Why Your Grip Strength May Weaken, According to a PT


You may not think about it all that often, but grip strength—the ability to hold onto and maintain control of an object for an extended period of time—is critically important to your ability to execute everyday tasks. Sure, you need it at the climbing gym or when you’re lifting weights, but you also need grip strength for more mundane activities such as carrying groceries or even driving your car.

Inadequate grip strength makes it more difficult to, well, grip things, but it also creates a cascade effect that prevents other muscle groups from getting stronger, too. “The body uses tactile feedback from the hand and grip to give information to the joints about how much stability and activity is needed,” says physical therapist and MOTIVNY co-founder Luke Greenberg, PT, DPT. “If the hands are weak, it becomes difficult to train the shoulders, chest, and back with adequate loads.”

Outside of the gym, diminishing grip strength may be a sign that your overall health isn’t in a good place; in fact, a 2018 study published in The BMJ found that there is “clear evidence that shows low grip strength is associated with a range of poorer health outcomes.” Researchers also discovered that grip strength was predictive of longevity because it was associated with cardiovascular disease (or lack thereof).

Most likely, this has to do with the fact that those with stronger grips are more physically active than those with weaker ones; however, inactivity isn’t the only factor at play here.

Below, Greenberg shares 3 key reasons your grip may slip, even if you’re physically active

1. Tendinopathy

“Grip overuse or tendinopathy [the breakdown of collagen] at the elbow will diminish grip strength,” Greenberg says. “The body becomes afraid of increasing load on the inflamed tissue, and will prevent grip from engaging more intensely.”

2. Shoulder issues

“If shoulders are unstable, weak versus the load put on them, or fatigued, it will be difficult to put full force through the grip,” says Greenberg.

3. Neck issues

“Neck issues, including compression, nerve root impingement, or disc bulges, can cause downstream weakness,” says Greenberg. “It’s likely you would see this throughout the arm as weakness, but potentially more intensely as decreased grip strength.”

Those who suspect any of the above should check in with a physical therapist for care specific to their circumstances, says Greenberg.

Testing your grip strength

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve got good grip strength, Greenberg offers a way to find out at home: See if you can comfortably carry a load that’s one-third of your body weight for 60 seconds—this could be a dumbbell or kettlebell, but also other items with a handle that you can fill with weight like a suitcase or duffle bag.

For example, if you weigh 210 pounds, carry 70 pounds for one minute without loss of posture, grip, or side to side sway,” he says. If you can do this your grip strength is likely adequate. 

How to strengthen your grip

You can also utilize the same load you use to test your grip strength in order to help improve it, says Greenberg. “Shoot for three sets of one minute per side,” he says. “These can be performed daily if no pain in the elbows or shoulders is occurring.

Grip-strengthening tools can be effective as well. “If you’re going to use something more isolated, such as a gripper, then you may want to train three sets of 20–25 reps,” says Greenberg. “Start with daily as long as pain doesn’t appear, and increase frequency to three times per day for maximal results.”

Ultimately, the key is just to use it before you lose it, so whatever you can do to work your grip strength is a win—be it these nine hand exercises, or just as many household chores as possible. Because, as Greenberg points out: “The more you use your grip strength, the more the body will reinforce it.” 

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