Finally completing one repetition on the grip strengthener— also known as my childhood nemesis — was one of my greatest athletic achievements. Ok, perhaps I am exaggerating, but I spent a lot of physical and mental energy on that stubborn spring. I would stare dumbfounded at my dad as he smiled and squeezed rep after rep with one hand — I needed two hands, my legs, and a lot of grunting to have a prayer.
Any time I see a grip strengthener lying around, I think of those car rides (my dad kept his in the glove box). One of the most common places I see them is physical therapy clinics.
Why is that?
Research shows grip strength is an important indicator of overall health.
The relationship between grip strength and your health
Handgrip strength has been associated with many health outcomes, including depression, cognitive function, suicidal ideation, mobility limitations, falls, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, renal outcomes, osteoporotic factors, multimorbidity, and mortality. A recent study — an umbrella review — sought to compile all of the current research data available to better understand the relationship between grip strength and health. It systematically assessed the quality and strength of the evidence across all health outcomes and to identify those studies with the strongest evidence.
What did they find?
Higher handgrip values at baseline were associated with a minor reduction in mortality risk in the general population; cardiovascular death in mixed populations (e.g., diabetes, general, and other conditions), and incidence of disability.
Chair rise performance over time has suggestive evidence
Five other outcomes (walking speed, inability to balance, hospital admissions, cardiac death, and mortality in those with chronic kidney disease) have weak evidence.
Two associations were found to be nonsignificant (incident hip fracture and cancer mortality).
There are a couple of points to consider.
Grip strength is a marker of overall strength
First, this study does not suggest improving handgrip strength will improve mortality rates, but it does indicate handgrip strength may be an indicator of overall health. Sarcopenia — loss of muscle through aging— and diminished activity level can worsen handgrip strength. Assessing handgrip strength is a quick and easy way to assess your physical condition. By no means is it a comprehensive evaluation — leg strength and cardiovascular endurance are two major markers of health — but it does indicate a potential problem. This brings me to my second point.
Most of the studies assessing grip strength were in patient populations over the age of 50, with cardiovascular disease, or both. As we age, our bodies physically decline; it is a natural phenomenon. That does not mean, however, the decline cannot be diminished.
Studies are clear that the elderly and very elderly (over the age of 75) are able to build muscle and strength. The capacity for improvement does not equal that of a 20-year-old, but it is enough to delay or reverse sarcopenia. It requires at least 8 weeks of training 1 to 3 days per week to see strength improvements. For hypertrophy (building muscle), add two weeks and bump the training frequency to 2–3 days per week. The intensity should be higher for building strength, using resistance near your maximal capacity.
Focus on overall health, not grip strength
These studies do not mean everyone should keep a grip strengthener nearby at all times. If you want beastly forearms or routinely compete in tug of war, then buy a couple and start a forearm strengthening program. For the rest of us, grip strength is a marker to guide big picture training.
The value of assessing grip strength is it is a quick assessment for overall strength. I use it with most of my patients in physical therapy as a screening tool. In some cases, it can be a measure to track progress, but more often it is an indicator to look at total body strength.
Next time come across a grip strengthener, give it a squeeze and see if you may need more strength training in your weekly routines.