Grip strength is a simple but powerful predictor of future disability, morbidity, and mortality. The relation between grip strength and future mortality has been shown, not only in older people, but also in middle-aged and young people. The evidence has been summarised in systematic reviews and in a meta-analysis (Lancet Article).
Let’s address this from a common sense perspective first. If you possess good grip strength, it’s quite apparent that the hands have held, twisted, gripped, climbed, carried, and handled life quite differently than the person who has a rather wimpy handshake. Interestingly, a handheld dynamometer (for assessing grip strength) test is usually part of the battery of tests for professional baseball players at the beginning of spring training every year. As a former pro-baseball strength coach, I can attest to this assessment being utilized as a baseline measure of strength in athletes. I know there’s a strong correlation with grip strength and success in throwing and hitting a baseball. This may sound like a pat on my own back, but the coaches also got to perform the assessment, and yours truly had the second best grip in the minor league spring training camp. I didn’t expect it to be, but after thinking about it some more, I wasn’t that surprised. I’d been a wrestler most of my life, amongst also playing baseball and football, and I had lifted weights in a functional manner most of my life as well. Training with kettlebells (we’ll break it down more later), performing heavy deadlifts, farmer’s carries, and doing lots of pullups over the years had built up a strong grip. This may be a testament to the sport of wrestling, but after talking with several opponents after I wrestled them, they had told me how I was one of the strongest wrestlers they had ever faced. This puzzled me a bit, because I didn’t have an intimidating frame or physique at this time of my life, nor do I today, but strength is very neuromuscular and doesn’t always present itself in muscle size.
I guess the analogy could be made that if you want to be a successful navigator (athlete) of life, it would appear that possessing good forearm extensors and flexors would give you an advantage over the limp wristers in life.
Check out these interesting findings from another research article published in the Lancet in 2015:
Findings: Between January, 2003, and December, 2009, a total of 142,861 participants were enrolled in the PURE study, of whom 139,691 with known vital status were included in the analysis. During a median follow-up of 4.0 years (IQR 2.9-5.1), 3379 (2%) of 139,691 participants died. After adjustment, the association between grip strength and each outcome, with the exceptions of cancer and hospital admission due to respiratory illness, was similar across country-income strata. Grip strength was inversely associated with all-cause mortality (hazard ratio per 5 kg reduction in grip strength 1.16, 95% CI 1.13-1.20; p<0.0001), cardiovascular mortality (1.17, 1.11-1.24; p<0.0001), non-cardiovascular mortality (1.17, 1.12-1.21; p<0.0001), myocardial infarction (1.07, 1.02-1.11; p=0.002), and stroke (1.09, 1.05-1.15; p<0.0001). Grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure.
Numerous clinical and epidemiological studies have shown the predictive potential of hand grip strength regarding short and long-term mortality and morbidity. In patients, impaired grip strength is an indicator of increased postoperative complications, increased length of hospitalization, higher rehospitalisation rate and decreased physical status. In elderly in particular, loss of grip strength implies loss of independence. Epidemiological studies have moreover demonstrated that low grip strength in healthy adults predicts increased risk of functional limitations and disability in higher age as well as all-cause mortality. As muscle function reacts early to nutritional deprivation, hand grip strength has also become a popular marker of nutritional status and is increasingly being employed as outcome variable in nutritional intervention studies.
From a common sense perspective, it’s easy to draw some conclusions about why being strong and having a strong grip could save your life in simply some dangerous circumstances, you know, hanging from a cliff, in a fight-to-the-death match in a back alley, or probably a more common scenario would be possessing the muscle and bone density to absorb and withstand a blow or a fall. It’s easy to see why being strong is advantageous here, but few people understand the profound physiological benefits that exist with being strong, and more importantly, the process of becoming and staying strong. Strength and muscle mass reach their peak in the 2nd and 3rd decades of life, at which point in time they typically begin their war with attrition. Due to the fact that 80% of the population doesn’t adequately stimulate their body’s lean muscle tissue and bone tissue, people who are sedentary quickly become frail and less healthy than their 20% counterparts, who engage in proper vigorous activity to retain what was built in their 20s and 30s, or to gain what wasn’t built in those decades. The two destinations of the vigorously active and the sedentary couldn’t be more different and it’s why we all have that rare breed in the family tree who people just chalk up as an anomaly, but deep down we all know that person did the vigorous work and gets to experience the work’s fruits later in life, not to mention the fruit of it during all phases of life.
This is the part where I sell the snot out of the kettlebell for it being the best tool. Kettlebell training may be one of the most under-researched tools in the exercise science community. Despite all that, it is a tool that possesses a massive amount of variety in it’s usefulness, but of relevance, the ability to develop strength (more directly grip strength) may have it as one the very best fitness tools one could use. Every movement requires the handling of weight in the hands, sometimes in a static sense, like a farmer’s carry, and other times a dynamic sense, like snatching it overhead. It’s important to develop strength and it’s cousin power to best optimize the human body’s performance.
If the gains can happen to the elderly, it’s safe to assume that the gains would happen in a younger human, and this 8 week study showed just that:
Objectives: To examine the effect of kettlebell training on body composition, muscle strength, pulmonary function, and chronic low-grade inflammatory markers among elderly people with sarcopenia.
Design: Randomized controlled trial.
Setting: Community center and research center.
Participants: A total of 33 elderly women with sarcopenia (aged 65-75 years) were recruited.
Intervention: The participants were randomly assigned to a kettlebell training (KT) group or a control (CON) group. The KT group received an 8-week training intervention involving 60-min sessions twice a week, whereas the CON group members continued their daily lifestyles without participating in any exercise training. Four weeks of detraining were organized to observe the retention effect of the training program on the KT group.
Measurements: The participants’ body composition, muscle strength, pulmonary function, and chronic low-grade inflammatory markers were measured and analyzed before training (at Week 0, W0), after 8 weeks of training (at Week 8, W8), and after 4 weeks of detraining (at Week 12, W12).
Results: In the KT group, appendicular skeletal muscle mass (ASM) and the sarcopenia index measured at W8 and W12 were significantly higher than those at W0(p = .004; p = .005). At W8 and W12, the sarcopenia index was significantly higher in the KT group than the CON group(p = .020; p = .019). In the CON group, the skeletal muscle mass levels measured at W8 and W12 were significantly lower than that at W0(p = .029; p = .005), and the ASM and the sarcopenia index measured at W8 were significantly lower than those at W0(p = .037; p = .036). Additionally, the measured left handgrip strength(p = .006), back strength(p = .011; p = .018), and peak expiratory flow (PEF) (p = .008; p = .006) were significantly higher in the KT group than the CON group at W8 and W12. At W8, the measured right handgrip strength was significantly higher in the KT group than the CON group(p = .043). In the KT group, the back strength and PEF levels measured at W8 and W12 were significantly higher than those at W0(p = .000; p = .004), and the left and right handgrip strength levels at W8 were significantly higher than those at W0(p = .004; p = .013). By contrast, in the CON group, the left(p = .004; p = .006)and right(p = .002; p = .004)handgrip strength levels and PEF(p = .018; p = .012) measured at W8 and W12 were significantly lower than those at W0. Moreover, compared with the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) levels measured at W0, those measured at W8 and W12 were significantly lower in the KT group(p = .006; p = .013)but significantly higher in the CON group(p = .005; p = .009). There was no significant difference in hs-CRP, IL-6, TNF-α between the KT and CON group.
Conclusion: For elderly people with sarcopenia, participating in kettlebell training significantly increases the sarcopenia index, grip strength, back strength, and PEF. In addition, the retention effect of the training program continued after 4 weeks of detraining.