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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why your grip strength matters, and how to improve it

By Connie Chang

A solid grip is a huge help when playing sports or doing household chores — but it has also been repeatedly tied to a longer, healthier life. Partly this is because people with strong hands tend to be more physically active, which itself is associated with longevity.

But hand or grip strength is also important for daily tasks that become harder as you age, whether you’re opening a jar or catching yourself to avoid a fall. Despite this, it’s not something many people go to the gym for, or think about much at all.

“Hands are this important body part that’s not on our exercise radar,” said Katy Bowman, a kinesiologist and host of the Move Your DNA podcast.

Adding to this issue, people’s hands are becoming weaker overall, possibly because of the way we use smartphones and touch screens, said Dr. Erin Nance, a hand surgeon in New York City. Counteracting this involves more than just exercising the tiny muscles in our hands, she added, but also those that run along our forearms, as well as the muscles in our upper arms, shoulders and core.

As Bowman said: “They work together as a functional unit.”

To evaluate your current hand strength, she suggested first holding something heavy, like a cast-iron pan, and rotating it as if dumping out its contents. Then, see if you can support your weight with your hands and wrists in a pushup position. If either of these things is difficult to sustain for a few seconds, you might benefit from grip training.

Here are a few exercises that experts recommend to increase your hand strength; they can be incorporated into your existing workout routine or done separately.

Add functional exercises to your current workout.

Experts say that exercises that strengthen your grip while engaging other muscles are the most effective, because they mimic the movements of daily life. For example, the farmer’s carry, where you tote a heavy object in each hand while walking, works the grip as well as the core, arms, shoulders and back.

Start with 10-pound kettlebells or dumbbells, or “pick a weight that’s heavy enough to make you want to walk faster,” said Rachel Lovitt, a personal trainer in Redmond, Washington. Water jugs with handles also work.

Pete McCall, the education director for EOS Fitness gyms, also recommended a dead hang — the starting position of a pullup. “It requires grip strength to control the body’s weight, and it’s good for the shoulders, upper back and core,” McCall said. Beginners should start with 10-second hangs and try to build up to one minute.

The bear walk — which involves walking along the ground on all fours — is another way to strengthen your grip alongside other muscles, said Jarlo Ilano, a physical therapist and co-founder of the online exercise program, GMB Fitness.

“You’re pushing against the ground — using your hands, fingers, and wrists — to propel your whole body forward,” Ilano said. He recommended four rounds of two-minute stretches of bear walking, separated by two minutes of rest.

Adjust your existing exercises.

The simplest way to strengthen your hands is by modifying exercises you already do. McCall recommended replacing the handle of a rowing machine with a towel or a rope. “You have to hold on tighter, so all the muscles in the hand are forced to work a lot harder,” he said.

Ilano suggested ditching weight lifting gloves — which make it easier to grip — while on machines like the lat pulldown. “You might need to reduce the weight, but it’ll help improve your grip.”

Free-weight exercises — using barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells — are another opportunity to sneak in a hand workout by intentionally increasing your grip. “When I do a bicep curl, I squeeze that dumbbell to work my forearms as well as my biceps,” Lovitt said.

Try an occasional grip-specific exercise.

Experts said most people don’t need grip-specific exercises unless they are recovering from an injury or training for a sport like golf or tennis. They suggested limiting these to once a week unless otherwise recommended by a physical therapist.

Kristin Valdes, an occupational therapist at Touro University in Nevada, suggested squeezing a tennis ball for five seconds at a time, 10 times in a row, and repeating this for three sets. Isometric exercises like this, where the muscles contract but there’s no movement, “are safer for people with arthritis and other joint issues,” she said.

Another simple exercise that works the wrists and forearms is the towel wring. “Grab a hand towel, soak it, and wring it out until there’s no water left,” said Travis Haywood, the head trainer at F45 Training gym in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Repeat three to five times, switching the direction of wringing halfway through. Or, if you have access to weights, he suggested wrist curls: In a seated position, hold light dumbbells (no more than three pounds to start) and rest your forearms on your thighs. Bring your wrists up and then back down with your palms facing the ceiling.

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