You know the basic must-dos to live a long, healthy life: Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, minimize stress, kick bad habits like smoking and improve grip strength. OK, maybe you haven't heard that last one yet, but it's true: Your grip strength is — surprisingly — an essential element of wellbeing.
"Grip strength is the ability to produce force via your fingers, wrist and forearms," says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of CORE in Boston. In other words, it's what you use to open jars, swing a tennis racket or hang onto a pole in a subway car or bus.
But the benefits of a powerful grasp go way beyond twisting off a tomato sauce cap with ease.
An October 2019 review in Clinical Interventions in Aging found that grip strength is not only an accurate gauge of current health and fitness for older adults, but it's also predictive of future physical, emotional and mental health. It's so crucial, in fact, that some researchers suggest it should be considered a vital sign.
Here, we explain the connection between grip strength and health and share how to improve grip strength.
The 3 Types of Grip Strength
- Crush grip: Picture squeezing a stress ball or crumpling an empty can. “This is the grip between your fingers and palms,” Gentilcore says. “Crush grip is also utilized when you grab a weighty object like a dumbbell or suitcase — or when you shake someone’s hand, back when we used to do that.”
- Pinch grip: The pinch grip is just what it sounds like: the tension generated when you press your finger and thumb together.
- Support grip: “Your ability to hold onto something for a while — say, when doing a pull-up or carrying a heavy bag — is referred to as support grip,” Gentilcore says.
The Relationship Between Grip Strength and Health
Your grip strength can say a lot about your health: For example, it's associated with improved strength, increased bone density and better sleep, nutrition and brain health, per the Clinical Interventions in Aging review.
So what makes your grip strength an indicator of your health, exactly? Let's take a look.
1. It Helps Your Whole Body Get Stronger
"For most people, grip strength is the primary factor that limits their performance when resistance training," Gentilcore says. That's because your grip strength influences how much weight you can actually lift.
"The stronger your fingers, wrists and hands are, the more weight you will be able to lift, the more fat and calories you will burn and the better your level of fitness will be," he explains.
2. It Reduces the Risk of Injury
Having grip strength can also help reduce the risk of injury and disability associated with age, per the Clinical Interventions in Aging review.
"The ability to hang onto a railing to prevent a fall; to carry something upstairs or on an unstable surface; or to brace yourself for a fall and support your body weight is in large part determined by grip strength," Gentilcore says.
3. It Promotes Shoulder Strength and Function
Whether you're carrying a heavy object by your side or overhead, you're enlisting your shoulders to help stabilize your upper body.
"When you squeeze your hand, it provides stability to your shoulder," Gentilcore says. "It packs your shoulder, meaning it helps draw your upper-arm bone into your shoulder socket, creating a more centered and solid position."
That's important for all of us, particularly for folks with shoulder issues caused by injury or overuse.
The 8 Best Grip Strength Exercises
Although increasing grip strength involves doing hand-strengthening exercises, they're not going to be enough to completely transform your health. The best way to increase grip strength — and your overall health — is to do total-body functional exercises that involve working your grip.
Give your health a hand by weaving these grip strength exercises into your strength-training routine. They all boost the strength of your palms, fingers and wrists while working other important muscles that factor into your overall fitness.
Move 1: Kettlebell Deadlift
- Stand with your legs slightly wider shoulder-width and place a kettlebell between the arches of your feet.
- Hinge your hips back, softening your knees, as you sink low enough to hold the dumbbell with both hands. Brace your core.
- Packing your shoulders back and down and bracing your core, you push the floor away from you and lift the weight off the ground. Make sure to keep your spine straight and your chest up.
- Stand up tall with your gaze forward and squeeze your glutes.
- With control, reverse the movement and lower the kettlebell back down to the ground.
Move 2: Dead Hang
- Using a box, grip the pull-up bar with both hands, palms facing forward.
- Get into a hollow body position by drawing your shoulders back and down, bracing your core and squeezing your glutes. Press your legs together and extend them slightly in front of you. Squeeze your glutes and point your toes. Your entire body should feel tense and activated.
- Aim to hold for 30 seconds and repeat for 3 to 5 sets.
Move 3: Farmer's Carry
- Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand. Make sure the weight is challenging enough but light enough that you can maintain good posture while walking.
- Brace your core, pack your shoulders back and down and stand tall with your chest proud.
- Slowly walk across the room. Stay as upright as possible and maintain a neutral spine and open chest.
- Avoid slumping over, leaning back or tilting to one side.
- Do 3 sets for time or distance. If you're walking for time, aim to walk for 15 to 30 seconds per set, adding 5 to 10 seconds each week. If you're walking for distance, aim to walk 40 sets per set, gradually increasing the distance each week. Be sure to also increase the amount of weight you're carrying every few weeks.
The farmer's walk, or carry, is a true full-body exercise that activates muscles in the lower body, core and upper body, including those in your hands. For an extra core-stability challenge, try the suitcase carry: Tote a weight in just one hand and then switch to the other.
Move 4: Plate Pinch
- Hold a 5- to 10-pound plate with your right hand. Pinch it firmly between the tips of your fingers and your thumb, so that it doesn’t fall to the ground.
- Increase the intensity of your pinch as you envision yourself “melting” the plate between fingers and thumb.
- Stand straight and avoid swaying to one side.
- When the plate drops, the set is done. Aim to do 30-second holds for 3 sets.
- Repeat on the other hand.
- Aim to do 30-second holds for 3 sets.
This is a great way to train your pinch grip and finger strength while also feeling the burn in your core.
Once you can hang onto the plate for 30 seconds with ease, increase the weight or double up: Pinch two plates together so that the textured sides are touching each other, with your fingertips pressing into the smooth sides. Hold the two plates together at your side, and do your best to prevent them from slipping or sliding.
Move 5: Hex Hold
- Place a 15- to 20-pound dumbbell (or heavier, depending on your ability) upright on the ground. Bend down, grab the top of it with an open palm and fingers facing down, and rise back up to stand, leaning as little as possible.
- Squeeze the hexagonal part of the dumbbell, pushing into the edges with your fingers. Slightly tighten your glutes and brace your core.
- Hold for a minimum of 10 seconds and then slowly lower the dumbbell back to the ground.
- Repeat on your other hand.
- Do 2 sets for max time or 3 sets of 10-second holds per side. Increase to 15-second holds the following week, working up to 30 seconds. At that point, it’s time to up the weight.
Hex holds train your crushing and supporting grip, while also improving your core and finger strength.
Want to mix things up? Wrap a wrist strap around the top of the dumbbell and hold the other end of the strap in your hand. Lift it up off the ground while firmly squeezing the strap. The strap adds an extra element of wrist instability, and because it's smaller than the dumbbell hex, you'll have to grip it in a different way.
Move 6: Single-Arm Bent-Over Row
- Assume a three-point stance: Place one knee and one hand on a bench or chair and one foot on the floor. Keep your back flat and your chest up.
- With your free hand, reach straight down to the floor and grab the dumbbell. Row the dumbbell up toward your ribcage, pulling the weight up alongside your lower abs. Squeeze your shoulder blade and pause at the top of the movement.
- Straighten your arm and lower the weight back down.
- Do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps per side.
In addition to targeting your rhomboids, lats, trapezius, biceps and forearms, the dumbbell row trains your crushing and support grip.
Add Fat Gripz, rubber implements you place around the handle of the dumbbell to make it thicker and more difficult to hold. The wider diameter causes greater activation in your arm muscles, making the lift feel more challenging.
Move 7: Seated Cable Row
- Using the V-bar attachment, grab the handle with your palms facing each other and your wrists in a neutral position.
- Keeping your torso upright, pull your hands toward your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Bring the handle back to the starting position.
- Do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps.
This exercise targets your upper back and biceps, but it’s also a phenomenal grip-strength builder. While many people find the V-bar handle to be the most comfortable, you’ll work your grip strength even more if you use a straight bar with an overhand grip (palms facing your body).
Move 8: Barbell Bent-Over Row
- Stand tall in front of a barbell with your knees slightly bent. Push your hips back and bend forward at the hips to grab the barbell with an overhand grip.
- Keeping your torso parallel to the floor (or as close to it as you can stay comfortably), row the barbell up toward your bellybutton so that your elbows move behind your body. Squeeze your biceps and shoulder blades at the top of the movement. Keep your core braced and back flat the entire time.
- If your back starts to arch or feel strain, reset or scale back on the weight before doing another rep.
- Slowly extend your arms.
- Do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps.