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Get a grip: the importance of hand strength

July 26, 2016


Balance is key for strength training.

And as my athletes know, I'm no fan of esoteric specialization.

In itself, this is a topic deserving of another post - generalist vs. specialist practitioners, and why someone might fall into one of the two camps. 

However, suffice it to say that regardless of your specific sport, speciality, or interest, it's essential to balance your practice and work on the gaps. 

For most, these will be specific to their practice, the demands of their life, and their specific interests.

However, there's one area I feel that everybody could and should focus more of their attention towards. 

Grip & hand strength. 

Grip strength is often seen as simply "hand strength", but there are many other factors to consider in the process. Your "grip" strength involves everything from the upper reaches of your elbows, extending down both sides of your forearms, and into your hands and fingers. 

Thus, hand strength is far more than simply "grip", but includes a variety of complex movement patterns realized in the musculature of the elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers.


This is important to understand because injuries to the arms and hands - like tendonitis, tendonosis and epicondylitis - generally arise from either improper programming of training exercises, high demands placed on the grip from other exercises, or simply the complete absence of any programming for grip strength.

Elements of hand strength:
Crushing grip: What most people think of when they think "grip" - closing the fingers against (and usually around) a resistance. related to clamping (wrapping the fingers around something and pushing it towards the palm), and crimping (applying force wth the fingers towards the callous line - often seen in bouldering/climbing training). 


Pinching grip: Grasping an object with the tips of the fingers in opposition to the thumb. Like a pinch.

Supporting grip: Gripping something else, such as a barbell during a deadlift or a set of rings during a muscle-up. When grip isn't the primary attribute being trained, but which supports your performance in the movement. When there's a large enough space between your fingers and thumb, it becomes an open hand support

Extension & flexion of the hand: Extension of the hand (flexing all the fingers as if trying to open the hand as wide as possible), and flexion (closing the hand as tightly as possible - flexing the fingers and thumb). 

Ulnar & radial deviation/flexion: Lateral movements tilting the wrist from one side to the other. 

Extension & flexion of the wrist:  Flexion is the bending of the wrist such that the front of the palm moves toward the underside of the forearm. Extension is the bending of the wrist such that the back of the palm moves towards the top of the forearm. 

Why train your grip, then?

1. Better training. If you can't grip it, you can't lift it. A stronger grip guarantees better lifts in all areas of training, increasing irradiation of adjacent muscle groups, improved endurance, elevated force production, and increased torque. 

2. Injury prevention. Physical training is controlled and modulated adaptation of the human body & mind through selective use of external stressors. Provided with the appropriate stimulus and recovery, tissue becomes stronger as a result of being subjected to particular forms of environmental stress - the central dogma of physical training. Stronger tissue also tends to be more resilient in the long term, resisting injuries and recovering faster in light of their occurrence. 

For most athletes - and particularly in contact sports such as MMA, BJJ, boxing, football, or basketball - structural integrity of the hands and forearms is essential for a) successful high-level athletic performance in each discipline, and b) simply being able to perform at all. A chance broken wrist, jammed finger, or bout of tendonitis can render an athlete off the court for weeks. 

3. Improved quality of life. Interestingly, grip strength is positively associated with lower risk of mortality, and in particular, mortality stemming from heart disease, and stroke. In fact, grip strength has been found to be a better predictor of all-causes mortality than systolic blood pressure!


How so? 

The latest findings from the Prospective Urban-Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study give us a clue as to why this might be. 

Collecting data from nearly 140,000 adults (35-70) in 17 countries (and with a team of nearly 400 researchers) this study assessed grip strength (using a hand dynamometer) and mortality over a longitudinal period of 4 years.

They found that:

1. On average, "male" grip strength ranged between 67 and 84 pounds while "female" grip strength ranged from 54 to 62 pounds.

Disclaimer: we do not endorse the use of gender binaries at Salish Sea, nor do we believe that "gender" is the best way to delineate & assess sports performance. 

2. For each 11-pound decrease in grip strength, there was a 17% increased risk of cardiovascular death, a 7% increased risk of heart attack and a 9 percent increased risk of stroke, in addition to a 17% greater risk of death not associated with heart disease. 


Study co-author Dr. Darryl Leong, (assistant professor of Medicine at McMaster University):

     "Grip strength could be an easy, inexpensive test to assess an                                     individual's risk of death and cardiovascular disease… Doctors or other health        care professionals can measure grip strength to identify patients with major           illnesses such as heart failure who are at particularly high risk of dying from           their illness."


Several other studies have suggested that grip strength is a useful tool for diagnosing mobility limitations, as a predictor of old-age disability, as a predictor of total muscular strength and endurance, as a marker for age-related frailty, and health-related quality of life.


With benefits ranging from injury prevention, improved athletic performance, and a reduced risk of all-causes mortality, It's clear that hand & grip strength are essential elements to include in any physical practice. 

MMA & BJJ fighters, boxers & grapplers, rock climbers, and more would be mistaken to not include serious grip & hand strength training in their programs. Salish Sea Strength & Conditioning works with athletes across the territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, mi ce:p kʷətxʷiləm, and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh peoples (in Greater Vancouver, B.C.) to improve their sports-specific performance in areas like grip strength. Contact us for further information on coaching, seminars, and programming for your athletes. 















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