When you think about your body’s overall strength, it’s easy to overlook certain skills that come into play just as much as your major muscles do. Those include things like joint flexibility, agility, endurance, and—maybe the least discussed fitness skill—grip strength.
If you are assuming that grip strength is literally how hard you can hold onto something, you’re correct. It sounds simple, but having that capability comes into play in almost every workout and in everyday movements. According to André Crews, Ladder teams coach, your hands and forearms are “the gatekeepers to functional fitness,” and these are the parts of your body that are in charge of how well you grip. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about fitness skill, including how to improve it.
What is grip strength?
Technically, grip strength goes beyond being able to just hold something in your hands. “It’s the physical ability to hold onto and maintain control of an external object in your hands for an extended period of time,” says Crews. Being able to do this uses both hand and forearm strength. “Grip strength is a measure of muscular strength or the maximum force generated by one’s forearm muscles,” says Nicholas Poulin, trainer and founder of Poulin Health and Wellness, who adds that it’s often a measurement of upper body strength.
Even if you’re able to squat with super-heavy weights or do pull-ups until you’re red in the face, your training capacity will be limited if you don’t have good grip strength, says Crews. “If you cannot physically hold onto a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell, your physiological results [of your workouts] will be limited,” he says.
Grip strength entails a number of different grips, so it’s not just wrapping your fingers around a pole or a weight. Poulin points to the following varieties of grips that you can use in your workouts: supinated (palms facing up); pronated (palms facing down); neutral (palms facing toward one another); and hybrid (variations between two).
Your grip can vary depending on what you’re holding, too. Besides holding onto an external object (like weights), Crews says that a barbell hook grip places the index and middle finger over the thumb to create a structural grip on heavy loads. “Then there’s holding up your own bodyweight, like on a pull-up bar or TRX traps,” he says. “And a gymnastics hook grip places the thumb over the index and middle finger to activate an extra muscle in the forearm.”
Why grip strength is so important
Without proper grip strength, a slew of muscle imbalances and injuries could happen as a result. “If your grip and forearm muscles are not conditioned with mobility, strength, and endurance, then the result winds up being the frustrating chronic repetitive motion injuries that plague both office workers and athletes alike,” says Poulin. Think conditions like tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) and medial epicondylitis (pains anywhere on the inside of the elbow and forearm). “People who work on a computer often get one or both of these same issues,” he says.
Because your wrist plays a big role in your grip strength, not having good mobility in that joint means that your grip will be weak, which can then lead to certain kinds of injuries. “Your wrist is one of the most complex joints in the body, and it has a high involvement in nearly every activity we do,” says Kimberly O’Laughlin, certified trainer and SportsArt regional sales manager. “Limited mobility of the wrist leads to limited movement, less blood flow, and often pain. If the wrist is stiff and weak, your grip will be directly affected, and other parts of your body will begin to compensate.”
Benefits of having good grip strength
When you have solid grip strength, everyday tasks become much easier. “With proper grip strength, everything from carrying your purse or briefcase or luggage to carrying groceries, using a screwdriver, painting, maintaining better control of your dogs on a leash, and picking up or playing with your children all becomes easier,” says Crews. Hence why trainers say that the skill is a staple element of functional fitness.
Also, grip strength allows you to do more in your workouts. “You can increase your intensity and drive faster neuromuscular adaptation with good grip strength,” says Crews. He brings up an example of one person who’s able to hold onto dumbbells for 20 deadlifts without stopping, while another person can only hold onto dumbbells for 12 reps. The first person has better grip strength, so they are able to build more muscle in a shorter period of time.
What to watch out for before working on your grip strength
Though everyone can benefit from improving their grip strength, some people can be more susceptible to injuries. Poulin’s number one tip in working on the fitness skill? Start out light. “Begin by modifying some of your regular lifting so that it’s more grip-intense, and from there, add more work,” he says. For example, he recommends using a towel as your handle when doing rows for a while to get your hands working more.
Be sure to move slowly when you’re just beginning to work on your grip. “I like to suggest one or two grip-intensive lifts per week for two weeks,” says Poulin. “After two weeks, move up to two workouts. Then, after a month, shoot for workouts where you can train the grip with serious intention up to three times a week.”
When you’re focusing on this, watch the volume that you’re working with. “When performing grip lifts, think of training volume as the number of sets and reps in a workout,” says Poulin, who recommends staying in the three to five sets of three to five reps zone as a beginner before progressing.
Another key factor in increasing your grip is working on your wrist mobility—not just grip-focused exercises. “If your forearms are tight—which happens if you type or text all day—you will be limited in your ability to grip properly,” says Crews. Stretch your wrists regularly, and incorporate myofascial release (aka massage) with something like a lacrosse ball on a daily basis to improve your mobility.
You could also work through these wrist-strengthening exercises and stretches for improved mobility:
8 exercises that’ll improve your grip strength
1. Dead hang
O’Laughlin recommends the basic dead hang. Grab a pull-up bar and hang for a specified length of time—aim for 15 seconds and add on from there—while maintaining a prone or supinated grip.
2. Farmer’s hold
Before trying a farmer’s walk, Crews suggests beginning with a hold. Grab something moderately heavy (like two gallons of water, one in each hand), stand tall with your shoulders down and back, and hold for 30 seconds. When you’re ready for a farmer’s walk, do the same thing, but slowly walk forward and backward as you keep a good posture and a strong grip on the weights.
Begin with your chest up, shoulders back, and your weight in your heels while standing. Grab dumbbells or a kettlebell from the floor and stand to full extension. Hinge at the hip and bend your knees as you keep your chest up until the weight touches the ground. Do 10 to 15 reps and four sets.
4. Kettlebell swing
Standing with your chest up and shoulders back, weight in your heels, hold one kettlebell between your legs. Stand and squeeze your glutes as you send the kettlebell into the air up to chest height. Maintain a strong grip and an upright chest as it swings back between your legs. Do 10 to 15 reps and four sets.
5. Barbell shrug
Poulin recommends incorporating the barbell shrug into your strength routine for a better grip. You can do this with a barbell, a trap bar, dumbbells, or a machine. Hold a barbell using a pronated (overhand) grip at shoulder-width in front of your hips with your arms straight. Stand holding the barbell with your shoulders back and head facing forward. Keeping your arms straight, raise your shoulders and traps towards the ceiling, pause for three seconds, then return to the starting position.
6. Reverse barbell wrist curl
“This exercise is solely to increase muscular endurance to the forearms, which transfers into the ability to have a stronger grip,” says Poulin. Hold a barbell (you can do this with a dumbbell too) with an overhand grip behind you, two to three inches from your lower back. With an upright posture, let the barbell roll onto your fingertips while keeping your arms straight. Then, make a fist and contract your forearms to grip the bar with a closed grip. That’s one rep. Be sure to do this slowly and avoid using momentum to move the barbell.
7. Resisted hand opening
Touch all of your fingertips together so your thumb is touching the tip of your other four fingers. Place a rubber band around the bendy part of your finger closest to your fingernail, and push your fingers against the band until your hand is open, as if you were giving someone a high-five. Bring your fingers back together. That’s one rep.
8. Pinch grip plate hold
Poulin likes this exercise since it trains your ability to hold onto something for an extended period of time. Place a 10-pound plate (or heavier) flat on the ground. Keep a bench or box nearby. If it can stand up on its own, have it stand up. Grab the plate with your right hand using just your fingers, keeping your thumb on one side of the plate. Stand straight up with the plate so that it’s at your side. Pause, then place it back on the bench or box. Repeat for five to 10 reps.