What we lost: the existential crisis of grip

Health is in your hands


It’s one of those times you really don’t want anyone seeing you at your window.

I’ve spent a quarter-hour tensing, thinking, flexing. Trying to recruit jangling nerves to ignore their safety settings and use a percentage of muscle they normally avoid. In my right hand is a glorified steel spring with its ends a few centimetres apart. My goal is to make those few centimetres go away.

A few seconds later comes my reward. A tiny metallic click signifies I’ve closed the #2 Captains of Crush Gripper, the seventh step (despite its name) in a well-known series of grip trainers.

Step right up folks, we got all kindsa grippers here.

The #2 is the first “serious” gripper in the set, needing 88kg (that’s 195lb in old money) of force to close. Put in context, among Western men single-hand grip strength averages less than half that, while 55kg counts as “strong”. Not bad for a mild-mannered metropolitan copywriter in his 40s.

But for a white-collar worker who spends most of each day at a keyboard — I can’t remember the last time I even got oil on my hands, damnit — gripping might seem a supremely useless activity. I don’t spend much time in the jungle; I’ve no desire to join the cast of GoT, and intelligent apes haven’t staged their uprising yet. So why does grip matter?

A measure, not a target

It’s because if you can measure something, you can manage it. And that’s the most useful outcome of training your grip: the way it reports how you’re doing across your whole upper body.

It sounds odd, but you have basically no useful muscle in your hands. The strength of your grip comes from further out: forearms, biceps, triceps, as far away as your lats. (That big butterfly of muscle on your back). To varying degrees, all are recruited when crushing a gripper. You don’t build grip by squeezing on the sofa; you sculpt it with your pushups and pullups. (Of which more later.)

I chose the #2 because it closes at more than my bodyweight, and I liked the idea of holding myself by one hand on the climbing wall. The scale gets much steeper from there. Fewer than 200 people worldwide have certified on the #3, at 127kg of crush force. (Think that extra 40kg doesn’t sound like much? Try it.) And as for the #4 — that’s 165kg — let’s just say the successful could rideshare. And it wouldn’t need a minivan.

Weaker than our fathers

The #2 is the last model any normal man can close without making it an obsession. I’m not hardcore about fitness: I swim a bit, climb a bit, do a bit of Yoga. My daily workout averages less than twenty minutes, and I’ve never lifted a barbell in my life.

But in today’s world, even my daily dallyings put me somewhere north of the 95th percentile strengthwise — even within the 20–34 age group, men supposedly in their prime. Because — linked to changes in the way we live and the jobs we work — grip strength is declining from generation to generation. In just 30 years, the average has fallen by 20%. And the trend is down. Which can’t be good news.

Grip is a proxy for lifespan

As if that wasn’t enough: declining grip is strongly associated with death. According to several studies, each 5kg decrease in grip strength correlates with a 16% increase in mortality. The stronger you stay, the longer you live. (That’s for all causes of death, not just the cardiovascular stuff. It’s a more accurate indicator than blood pressure.)

That makes a strong grip a worthwhile goal for anyone interested in, well, not snuffing it. Equally important, an achievable goal. Because if you use me as the baseline, the #2 above is attainable for any normally abled male.

A few minutes a day can make you twice as strong as Mr Average in a matter of months. Isn’t that worth working for?

“I’ll do this with one hand one day. Trust me.”

The equipment

This is where most male thoughts turn to Amazon. So note first you don’t need grip trainers — or any equipment at all. Think of gear as tickboxes, not training. What you do need is a basic understanding of the human body.

(Do you know Victorian strongmen — anecdotally, far stronger than today’s top weightlifters — rarely used barbells? They trained with bodyweight moves. Gripping poles, climbing ropes, hanging from branches. And doing pullups, over and over. Barbells, for them, were like sequins on a bullfighter: just there for showtime.)

Your hand has three degrees of grip, and not one needs anything from a catalog to train. Your crush grip is the handshake one, the force you exert between fingers and palm. Your pinch grip is ‘twixt fingers and thumb. And your support grip is what keeps your hands in place when doing pullups.

Understand that just two moves — pulling up when hanging onto something, and pushing up on your fingertips — will build up all three grips. It’s really that simple: pushups and pullups. (Thanks, Coach Wade.)

You need hands

But grip athleticism goes deeper than a desire for a firm handshake. Looking at your hands with a sense of wonder teaches us something about what it means to be human.

Ooh ooh ooh, I wanna be like you-ooh-ooh….

The number of species capable of picking something up with a part of their anatomy they don’t eat with can be counted on the — well, you know which appendage. (Sorry.) The opposable thumb, perhaps more than our oversized brain, is what let H. Sapiens spread out from Africa and roll over other hominid species like a tidal wave. Seven billion success stories owe their lives to the ability of their ancestors to knapp flint and fashion clothing.

Which is odd when you consider the hand never evolved for tool use. (Evolution looks zero steps ahead.) Gripping was for hiding in trees, carrying the kill, getting us away from the risks of the savannah floor to a place where we could snatch sleep and comfort. We evolved to grip.

So maybe — even in today’s white-collar world— that’s why grip training feels worthwhile. And why grip is a report card on fitness across so much of your body. There’s something primal about hanging from your hands, brutal and animal and natural and beautiful.

So go outside. To the garden, the park, the urban jungle. And give yourself a simple goal: find something to hang from. Look up. Look down. Look around. See where you could go, if your grip held out. The world isn’t two-dimensional, nor should your mind be.

Look at your hands with fresh eyes, and you’ll see the world with fresh eyes.

Chris Worth is a London-based copywriter with a technology / media / communications focus who’s also into calisthenics, kettlebells, and Kindle. He’s currently authoring his guide to making a six-figure income as a freelancer: 100 Days, 100 Grand. Contact him here or hire him here.