Grip strength plays a significant role in our lives when it comes to routine activities such as carrying groceries, opening a jar, or having a firm handshake when greeting someone in a formal situation like a job interview. Our grip is something we may not have given much thought to until we have difficulty performing one of those routine tasks such as opening a jar.
What is Grip Strength and How is it Measured?
Grip strength is a measure of muscular strength or the maximum force generated by one’s forearm muscles. Grip strength is measured using a device called a handgrip dynamometer where the participant is asked to squeeze the device with maximal effort after hearing the tester’s instructions. This is done for two to three trials alternatively with each hand. The best score of the three trials is recorded for each side and scored according to a set of norms within the participant’s age group. The test is sometimes used as a general measure for overall muscle strength that is highly correlated to muscle mass in older adults.
Grip Strength and the Impact on Health
Having adequate grip strength is associated with lower mortality, reduced risk of falling, and performing well with activities of daily living, which is crucial to maintaining independence with aging.
What Are the Benefits of a Strong Grip?
The ability to lift and carry objects more efficiently such as suitcases while traveling, picking up your children or grandchildren, moving heavy boxes, or lifting weights at the gym. A stronger grip allows us to lift weights or heavy objects in a safer manner through a process called irradiation or increased neural drive. Irradiation is when you contract a muscle and that carries over to neighboring muscles. For example, gripping a bar to perform barbell deadlift (where we pick up a weight from the floor). If you try to do that with a grip that is not secure, that could put a strain on the muscles and increase the risk for injury. However, when we grip the bar firmly as if we are breaking a pencil, it allows our upper back and deep shoulder muscles to become more engaged and pick up the weight in a safer manner.
A strong grip is a contributing factor to maintaining independence with age
The ability to carry objects well and open containers have a significant impact on activities of daily living. Opening jars to access food and prepare it is essential to take in adequate nutrition. The ability to pick up a laundry basket to transfer clothing to and from the wash is important to have a clean wardrobe. Maintaining the fine motor skills that are required of the fingers to button shirts, zip one’s coat and tie shoelaces are essential aspects of getting dressed. An individual’s quality of life is affected when these functions are diminished.
Reduced Risk of Injury – A stronger grip means a reduced risk for developing shoulder pain. As stated previously, the process of irradiation allows for better engagement of the deep shoulder muscles known as the rotator cuff. If we grab a weight (e.g. barbell in the gym) in a way that is not firm or loose, that neural drive will not be there predisposing the shoulder to injury.
Research done in the area of handgrip strength in relation to shoulder lateral rotator strength was done in 2016. 27 healthy subjects with no history of shoulder or neck injury were assessed. The results showed that there was a strong correlation between grip strength and lateral rotator muscle strength at all positions for both left and right hands, which suggested that assessment of grip strength could be used as a rotator cuff monitor of the recruitment function.
What Exercises Can You Do at Home to Improve your Grip?
The following handout includes a list of exercises that you can do at home which are helpful in improving grip strength and hand health.
If You Are Currently Experiencing Hand Pain it is important to seek the advice of a medical professional before attempting any of the exercises for improving strength.
Finding a Balance
Remember, it is important to find a balance with all activities performed throughout the day to prevent overuse and repetitive stress injuries. If you have an occupation where you use your hands frequently, take regular breaks to stretch and give your hands a rest. Adequate rest and recovery are just as important for improving grip strength and it is for other forms of exercise.
American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Exercise Testing and Prescription 1st ed. Philadelphia (PA): Wolters Kluwer; 2018 p. 87-88.
Horsley, I., Herrington, L., Hoyle, R., Prescott, E., and Bellamy, N. (2016). Do changes in hand grip strength correlate with shoulder rotator cuff function? Shoulder Elbow, 8 (2), 124-129. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177%2F1758573215626103