Grip strength isn’t just about lifting weights – it’s an important indicator of your overall health and fitness. The experts explain.
I don’t know about you, but lately, I’ve been really struggling to get lids off jars. While this might sound like a small gripe (I do hate having to ask for help, but that’s a whole other story), my wrist weakness is actually telling me a lot more than you’d think.
What is grip strength?
We usually associate grip strength with activities such as weight training, but it’s about a lot more than just that.
Women’s fitness expert and body transformation coach Kirsten Whitehouse explains that “grip strength is basically the ability to hold onto heavy or awkward items with our hands”.
In strength training, this means barbells, kettlebells and similar weights. But grip strength also refers to “the force used when we hold our own bodyweight up, for example when climbing, on monkey bars, doing pull-ups and so on,” Whitehouse continues.
It’s an important health factor beyond the gym, indicating functional strength– the ability to open doors, get into jars and cling onto banisters if we trip down the stairs. A weak grip might mean more injuries in the future.
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What affects grip strength?
“A poor grip tends to be the result of weakness or stiffness due to immobilisation or decreased use, perhaps due to injury, or because of an underlying issue such as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injury, nerve damage or arthritis,” says Whitehouse.
Since grip strength is basically your ability to hold an object, factors such as genetics also play a part, including hand size, bodyweight and generally dexterity.
Whitehouse explains that “hand dexterity relies on a complex system of small muscles, ligaments and tendons, not only in your hand, but all the way up through your forearms, into your elbows and beyond. Even shoulder stability plays a vital part in grip strength.”
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Why is grip strength important?
It’s an overall indicator of health
One international study measured grip strength in almost 140,000 adults across 17 countries, following their health for an average of four years. The findings were stark: the Harvard Medical School blog reports that “each 11-pound decrease in grip strength over the course of the study was linked to a 16% higher risk of dying from any cause, a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, a 9% higher risk of stroke and a 7% higher risk of heart attack”.
Meanwhile, a study in medical journal The Lancet found that grip strength was “a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than blood pressure”.
It’s vital to a range of activities
Grip strength matters in everyday life, “when it comes to opening jam jars, carrying heavy shopping and so on,” says Whitehouse. “It’s also important if we want to progress in any bodyweight-related activities, as without a solid basis of grip strength training, you’re not only limiting your progress ability but also risking injury.”
In rare cases, reduced grip strength can be an early indicator for muscle wastage caused by neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or MS, Whitehouse adds. “If your grip has always been strong but suddenly and quickly deteriorates, it’s advisable to seek professional medical advice to rule out anything serious.”
How to improve your grip strength
The good news is that by incorporating some simple exercises into your regime once or twice a week, you’ll be carrying a heavy dumbbell with ease in no time.
Whitehouse advises warming up by “clenching your fist 15-20 times, then touch the thumb to each finger individually a few times and stretch your fingers in all directions.” You should then be ready to tackle the following moves.
At home exercises
Squeeze a sponge as hard as you can, alternating hands. Hold the ‘squeeze’ for 10-20 seconds and repeat to fatigue.
Take a towel and twist it in opposite directions with both hands at the same time. Keep twisting and hold at the point of strongest resistance, then repeat in the opposite direction.
Rubber band stretch
Use a strong rubber band to stretch your thumb and each individual finger apart as far as possible.Hold for ten seconds and repeat to fatigue.
One of the most effective grip strength exercises available to everyone is the towel dead-hang or pull-up. Find something safe to loop a towel over, such as a solid tree branch or a pull-up/monkey bar. Hold both ends of the towel and lift feet off ground.
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In the gym
Pull-ups and dead-hangs work almost as well on the bars as they do on a towel (but feel free to use your sweat towel for something extra). You could also try negative pull-ups, where you start at the top and lower yourself to bottom position as slowly as possible. If you’re new to this type of training, use machine or bands for support.
Take a heavy kettlebell for a walk; once it starts getting uncomfortable, KEEP GOING. This is where grip training kicks in. For an extra kick, try working your core at the same time by holding just one kettlebell in one hand at a time, as opposed to having one in each hand.
A progression from the farmer’s carries, try a loaded barbell in one hand, held like a suitcase.Holding the uneven bar will work your grip and core even harder.
Hold a weight plate with your fingers for as long as possible. Lift and lower to progress.
Perform a standard bicep curl, then at the top rotate your palms 180 degrees to face away from your body. Slowly lower under control to starting position.
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So, the next time you’re doing a full-body workout, don’t forget your fingers and wrists. You’ll be able to carry that much more shopping by Christmas.
Image: Kirsten Whitehouse
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