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Boosting Grip Strength for Older Adults: Exercises & Benefits - MyZeniverse™ Blog

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

by Emma Mattison – NASM, CPT, CNC and Functional Aging Specialist


*Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. Read full privacy policy here.


Image illustrating the significance of grip strength exercises in enhancing the physical health of older adults, as featured in our MyZeniverse™ blog post.

Why should you care about grip strength? Let me just start this article off with a visual aid...

We never want to conjure up the feeling of hatred in our lives... but poor grip strength can make us hate the pickle jar!


Instead of hating the pickle jar, make sure your weekly fitness routine incorporates exercises designed to improve your "grip strength!" Show your grip strength some love by training the right muscles responsible for making sure you and those (low-sodium) pickles can share some love once again!


In this article, you'll find all about:


1. What Muscles are Responsible for Grip Strength


2. Why Grip Strength Matters


3. How to Train your Grip Strength


Muscles Responsible for GRIP STRENGTH


Let's share a helpful diagrams of the muscles involved in grip strength. Below you will see the front view of the arm on the left (anterior) and back view on the right (posterior). Pay special attention to the muscles below the elbow joint. These muscles are primarily responsible for:

  1. rotating the forearm (palms up, or palms down)

  2. "flexing" the fingers (closing your hand)

  3. "extending" the fingers (opening your hand)

"Flexing" also applies to not just the closing of the hand, but the forearm sensation you get when you squeeze your hand shut to make a tight fist, or to lift something with decent weight off the ground!


While the flexor muscles are of primary focus when it comes to grip strength, the extensors cannot be ignored. The extensors have a role in providing a "balance force" for the flexor muscles, and are also essential for a smooth and controlled opening of the hand.

One last point is that the muscles and mobility of the rotator cuff and shoulder (respectively) are inherently critical for grip strength.


Don't believe me? Try it! Close your hand and make a fist and squeeze ONLY your hand and forearm up to the elbow as hard as you can. Then, drop your shoulder blade in and contract your shoulders with the fist you are making to feel a difference.


Not quantitative enough for your logical mind? Get one of these grip strength meters (dynamometer) and test it for yourself (pictured below)! Readings are measured in "pounds" (lbs.), as corresponds to the sex-specific data in the chart to be seen below the grip strength meter.


Below is the data for females:

​Female (Age)

Needs Improvement

Fair

​Good

Very Good

Excellent

15-19

< 54

​54-58

59-63

64-70

> 70

20-29

< 55

​55-60

61-64

65-70

> 70

30-39

< 56

​56-60

61-65

66-72

> 72

40-49

​< 55

​55-58

59-64

65-72

​> 72

50-59

​< 51

​51-54

55-58

59-64

​> 64

60-69

​< 48

​48-50

51-53

54-59

​> 59

Below is the data for males

Male (Age)

Needs Improvement

Fair

​Good

Very Good

Excellent

​15-19

​< 84

​84-94

​95-102

103-112

> 112

​20-29

​< 97

​97-105

​106-112

113-123

> 123

​30-39

​< 97

​97-104

​105-112

113-122

> 122

​40-49

​< 94

​94-101

102-109

110-118

> 118

​50-59

< 87

​87-95

96-101

102-109

>109

​60-69

< 79

​79-85

86-92

93-101

> 101

Source: the Canadian Physical Activity, Fitness and Lifestyle Appraisal: CSEP’s Plan for Healthy Active Living, 1996.


For my clients and readers 70+, there is no consistent research, nor enough, for the age cohort over 70 (and that needs to change!) Nonetheless, I encourage you to go for the mid 50 lbs range if you are a female over 70, and 90 lbs range if you are a male over 70. Aim for success with grip strength rather than the "C's get degrees," mindset... you deserve a grade A in grip strength!


Why Grip Strength Matters


Poor grip strength can be a sign that the muscles are wasting or shrinking. While "sarcopenia" is a naturally occurring, age-related loss of muscle mass, it does not mean that this condition should not be mitigated, slowed, or even reversed through the right training and nutrition protocol.

In addition to sarcopenia, poor grip strength may also be caused by disuse of the hands and fingers. However, it can also be a sign of peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), cervical compression (your neck vertebrae are "squished" from improper posture or stress to the neck), brachial plexus syndrome (Parsonage Turner syndrome nerve disorder), MS (multiple sclerosis), Parkinson's, and arthritis.


Grip strength is needed to help us function in our everyday lives. Using our grip strength, we can open that blasted pickle jar, carrying shopping bags, or open that stubborn drawer. Grip strength is also needed in sports in order to catch, throw, or hold something such as a bat or a ball.


It can also provide us with an indication of health status. Research indicates that poor grip strength is associated with:

  • Increased fall risk

  • Increased disability

  • Decreased health-related quality of life

  • Prolonged length of stay in the hospital

  • Increased mortality

It is for these reasons, along with the general spunk and vitality associated with feeling stronger that makes it worth it to train your grip strength! So don't leave it out. Be the one everyone can count on to open that pickle jar!

Okay, enough jokes! So how do you train it?


How to Train Your Grip Strength


In short, the best way to train your grip strength is to use your hands and fingers!


Yes, there are plenty devices out there that are helpful for the desk-job life or sitting down and fidgeting in order to improve grip strength, but there are plenty of exercises that you can do with your own bodyweight and with common objects around the house. I'll share first the cool devices and gadgets you can use, because they can be very helpful, and can help improve adherence if your grip strength is needing some TLC.


The Gadgets

While the devices and gadgets are not necessary, I'm going to share them (and alternatives) because they are so convenient to store in a desk at the office or keep on the counter for constant reminders at home. Here are two of my favorite kits.


These guys are for people who want to progressively up intensity as they master each grip level. While the 100 lbs grip looks daunting (and all the others thereafter), 100 lbs is a suitable grip trainer for kids and mature adults with poor grip strength. Reason being is that the 100 lbs trainer can go "up to" 100 lbs. It doesn't mean that your starting point will begin at squeezing that 100 lbs trainer to its fullest compression. You'll work up to that! More on progressive training at the end under "exercises."


I like this brand for beginners because it also includes a few other gadgets – one of which can help the extensors! However, you can also just put your fingers in heavy rubber bands or a few hair ties, and then repeatedly open up your hand. Really important that you don't forget to exercise the wrist extensors, in addition to the flexors!


The Hobbies

Hobbies can be surprisingly helpful at improving grip strength. Have you ever tried to play guitar or piano? Swing a baseball bat? Rock climbing? Go ocean fishing and reel in a big tuna? Grip strength.


There are only two main problems with hobbies as a means for improving grip strength.

  1. You have to be consistent AND progressive with your hobby. I'm talking 2-3x a week, depending on the hobby, and also duration matters. If you are not consistent, and you never progressing with your hobby, your grip strength will either a) get worse or b) plateau. I have another article on progressive training, if you care to give it a read!

  2. Many hobbies are the very reason people are inspired to look up ways to improve their grip strength in the first place. This makes for a paradoxical issues! So the solution? Incorporate supplemental exercises – with or without the gadgets listed – to progressively improve your grip strength.


The Exercises

As stated, you can improve your grip strength without grip-strength specific gadgets by performing the right exercises. Here are some examples of common fitness exercises (some that you may already know and love!) that can help you improve grip strength.


  1. Farmer's Carry: simply carrying weight in both hands, such as dumbbells or two, 1 gallon milk jugs, for specified intervals – such as 20 seconds, 45 seconds, or 60 seconds. Preferably the weight carried should be even on both sides (symmetrically loading) in this case, but asymmetrical loading can help other mechanisms. These do not have to be heavy weights. In fact, many of my clients mature clients start out lighter for longer (i.e. 3-5 lbs for 60-90 second intervals in sets of 2-3 with 60 second rest between sets)

  2. Overhead Farmer's Carry: simply carrying weight in hand (one at a time is fine) above your head, such as a dumbbell or kettle bell for specified intervals – such as 20 seconds, 45 seconds, or 60 seconds. Make sure to exercise caution when carrying something over your head! These do not have to be heavy weights. In fact, many of my clients mature clients start out lighter for longer (i.e. 3-5 lbs for 60-90 second intervals in sets of 2-3 with 60 second rest between sets)

  3. Pinky Farmer's Carry: simply carrying weight in one hand between only your thumb and your pinky, such as a VERY LIGHT dumbbell, or even a light paperback book for specified intervals – such as 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 45 seconds, or 60 seconds. Make sure to exercise caution when carrying something with just your pinky and thumb! It will be VERY challenging. I personally have a hard time with my pinkies due to past injury, and I could barely lift a light paperback book for longer than 30 seconds when I started out.

  4. Ring-finger Farmer's Carry: just like the Pinky Farmer's Carry, but with your ring finger!

  5. Barbell hold: As if you would perform a deadlift, simply hold the barbell at your thighs, palms facing the wall behind you in double overhand grip. This is a great exercise for those just getting into resistance training, who are able to do deadlifts with light dumbbells, and transitioning to a barbell. The deadlift will really work your grip strength, but grip strength is often a limiting factor behind one's deadlifting capabilities! Hold the barbell for specified intervals – such as 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 45 seconds, or 60 seconds.

  6. Single Repetition Deadlift holds (for my weightlifters): As if you would perform a deadlift, simply hold the barbell at your thighs, palms facing the wall behind you in double overhand grip. Why not mixed grip? Because you resort to mixed grip too much! Train double overhand for this exercise. Aim for about 65% of your 1 repetition maximum (depending on your target adaptation). If you're my client, we can calculate that together, or we have already done that part! Hold the barbell for specified intervals – such as 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 45 seconds, or 60 seconds, depending on your adaptation goal.


In my personal training programs, I have my clients train specified blocks of training for a balance of:


a) strength endurance of the forearm

b) muscle size of the forearm (hypertrophy)

c) muscle strength of the forearm (functional and absolute)

d) muscle power of the forearm


Each of these categories (adaptations) require different progression, rep ranges, timing/tempo, and rest in order to "ask the body" for the requested adaptation.


If you are just starting out, I recommend aiming for strength endurance, which will mean you should train less weight, for longer time intervals, or longer repetitions. In other words, more volume and less intensity to get started. This will give you a good base from which to work.


I've got another article on the importance of progressive training, so make sure you check it out!


Ready to Start Training?


If you are 45+, ready for a change in your life – whether you are ready to be a champion of the senior Olympics... or your are simply looking to improve your health through diet and exercise, lose weight, get your balance and mobility back, feel stronger once again, or move freely, easily, and pain free – I offer online personal training & nutrition coaching, and other programs (Online Tai Chi is coming soon!)



The first step in getting started is to book a free 15 min phone call with me to chat about your goals, and share your health and training history!



You can also email me at info@myzeniverse.com


 

About the Author

Hi! I'm Emma Mattison. I'm a NASM certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, stretch & flexibility coach, pranayama breathwork guide, holistic nerd, and lover of birds & music! I specialize in functional fitness for older adults, and those with conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Scientific literature is fun to me, and my goal is to make it understandable and fun for you!


I am driven to share knowledge I find fascinating & transformative with my clients, and the world. Everyone has the power to take their health into their own hands!


My love for fitness and true discovery of health started with helping my best friend – who I can now call my husband! Today, I couldn't do any of this as smoothly and enjoyably as I do now without him! Check out our YouTube, MyZeniverse! He literally edits and films everything. He's editing the next YouTube video next to me right now, as we speak! Check it out, and give it a like if it's helpful! 😊😊

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