When I think about grip strength I can’t help but think of our grandparent’s generation, a time pre-smartphone, laptop, self-driving cars and wheeled suitcases. If you wanted something moved you picked it up and moved it, I have memories of my Grandpa effortlessly turning impossibly tight wrenches, or, my Grandmother wrestling a soup pot that weighed as much as her off the stove.
You would think that having less demand on our day-to-day life is positive, and in many ways it is. The industrial and technological revolutions have helped save our bodies and in turn, freed up time and energy for other pursuits. But, it may not be all Netflix and patios. There are far too many ‘dead-fish’ handshakes and unopened pickle jars in the world that could be avoided with a little physical labour or added grip work in your strength training program.
Even if you aren’t interested in Popeye forearms there are several other compelling reasons to spend a little time on your grip.
There is a direct correlation to grip strength and risk of mortality, a study out of McMaster University in Hamilton named PURE – Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological Study – looked at a variety of factors over multiple years, one among them being grip strength. The researchers found that every 11 lb. decrease in strength correlated to a 17 percent increase in the risk of dying by heart disease and 16 percent by any cause.
A second study out of the Honolulu Heart Program looked at the relationship between midlife grip strength and old age disability, their results look similar to those out of McMaster. Midlife grip strength numbers were highly predictive of disability or physical limitations in life’s later years, meaning you better start developing your grip now. Science is likely going to keep us all around for a very long time, we better be able to make use of those extra years on the earth.
If you’re dealing with a lingering upper-body injury or want to avoid one, grip strength is an easy tool to start implementing. There is a neurological connection between our grip and the rotator cuff as well as some of the other smaller stabilizing muscles that when activated help keep your shoulder in the proper position.
Often times when we injure our body it is the result of muscular imbalances, some muscles are working too hard while others lie dormant. Imagine driving your car with one flat tire, it will still run but it’s not a very smooth ride and eventually, something is
going to break. If we can stop the air from leaking out (grip work) and re-inflate the tire you can keep cruising along.
Tension- It makes you Stronger
The last concept I want to mention is a little ‘sciencey’ but worth explaining. Having a stronger grip is going to make you stronger! Being able to hold and tolerate heavier weights allows you to perform more repetitions and spend more time under tension. The result? You can put in more work and get jacked!
The second way is through a principle called Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation. Sir. Charles Sherrington was an English Physiologist who won the Noble Prize for his work in medicine. His theory of Irradiation focuses on the importance of tension in the body.
“A MUSCLE WORKING HARD RECRUITS THE NEIGHBOURING MUSCLES, AND IF THEY ARE ALREADY PART OF THE ACTION, IT AMPLIFIES THEIR STRENGTH. THE NEURAL IMPULSES EMITTED BY THE CONTRACTING MUSCLES REACH OTHER MUSCLES AND ENHANCE THE DESIRED CONTRACTION.”
If I want to deadlift a heavyweight and step up to the bar, loose, with a relaxed grip, chances are that weight will not move. Obviously, I won’t be able to hold it but there will also be no tension in my body and my muscles will not fire maximally.
But, if I step up and grip the bar as tight as I possibly can, squeeze like my life depends on it, my chances of hitting the lift have increased significantly. I didn’t actually get any stronger but the body is now recruiting maximally and drawing on other surrounding muscles.
Pavel Tsatsouline, the chairman of StrongFirst, one of the world’s most prestigious kettlebell certifications, described Sherrington’s principle in a way I really like. He called it ‘muscle cheering’, the neural impulses from one muscle firing ‘turn on’ their neighbour and they all begin to cheer for each other.
Our grip is one of the areas we get the most out of this principle and can see immediate improvements so next time you’re in the gym work on bending that horseshoe.