Exercising this “forgotten muscle” may help you live longer
As it often happens with impactful discoveries, this one has started with a dream. A nightmare, to be exact. You know the kind where you hang on for your life off a narrow foot bridge by your fingertips. Invariably, I would plunge down before help arrived.
There is a beautiful park three block from my house with an awesome kids playground. Next time I went for a walk, I made a beeline for the monkey bars. Thankfully, the weather was of gray, cold variety and no kids were in evidence. “This shouldn’t be too difficult” I thought.
Oh, boy, was I wrong. Not only could I not swing from bar to bar, monkey-style, but I wasn’t even able to hold on to a bar for any respectable length of time. Literally, in seconds my grip would loosen and I’d plop down indignantly like a ripe pear every time I tried. This wasn’t good.
Not long afterwards, I came across an article linking poor grip strength with increased mortality. That certainly got my attention. In that study Rantanen et al. followed 2,239 men who were born before June, 1909 and had hand-grip strength measurements taken when they were between 56 and 68 years old. The observation ended in June, 2009. By then all the men had either died or were over 100 years old. When centenarians were compared with those who died before reaching 80, it was found that they were 2.5 times more likely to have had hand-grip strength in the top third tier. Primed by the nightmares, my mind immediately sprung to attention. I needed to read up some more. There was plenty of research linking low grip strength with all kinds of grim outcomes like functional decline, diabetes, cardiometabolic disease and mortality. It turned out that the grip strength has been used for years not just as a useful measurement of upper body strength, but one of most reliable indicators of true biological age. One of the research articles was subtitled:
Really, how old are you? The hands never lie.
Study after study confirmed that connection. The meta-analysis (where researchers compare multiple studies) by Cooper et al looked at 23 different studies and reported the correlation of grip strength not just with current physical shape, but also pretty reliable prediction of future susceptibility to diseases and even all-cause mortality.
Who knew? But really, when you give it some thought, it does make sense. Generally if we work out at all, we tend to invest our efforts in more immediate gratification outcomes such as abs or well defined arms. Unless we work day-in, day-out with our hands, they don’t get much attention during the workout. Hence, “forgotten” muscles (there are some others). But as opposed to over-inflated biceps, a well-developed forearm tells a true story about the owner’s everyday activity and muscle use. Martial artists will tell you, that in confrontation, it is the skinny guy with Popeye-like forearms that is more likely to kick butt of a muscle-bound dude, even much larger in size.
The research is not very clear though on wether or not we could improve our odds by intentionally strengthening the grip. Was it the nurture or the nature in operation? In other words, did the people with naturally stronger grip do better? Or could deliberate exercise to improve the grip strength improve the outcomes? My take on it is, that while we wait for research to clarify this issue, you really do not have much to lose by working on your hand strength. If nothing else, it will sneakily improve your upper body strength, through a process called irradiation. What’s that? Grab a tennis ball or a barbell, if you would. Squeeze it really tight. The muscles of not only your forearm, but also biceps and triceps engage. Can you feel it? OK, squeeze harder. Now, you should feel the muscles all the way to your shoulder (notorious rotator cuff included!) and your chest tighten up as well. This is the process of irradiation in action.
So, the worst case scenario: you will acquire much more respectable handshake. No need to ask for help opening those recalcitrant jars anymore. However, I believe that it would be only the beginning of the benefits you can reap from this exercise. As we now begin to understand how the act of exercise, through DNA methylation, turns our genes on and off (including the oncogenes, coding for various cancers), I am sure there will be more information relating to the benefits of the specific muscles activation coming down the pike. Our bodies are marvelous internal communication devices, very fine-tuned and sophisticated.
Body, like a shrewd manager, will divest energy from any activity that it deems unnecessary. How does your body decide what is unnecessary? Simple. If you don’t do it, it is not necessary. Use or loose it, as it were.
Unless you are a rock climber or a martial artist, your workout probably does not focus much on grip strength. Here are a few suggestions of sneaking in grip exercises into your routine.
Hand grippers: Since I have started reading on grip strength’s importance, I keep two of these lying around: one on my desk at work and the other at my side table at home. Whenever I remember, but at least twice a day I would squeeze out 10 reps on each side. Boring phone calls and commercials unexpectedly turn into workout time, thanks to hand grippers. If you don’t have them, or they are too challenging for you, start with the squeeze ball.
Wrist curls: sit down, let your arms rest on the legs. Grab a small barbell, 1 or 2 lbs in each hand, palms facing up (underhand). Using your wrists only curl the barbell up and down. Now, that I understand more about irradiation effect, I tend to grip the barbell much tighter for maximum effect.
Fingertip push-ups: just like a regular push-up, except you rest your weight on stretched out fingers. If you are not into self-punishment and want to start with something easier, you could begin with wall push-ups, then advance to knee and then full push-ups. Yes, your fingers may look a little crooked.
Farmer carries: imagine a farmer lugging two heavy pails of water. That is what you will be doing, using with heavier (10-20 lbs) barbells or kettlebells instead. Lift them from a squat (use proper technique, lifting with your legs!) and carry them for 20 feet. Set them down, change the directions and off you go again. If you have a back problem or want to eliminate the lifting, set the weights up on a higher surface, like a chair or a table.
Hand extensions: these aren’t the grip exercises in strict sense; they actually work the opposing muscles (the finger extensors), but in doing so they balance the muscles out, prevent injuries and eventually strengthen the grip.
Stay tuned for the updates on other “forgotten” muscles. Meanwhile though, get a grip!
By: Anna Lamnari, MD