An Iron Grasp on Longevity and Vitality

An Iron Grasp on Longevity and Vitality

August 04, 2013 0 Comments

The flexor musculature of our hands and forearms provide us with the ‘grip’ we need to perform everyday tasks.

Turning doorknobs, holding handles and opening jars are only a few of the services performed by this very important cohort of muscles, however, their importance extends far beyond facilitating everyday tasks.

Current research is also showing a remarkably important relationship between grip strength and mortality, nutritional deficiency, levels of recovery (such as after a workout or even surgery), as well as overall vitality. Although grip strength measures were originally developed for patients recovering from hand surgery, this area is quickly becoming a focus of interest for many studies because of its testable feasibility and relevance across a wide range of health issues.

hand

Grip strength refers to the “maximum level of strength derived from the combined contraction of intrinsic and extrinsic hand muscles, which lead to the flexion of joints.” In order to grip, our hand’s flexor mechanisms create the strength necessary for the task at hand, while extensors in the forearm stabilize the wrist. The force exerted when squeezing an object therefore isn’t only reflective of the overall strength in the arm or hand, it reflects overall muscle function. This indication of muscle function is one of the main reasons that scientists are interested in studying grip strength, because it points to a slew of health and nutritional-related matters. The strength of finger flexor musculature has been found to be 62% stronger than finger extensor musculature during isometric tasks. It definitely appears that human hands are more geared toward flexion than extension (read: we’re supposed to grip things very hard!).

Getting a Grip on the Research

Your Grasp on Life

Some of the most important research to come out on grip strength concerns it’s usefulness as a predictor of mortality, frailty and biological ageing. Doctors have also used grip strength tests to predict the level of complications after surgery and the length of hospital stays because it is such a reliable indicator of muscle function and vitality. A study done by the United Kingdom’s Department of Health and Social Science found that grip strength is a useful predictor of mortality from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Essentially, poorer grip strength is associated with increased mortality from all causes. This includes controlling for muscle size and other indicators of body composition. The Hertfordshire Cohort Study found similar results, with low grip strength correlating to poorer health. Those with weaker grip strength in their 40s and 50s were found to develop physical disabilities and dietary deficiencies in much higher numbers.

A 2010 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which studied 555 elderly people found that those whose grip strength declined the most over four years died in much greater numbers over a 9.5 year period. Relatedly, scientists have observed a relationship between overall immune function and grip strength, even observing downward spikes in grip strength endurance the morning following a night of drinking.

Gripping the Mind

Grip strength’s usefulness as an indicator doesn’t stop with the physical. Researchers are finding it increasingly relevant with relation to cognition and nutrition. Scientists have observed that “muscle function reacts earlier to nutritional deprivation (or restoration) than muscle mass.” Therefore, since grip strength is so useful in reflecting muscle function, it can be used as a tool to help monitor changes in a person’s nutritional health.

Poorer grip strength is also associated with higher fasting insulin levels, which has led some scientists to suggest that a decreased of muscle function could precede the development of insulin resistance. A 2006 study found a relationship between increased grip strength and increased cognitive function and hemoglobin levels among 3255 people ages 71-93. This suggests a link between muscle function and mental sharpness.

Training and Testing the Grip

Grip strength is unquestionably a central component of most athletic performance and any form of strength training requires some degree of strength in this area. Grip is hardly a focus of most conventional strength training routines even though it is necessary for injury prevention in many sports. For example, tennis players without forearm or grip strength risk developing tennis elbow. 

Grip testing through the use of a dynamometer, are regularly performed by elite-level coaches to determine the physical readiness on their athletes. If an athlete’s grip is a %/kg below baseline, this is often taken to indicate the athlete is fatigued. Alternatively, if grip is above baseline, this could indicate optimal recovery and increased performance.

The grip can be directly trained with the use of specialized equipment such as: spring-loaded gripping devices, “grasp and pincer” blocks, and crush balls. However, classic gym exercises can train the grip just as well. These include many pulling movements such as the Deadlift, Bent-Over Rows, Pull-ups, as well as timed holds such as Farmer’s Walks. Increasing the diameter of the training implement - barbell, dumbbell handle, or cable attachment - is also an excellent way to challenge the grip.

Strength Coach Charles Poliquin notes that improving grip strength results in less neural drive needed for forearm and hand muscles to perform other movements. He has found that many athletes can push past training plateaus after doing specialized grip routines. Poliquin also suggests foregoing straps during any exercise or using bars of different thicknesses in order to ensure the development of greater isometric strength of the gripping muscles, which stabilize or hold the resistance.

To sum up, grip strength is a simple yet powerful indicator of the body’s functional status as well as its cognitive and nutritional health. Improving grip can be done through some classic gym exercises as well as specialized training, and the benefits it provides could go far in maintaining muscular function and encouraging longevity.

Revolution

Sources

Catharine Gale, Christopher Martyn, Cyrus Cooper and Avan Sayer, “Grip Strength, Body Composition, and Mortality.” University Press on behalf of International Epidemiological Association International Journal of Epidemiology 2007;36;288-235.

Kristina Norman, Nicole Stobaus, Christina Gonzalez, Matthias Pirlich, “Hand Grip Strength: Outcome Predictor and Marker of Nutritional Status.” Clinical Nutrition.30 (2011) 135-142.

Jason Shea C.S.C.S, PES, “The Importance of Grip Strength.”

Waldo, B. Grip Strength Testing. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal(1996 Oct 32-5).

Ratamess, N, A Faigenbaum, G Mangine, J Hoffman, and J Kang. Acute Muscular Strength Assessment Using Free Weight Bars of Different Thickness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2007, 21(1), 240-244).

Guo, Cb, W Zhang, Dq Ma, Kh Zhang, and Jq Huang. Hand Grip Strength: an Indicator of Nutritional State and the Mix of Postoperative Complications in Patients with Oral and Maxillofacial Cancers. British Journal of Oral Maxillofac Surgury. (1996 Aug;34(4):325-7).

Avan Aihie Sayer, Holly Syddalli, Helen Martini, Elaine Dennisoni, Helen Roberts. “Is grip strength associated with health-related quality of life? Findings from the Hertfordshire Cohort Study.” Age and Ageing 2006; 35: 409–415

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