You can bang out bicep curls in your sleep, knock out sets of chest presses like a pro. Yet your fingers feel as if they’re going to break off every time you attempt a pull-up or deadlift. What gives? You, my friend, lack grip strength.
If you’ve caught a few episodes of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” you’re probably familiar with the concept. Getting through the obstacle course on the show, with all of the climbing and swinging from suspended rings, takes an incredible amount of grip strength — something commentators often mention.
A strong grip is critical for a range of sports, including gymnastics and wrestling, and everyday activities, such as opening a jar or carrying luggage, said Ethan Reeve, assistant athletic director of sports performance at Wake Forest University.
Your grip can also be an important indicator of your overall health. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that grip strength is a predictor of muscular endurance and overall strength. Other studies have found that a stronger grip correlates with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. Researchers say the findings suggest a link between heart health and muscle strength.
“Having general health in your hands is important,” Reeve said. “Extension is just as important as flexion in the fingers, so you need to build the muscle on the top side of your hand and those on the other side.”
Exercising all parts of your hand will also help you avoid creating an imbalance between the muscles that help you open and close your hands. Overworking the muscles used to close your hands, for instance, could lead to tendinitis. Reeve said a good way to strengthen both sides of your mitts is to shove your hand into a bowl of rice or sand and extend and flex your fingers.
There are actually a few types of grip strength — crush, pinch and support — according to Scott Caulfield, head strength and conditioning coach at the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Each lends itself to the overall sturdiness of your grasp.
The crush grip is the strength between your fingers and your palm, what helps you shake hands or crumple up a piece of paper. The strength between your fingers and thumb is known as the pinch grip, used to grab a piece of paper, for instance. The ability to hold on to something, such as the handle of a shopping bag or luggage, for a long time, is called support grip.
Caulfield said there are a host of exercises that can improve your grip. Holding a dumbbell for as long as you can is one way to get comfortable training your hand, especially if you are not accustomed to weightlifting, he said. If you do know your way around the weights, Caulfield recommends a standard deadlift. You can start by simply picking up the barbell off the floor and putting it back down. Once you feel comfortable with your grip, start adding plates to the bar.
“Doing exercises like a deadlift will work your grip because it’s a total-body exercise, and your grip tends to give out first,” Caulfield said. “You can also train your fingers by letting a dumbbell roll down your hand and catching it at the tip of your fingers.”
Reeve and Caulfield recommended a few moves that you can do at your desk as well as some you should try at the gym.
Gripper squeeze: Grab a hand gripper, the nifty gizmo with the spring in the middle (your gym probably has one), and flex your fingers into your palms. Squeeze in and out for 20 seconds, and then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat this pattern for three rounds. You can also accomplish the same thing at your desk with a stress ball.
Newspaper roll: Place your hand on top of a sheet of newspaper, pulling the paper in with your fingertips until you roll the paper into a ball.
Plate squeeze: Take two weighted plates, the ones you would add to a barbell, and hold them together in one hand, with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other. Not strong enough for this yet? Try just holding one plate for as long as you can.
Plate orbit: Grab one five- or 10-pound plate, with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other. Pass the plate around your body in one direction three times, then switch the direction. As you get stronger, add more plates so that you are passing around two or three in one hand, instead of one.
Dead hang: Hang from a pull-up bar for as long as you can with your arms straight. Test out different positions to really work your hands, including keeping one hand clasped over the bar while the other hand grabs from under the bar.
Farmer’s carry: Grab a pair of dumbbells, the heavier the better. Place one in each hand and hold tight as you walk across the room.