). Now I can just send him this link! Great post. I’ll be adding some of these to my day as well.

  12. I hang from a chinning bar and swing back and forth for as long as I can. Pause a minute, and then do it again. I also do deadlifts but with tubing instead of weights. I use a wide stance so that only around 6″ of tubing is above my feet.
    I agree that a limp handshake is often a negative sign, but most of the very successful people I’ve met have a somewhat weak handshake, and they are definitely not weak people. Since they are very powerful in their careers, it seems that they’re somewhat oblivious to others and pay little attention to a handshake. It was noted that Billy Graham and President Nixon had weak handshakes.

  13. Yes, yes, yes! The most vice-like grips I have ever met
    reside at Venice Muscle Beach and perform calisthenics for extended periods of time. Static handstand hold
    using paralettes are incredible grip-builders plus all the hangtime on the high bar. WRT Deadlifts, try one-finger
    DL’s to failure and move to two fingers til fail and repeat
    until all fingers are gripping, keep going until the bar
    peels away and then mix your grip for the last set.
    Finish w reverse curls using a light or empty bar.

  14. What about reverse biceps curls? I find working my forearms this way also builds my wrists and grip strength.

  15. “…l’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying it’s simply how it is…” If it’s how it is, then it IS right. Only in the snowflake world is reality not “right”.

    1. “Snowflake” is a derogatory and divisive term that people writing in this forum generally don’t use. We try to be supportive here, not inflammatory and demeaning. I personally think it’s time to retire that term and accept that all humans have a right to their beliefs as long as they don’t hurt others.

      1. The fact that some people find certain words or ideas hurtful is exactly why we have the principle of free speech (“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”). Something that our generation was taught, and yours sadly was not, is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Just something to consider.

      2. As the man said, “if the shoe doesn’t fit, why are you trying to squeeze into it?”.
        By all means, let’s retire the word snowflake! And let’s rid our country of cival war statues that represent “hate”! And let’s stop judging everyone – of course snowflakes are free to judge those who use the word snowflake to describe the fragile and easily offended?
        The point is to embrace reality, not run away scared and wounded by it! Believe me, SOMEONE out there is offended by the term “Paleo”….
        Mark’s info is RIGHT, and self evident, and those who choose to be weak must live with that choice. Btw, how was anyone denied their right to believe…whatever?

        1. Lmao, chill on the Jordan Peterson bro, this is embarrassing stuff y’all are writing

      3. Also, Lisa, I am deeply offended that you have characterized my words as inflammatory and demeaning! See how ridiculous it gets?

  16. Well, I wish I had tried any of Mark’s suggested exercises rather than buying the grip strength squeezy thing. I saw my 5 year old granddaughter tightening it up with a little smirk on her face so I determined to do it. Got a pain and a trigger finger on left ring finger now. Slowly getting better after three months and taking loads of collagen after reading about Mark’s tendon recovery.

  17. I know the farmer walk well. I still do most things by hand for the staying in shape reason. I am a 69 yr old woman who runs a small farrowing operation(pigs) and I hand carry buckets of feed for approx 45 for 1-2 hrs a day and pull hoses around for watering for another 1hr plus draining hoses for freezing nights.

  18. #11: Wheelbarrow. My grip is definitely better after wheelbarrowing a couple hundred cubic yards of wood chips from the driveway to the backyard. (Also works all of those core stability muscles.)

  19. Great info, thanks!

    As for handshakes, I don’t know if it’s because I am a woman, but more than once a man has shook my hand and the grip was almost painful!

      1. re: the several comments above about people (usually men) gripping your hand so hard it’s painful –

        Unfortunately building decency is not always done in parallel with building our bodies. Anyone that has to prove something by hurting another person, via a handshake or any other physical contact, is a small person indeed, no matter the size of their biceps or strength of their grip.

    1. Any “man” who would purposely hurt a woman is nothing more than a low life thug.

    2. I think some of them just don’t realize they’re gripping too hard. I’ve only had one who didn’t ease up after letting him know. Used a move taught to me by an old Marine and made him let go.

    3. A man who grips so hard that it hurts a woman is just trying to show off masculine, however is likely too weak to hurt the hand of another man because they are so weak. They are just overall weak minded men who would do that. The truly strong man knows how to give a firm shake without hurting the other person, especially a woman. How pathetic!

  20. One-handed kettlebell swings.
    Gloved kettlebell snatches (use plain cotton gardening gloves that make the KB hard to hang on to).

    1. I like this! Never tried kettlebells one-handed, but I will next chance I get.

      1. Kettlebell sport doesn’t use two-handed swings (they’re a hard style thing) so all my swinging is done one-handed, the heavier, the better.

  21. Grip strength may be a marker of longevity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cause. I find all these techniques to improve a marker of underlying health to be kind of misguided. I love climbing, chin-ups, and dead hangs as much as anyone, but grip strength causing longevity seems to me like suspect logic that shouldn’t get past the Primal community so easily.

    1. That’s basically the entire point mentioned at the end of the article…

  22. Grip strength is plus when opening the pickle or olive jar the first time too 😉

  23. Try pullups or rows hanging from a towel wrapped around the bar.
    My favorite method though.. rock climbing!

  24. I like those grip things that you just squeeze repeatedly. I used to have one that I’d use if I was just sitting around.
    If grip strength is an indicator of longevity, can I just sit around using one of those a few times a day? I wish that’s how exercise worked.
    Basically ever I go I carry a backpack and normally another bag that sometimes gets heavy if I load it up with food, books, or something. That seems to be pretty good for grip. Some days my hands get tired and sore just from lugging stuff around.

    1. I’m surprised I didn’t think to mention wrist curls, both types, with palms facing up and down. I used to do a lot of those. One of my favourite times to do them was when sitting in a nice computer chair that had comfortable grooves in the arms and do those when I was watching DVDs or movies on the computer. It’s a good way to gain grip strength and build up your forearms so you look freakish like Popeye if you do enough of them. I think everyone should probably throw some wrist curl sets into their upper body workouts or when they’re watching TV or something.

  25. My entire muscle workout philosophy is built around the theory that percentage of muscle cells which contract is the measure of health. Not system output as most people gage. My guess is that the studies actually show not strength (as in how heavy a kettlebell one can static hold) but rather the ability to squeeze for power which is as close to highest percentage of muscle cells contracting as you can get. Whatcha think?

  26. I know Mark did not mean to rile me up, but what’s a mother to do. I like a strong handshake but I take exception to the word “moist” that Mark used. My 20 yo son has palmar hyperhidrosis. He is deserving of respect, worth hiring, a capable human being, worth befriending, and deserving of being in a relationship even with wet, moist hands! Since puberty, he has been hesitant to shake anyone’s hand. He avoids relationships because he’s worried he’ll be rejected because his hands are moist.He has socially isolated himself because of this condition. There’s enough struggle for people with this condition without this type of offhand comment. I get that a moist hand is not ideal; however my son has a strong grip and a good heart too.

    1. VikingLady, I appreciate hearing your son’s story – and I’m sorry his condition has caused him this level of stress. Let me retract my earlier comments and encourage your son to go after everything he wants regardless of his condition. Bravery and confidence are the most winning attributes in any scenario.