To assess overall health, medical clinicians routinely use biomarkers.
Biomarkers are measures of the body’s physiological state and can include blood pressure, glucose levels, or body fat percentage of total weight.
Biomarkers indicate if the body is functioning normally and can predict the possibility of developing health problems.
For example, if someone has uncontrolled high blood pressure (referred to as hypertension) for an extended period, that person is at a higher risk for stroke, kidney disease, or heart attack.
About a decade ago, researchers and clinicians discovered that as we age, measuring grip strength is a biomarker for everything from overall body strength to bone density and even the likelihood of falls and fractures in later life.
According to a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Epistemology, postmenopausal women, in particular, experience significant declines in both grip and pinch strength. Of the women involved in the five-year study, those with lower grip and pinch strength were more likely to have poorer health and experience a higher incidence of falls.
In several unrelated follow-up studies, researchers such as physical therapist Richard W. Bohannon have demonstrated a positive and significant correlation between declining grip strength and overall declining or poor health in older adults.
As recently as January, a study headed by Lisa J. Underland of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed that grip strength is an excellent predictor of continued mobility as we age. It may be a better indicator of long-term health than weight loss or gain.
Why Grip Strength?
Grip strength is such a helpful biomarker for overall health because of how grip is strengthened. When we engage in activities that require us to move the whole body, especially while picking up or moving heavy things (think weightlifting or exercise with a resistance band), grip is also strengthened.
And while we have long known that moving the whole body is beneficial to health, particularly for those who are older, researchers are beginning to study why being physically active helps to extend life span.
Testing what’s called “the active grandparent hypothesis,” researchers speculate that continuous physical activity for adults, especially during their post-reproductive years, diverts the body’s energy away from the storing of fat and refocuses it on the destruction of aging cells (a process known as autophagy) and the maintenance and repair of the whole body, including overall muscle mass and related muscle strength.
As overall muscle mass increases, so too does grip strength.
But how is grip strength measured, and what levels predict overall good health and the potential for longevity?
A clinician will ask a patient to grip a device called a dynamometer with one hand and squeeze it three times in succession, and then repeat this with the other hand.
When squeezed, a dynamometer indicates how many pounds per square inch (psi) or kilograms per square centimeter (kg/cm²) of pressure is applied. The clinician then averages the three output scores for each hand, resulting in a baseline grip strength for the dominant hand.
For a healthy adult male, average grip strength should be about 72–73 psi; for a healthy adult female, 44–45 psi.
To put these numbers into perspective, the average pressure needed to break an egg, when squeezed end to end, is about 53 psi. Any score below these averages can indicate potential problems for long-term health and mobility.
If below-average grip strength indicates potential health and longevity problems, can improving grip strength impact overall health and improve longevity? Happily, the answer seems to be “yes,” although more research is needed. One study found a small but significant relationship between improved grip strength and an overall improvement in mobility.
The goal to keep in mind, according to Rocky Synder, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of the book “Return to Center,” is to perform exercises that increase overall body strength and mobility, such as picking up and carrying a kettlebell or dumbbell until grip begins to fail, or hanging from a chin-up for as long as possible, increasing the hang time week by week.
If grip strength is already below a healthy average, and it’s a challenge to perform these exercises, improvement can be made by squeezing a tennis ball for an increasing number of repetitions each day.
Keep in mind, however, that the goal is to improve overall body strength and mobility, not just the muscles in the hands and forearms.
Exercises to Improve Grip Strength
Many exercises can strengthen your grip. Focus on those that strengthen upper, lower, or whole-body muscle groups. As with all resistance training (in the past, called weightlifting), don’t focus on the maximum amount of weight you can lift, but rather on lifting to failure, picking a weight you will “fail” at somewhere between 8 and 12 repetitions.
Failure means that you can either no longer lift the weight or you can’t lift it and maintain a good, smooth, balanced form.
Resistance training isn’t a contest or a race: Lift as much as you can to failure, and you will improve as your body strengthens. Resistance training works best when done regularly, at least three times weekly. If you have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or cardiovascular disease, consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
This is an excellent exercise for grip, upper body strength, and balance.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides with the tops of your hands facing forward.
Stand erect with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, keeping your back straight.
Keeping your elbows close to your body, raise the dumbbells with the backs of your hands facing up until your hands reach your shoulders.
Slowly lower the dumbbells, keeping the tops of your hands facing up, and return your hands to your sides, spending about twice as much time lowering your hands and forearms as you did raising them.
The idea is to keep tension in your hands and forearms while lowering the dumbbells and not let gravity do most of the work.
Repeat 8 to 12 times (called a “rep”) or to failure, and repeat the cycle (called a “set”) three times. Do three sets of 8 to 12 reps 2 to 3 times weekly.
The Farmer’s Carry
The farmer’s carry is great for developing core body and grip strength.
Pick up two dumbbells and walk approximately 30 feet, then turn around and return to where you started.
Carry enough weight so that as you return to the starting position, it feels like you are going to drop the dumbbells.
Do three reps in a set, and three sets, 2 to 3 times weekly.
Chin-Up Bar Hang
This is perhaps the simplest of all the exercises, though it requires a sturdy, well-secured chin-up bar.
Simply reach up, grab the bar, and raise your feet off the floor, hanging for as long as possible.
Start with three reps of 15 seconds, done three times.
Repeat three times weekly, working your way up to 30 seconds or more of hang time.