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Grip Strength May Help Predict Heart Attack and Stroke

Grip Strength

Story at-a-glance -

  • Grip strength was found to be a simple, low-cost indicator of heart attacks and strokes
  • For each 11-pound decrease in grip strength, there was a 17 percent increased risk of cardiovascular death
  • A 17 percent greater risk of death from causes not associated with heart disease was also linked to lower grip strength

By Dr. Mercola

You might not think much about your grip strength, unless you’re trying to open a jar of pickles, but it turns out this seemingly minute detail of fitness may reveal quite a bit about your overall health.

In a study of nearly 140,000 people, ages 35 to 70 and spanning 17 countries, grip strength was found to be a simple, low-cost indicator of heart attacks and strokes.1 On average, male grip strength ranged between 67 and 84 pounds while female grip strength ranged from 54 to 62 pounds.

For each 11-pound decrease in grip strength, there was a 17 percent increased risk of cardiovascular death, a 7 percent increased risk of heart attack and a 9 percent increased risk of stroke.2

There was also a 17 percent greater risk of death from causes not associated with heart disease. According to study author Dr. Darryl Leong, assistant professor of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario:3

"Grip strength could be an easy, inexpensive test to assess an individual's risk of death and cardiovascular disease… Doctors or other health care professionals can measure grip strength to identify patients with major illnesses such as heart failure who are at particularly high risk of dying from their illness."

Grip Strength Also Linked to Total-Body Fitness

It’s unclear at this time whether specifically targeting your grip strength could lower your risk of death and heart disease, or if a strong grip is a marker of a healthier lifestyle or a tendency to exercise harder. Strength coach Jedd Johnson told Men’s Fitness:4

“Having strong fingers, hands, and wrists helps you lift more weight and allows you to hold the weight for longer time and more reps… This translates to better results in the gym."

In fact, research published in 2011 found that hand-grip strength is a predictor of total-body muscular strength and endurance.5 Past research again found that grip strength appears to be a useful marker of overall fitness and may be associated with frailty.

In those aged 64-74, low grip strength was associated with more markers of aging than was chronological age alone.6 Lower grip strength is also associated with reduced health-related quality of life in older men and women,7 and is also considered a useful tool to identify people at risk of mobility limitations, such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs.8

Among those in their 80s, a weak grip strength is even associated with higher mortality rates while higher grip strength is associated with higher cognitive function and hemoglobin levels.9 In case you’re wondering how grip strength is measured, it’s typically done using a hand-held dynamometer, which registers pounds of compression as a person squeezes it.

Surprising Factors That Influence Grip Strength

Your grip strength may be partly innate, as it’s positively associated with your weight and height at birth. However, lifestyle factors also play a role, including your diet and, in particular, consuming omega-3 fats.

One study found an increase in grip strength of about 0.9 pounds occurred with each additional portion of fatty fish, rich in omega-3 fats, consumed per week.10 Hand-grip strength was also associated with vitamin D levels in one study of young women,11 which makes sense since vitamin D is critically important for muscle function.

On the other hand, the use of certain cardiovascular drugs is associated with reduced grip strength in older people. Furosemide (Lasix) was associated with average decreases in grip strength of nearly 7 pounds among men and more than five pounds among women after adjustment for age and height.12

Other heart medications, including nitrates, calcium channel blockers, and fibrates were also associated with reduced grip strength. If you tend to crack your knuckles often, you may be interested to know that this habit, too, has been associated with lower grip strength.

What Type of Exercises Improve Your Grip Strength?

If your grip strength is lacking, it’s a sign that your muscles may be starting to waste away. Richard Bohannon, a professor of Physical Therapy at the University of Connecticut told the LA Times:13

“Grip strength reflects your overall muscle status and a general sense of how much muscle mass you have… If you have more muscle in your upper body, you probably have more in your lower body as well."

To improve your grip strength, pull-ups are useful. The pull-up builds grip strength because your fingers, hands and forearms are all used. The Daily Burn also shared the following five exercises to help build grip strength. This shouldn’t be done as one workout, but rather try to incorporate one of these into your strength-training routine (and rotate them regularly).14

1. Partial-Grip Pull-Up

How to: Grasp a pull-up bar with a palms-down, shoulder-width grip, but leave your thumb out. Perform pull-ups as normal. Sets: 3, Reps: AMRAP (as many reps as possible), Rest: As needed

2. Plate Pinch

How to: Pinch a plate in each hand between your fingers without holding on to the handle or lip of it. Hold them at your side for as long as you can. When this gets too easy, try pinching two plates together. Sets: 3, Reps: To failure, Rest: As needed

3. Towel Pull-Up

How to: Loop a regular workout towel around a pull-up bar. Hold an end in each hand and perform pull-ups as normal. Just make sure to move your head to either side as you get closer to the pull-up bar. Sets: 3, Reps: AMRAP, Rest: As needed

4. Farmer’s Walk

How to: Grasp a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettle bells. Keeping the core engaged, walk from one end of the gym to the other until you can no longer hold onto the weights. Sets: 3, Reps: To failure, Rest: As needed

5. Push-Up

How to: Lie face-down on the floor, hands at shoulder-width palms on the ground, toes driving into the floor. Think about trying to grab a handful of the ground, as this will fire up the muscles in your forearms important for grip strength.

Push yourself up, so your hands are under your shoulders, and your body is a straight line from the back of your head down to your heels. Slowly lower yourself down so your chest touches the floor. Sets: 3, Reps: AMRAP, Rest: As needed”

A Full-Body Strength Training Routine Will Improve Your Grip Strength

The more you engage in strength training, the more you’ll be using and building your gripping muscles. In addition, a full-body strength-training program is essential to building other muscle groups as well. A strong grip strength tends to go hand-in-hand with muscle strength elsewhere in your body.

If your grip strength is weak, you’ll certainly want to begin a strength-training program… but this is important even if your grip strength is normal. If you’re not engaging in strength or resistance training, chances are you’ll become increasingly less functional with age, which can take a toll on your quality of life.

Interestingly, strength training even has a beneficial impact on your gene expression. Not only has it been shown to slow cellular aging but it can actually return gene expression to youthful levels. In seniors who take up strength training, the genes’ clocks can be turned back by as much as a decade!

Age-related muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, can actually begin far sooner than you might think—starting as early as in your 20s if you’re sedentary.15 After the age of 50, you tend to lose about 0.4 pounds of muscle with each passing year.16 So what do you have to gain by starting weight training – even if you’re already “older”? According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM):17

Given an adequate training stimulus, older adults can make significant gains in strength. A two- to three-fold increase in strength can be accomplished in three to four months in fibers recruited during training in older adults. With more prolonged resistance training, even a modest increase in muscle size is possible.

…With increasing muscle strength come increased levels of spontaneous activity in both healthy, independent older adults and very old and frail men and women. Strength training, in addition to its possible effects on insulin action, bone density, energy metabolism, and functional status, is also an important way to increase levels of physical activity in the older adult.”

Is Super-Slow Weight Training for You?

By slowing your movements down, it turns your weight-training session into high-intensity exercise. The super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle. This is a beneficial and safe way to incorporate high-intensity exercise into your workouts if you’re older and have trouble getting around.

You only need about 12 to 15 minutes of super-slow strength training once a week to achieve the same human growth hormone (HGH) production as you would from 20 minutes of Peak Fitness sprints, which is why fitness experts like Dr. Doug McGuff are such avid proponents of this technique. The fact that super-slow weight training gives you an excellent boost in human growth hormone (HGH), otherwise known as the "fitness hormone," is another reason why it’s so beneficial if you’re older.

As you reach your 30s and beyond, you enter what's called "somatopause," when your levels of HGH begin to drop off quite dramatically. This is part of what drives your aging process. According to Dr. McGuff, there's also a strong correlation between somatopause and age-related sarcopenia. HGH is needed to sustain your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which produce a lot of power. It's also needed to stimulate those muscles.

"What seems to be evident is that a high-intensity exercise stimulus is what triggers the body to make an adaptive response to hold on to muscle," Dr. McGuff says. "We have to remember that muscle is a very metabolically expensive tissue… If you become sedentary and send your body a signal that this tissue is not being used, then that tissue is metabolically expensive. The adaptation is to deconstruct that tissue…"

How to Perform Super-Slow Weight Training

People of all ages can benefit from super-slow weight training, but this is definitely a method to consider if you’re middle-aged or older. I recommend using four or five basic compound movements for your super-slow (high intensity) exercise set. Compound movements are movements that require the coordination of several muscle groups—for example, squats, chest presses, and compound rows. Here is my version of the technique. I also demonstrate a number of exercises in the video above, starting around the 15-minute mark:

  • Begin by lifting the weight as slowly and gradually as you can. In the video above, I demonstrate doing this with a four-second positive and a four-second negative, meaning it takes four seconds, or a slow count to four, to bring the weight up, and another four seconds to lower it. (When pushing, stop about 10 to 15 degrees before your limb is fully straightened; smoothly reverse direction)
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to the slow count of four
  • Repeat until exhaustion, which should be around four to eight reps. Once you reach exhaustion, don't try to heave or jerk the weight to get one last repetition in. Instead, just keep trying to produce the movement, even if it's not “going” anywhere, for another five seconds or so. If you're using the appropriate amount of weight or resistance, you'll be able to perform eight to 10 reps
  • Immediately switch to the next exercise for the next target muscle group, and repeat the first three steps

Remember, exercises such as these will help build your major muscle groups along with your grip strength, leading to significant improvements in overall strength, range of motion, balance, bone density, and even mental clarity. If you’re just starting out, consult with a personal fitness trainer who can instruct you about proper form and technique. He or she can also help you develop a plan based on your unique fitness goals and one that is safe for any medical conditions you may have.