When was the last time you thought about how strong your hands were? Probably when you had to get someone else in your household to help open that pesky jar lid (of course they only opened it because you loosened it first!).
I was blown away by a scene in the latest “Tomb Raider” movie. Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) was hanging from a wrecked airplane, gripping the fuselage as she dangled over a precipice. She appeared to hold her own body weight with ease. Intrigued by her incredible grip strength, I wondered how did she get so strong? After looking into her training preparation for the movie, she was fortunate to have a personal trainer who worked with her to improve her endurance, strength and fitness.
It got me thinking about how most of us would have fared in a similar situation. Its unlikely that will need to save ourselves from falling into a deep precipice, however the ability to hold our own body weight for a period of time is a worthwhile goal. I don’t suggest that we need need to work out like Alicia Vikander, however we need a good grip strength to allow us continue to enjoy our daily activities. For example, to grip a car steering wheel, open jars, work in the garden, play sports like tennis or golf or carry a heavy shopping bag.
As children, we dangled from playground equipment like monkey bars and didn’t think twice. Over time as we get older, we lose this ability and our innate strength, which is unfortunate. Most adults don’t use playground equipment, however its a great way to build grip strength.
Next time you are at the park see theres a monkey or chin-ups bar and see how strong your grip strength is. Can you hold your body weight while feet are off the floor?
Why is grip strength important as we get older?
Research demonstrates a downside of reduced grip strength on part of our overall health indicators ( see the end of this piece for the reference links).
We all lose muscle mass and strength from around the age of 50, this is known as sarcopenia. Sarcopenia may increase the risk of falls, disability and overall fragility. The loss of muscle mass/strength (both men and women) is due to a combination of factors, including (1):
- a reduction in activity and exercise;
- obesity (fat replaces muscle);
- changes within the structure of our muscles;
- hormonal changes;
- inadequate protein intake;
- increased systemic inflammatory processes.
While we can’t help getting older, we do have control over our fitness (strength and flexibility) and our diet.
The results of a clinical trial involving elderly frail nursing home residents, showed progressive resistance training, in combination with multi-nutrient supplementation, improved muscle mass and decreased fragility within the active participant group (diet alone had no benefit) (2).
Grip strength is a good indicator of muscle strength and a window into overall health status. Low grip strength may indicate individuals have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke (3).
What can I do to increase my grip strength?
When we think of exercise, exercising hands and wrists is not usually at the top of the list.
There are ways to increase grip strength at home. Note: if there are any problems with arms, hands or wrists it might be worthwhile checking with health care professionals before starting.
- Have a look at the recommendations in “Give grip strength a hand” (3) for exercises for your hands and grip strength.
- Fill a bucket with a small amount of water and lift it up towards knees. Most buckets will hold 9 litres, so that’s 9 kilograms if filled to top measure line. Start low and add water as you build strength.
- Use a tennis ball or other soft ball and slowly squeeze the ball. Repeat 10 times and swap to the other hand. Increase repetitions as strength increases.
- Buy a hand grip device from the local gym shop. Try out the range of resistance before buying, its better to buy lower resistance ones and increase the repetitions as strength increases.
- Hand weights or dumbbells – bicep curls or tricep curls or while standing with weight in each hand lift from knee to hip.
(1) Walston, JD 2012, Sarcopenia in older adults, Curr Opin Rheumatol, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4066461/>.
(2) Exercise training and nutritional supplementation for physical frailty in very elderly people 2016, Harvard Medical School, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8190152>.
(3) Give grip strength a hand 2016, Harvard Health Publishing, <https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-aging/give-grip-strength-a-hand>.
(4) Musalek, C & Kirchengast, S 2017, Grip strength as an indicator of health-related quality of life in old age – A pilot study, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,<https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/14/12/1447/pdf >.
Other links to articles and papers
The PURE study – “Testing hand-grip strength could be a simple, low-cost way to predict heart attack and stroke risk”, <https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150513210142.htm>