Strength training is something that we know is important; it builds muscle, helps protect joints, improves bone health, and helps maintain a healthy lifestyle. But let’s be honest, most people hear the term “strength training” and think of really heavy squats or bench pressing, maybe some kettlebells thrown in for good measure. While we do train those patterns often, there’s one movement that many don’t think of but is just as important: hand and grip strength!
Of all the movements we do, why does grip strength matter? Think of almost every upper body movement you know– the majority of them start with your hands grabbing onto something. Whether you’re grabbing onto a kettlebell or barbell, gripping the ground during push ups, or throwing a medicine ball, they all require the use of and strength of your hands. In fact, some movements that are not exclusively upper body exercises can even be limited by hand and grip strength, such as deadlifts or farmer’s carries. Additionally, outside of the gym, the use of your hands are critical for most tasks or activities of daily life. Chances are you are already practicing some type of grip strength and perhaps don’t know it. From using your fine motor skills to do specialized movements like typing or tying your shoe to using hand strength to unscrew the lid on a tight jar, they all require the use of both grip and your hands.
Before we jump into exercises you can do to improve grip strength, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy involved. It’s important to note that all muscles have two points that are very important: an origin where they begin and an insertion where they attach to a body part. Muscles contract to bring the two points closer together, like when doing a bicep curl, or are stretched to pull the two points further apart, such as during a tricep extension. The muscles of the hand originate/attach to (and will affect) the elbow, thumb, hand, wrist, forearm and elbow. Additionally, the hand is made up of 27 bones, 29 joints, 31 muscles, 48 nerves and over 123 ligaments. It is a very specialized body part that is designed to manipulate, grip, and grasp.
Now knowing the importance of grip strength, what exercises can you do to strengthen it?
Here are some exercises that can help:
1. Bottoms up carries– grasp the kettlebell so it is “upside down”; the handle is on the bottom and the bell is on the top. This will force the hand, shoulder and grip to work together to stabilize the bell.
2. Heavy carries– this includes suitcase and farmer’s carries. Vary the size of your kettlebells or dumbbells to challenge your grip, arm, and shoulder complex.
3. Fat Gripz deadlift/curls– Fat Gripz are removable grips that can add up to 1.75 inches to the diameter of the bar (a standard barbell is 1 inch in diameter and Fat Gripz go up to 2.75 inches in diameter). This will make grip strength much more challenging and improve hand strength as well.
4. Use bands– vary your grip by carrying different pieces of equipment; use a kettlebell one day, then the barbell or dumbbell the next day. Substitute holding the kettlebell handle to doing a banded carry or use a stronger band during pull-aparts to practice gripping irregularly shaped objects.