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How to Get a Better Grip

The 30-plus muscles in your hands and arms need TLC as you age

By Linda Melone | June 13, 2014

Are you losing your grip? From pulling on socks to opening a bag of chips or lacing up shoes, we require grip strength in one form or another throughout the day. A weak grip not only compromises daily activities, but research also shows a relationship between weak midlife grip strength and a decline in function later in life.
 
“Grip strength is used as an overall measure of strength,” says Hal Nelson, the vice president of physical therapy at Nifty After Fifty, a California-based fitness chain dedicated to baby boomers.

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Declining grip strength does not necessarily indicate a problem with the muscles in your hands, however. “In fact it’s unusual for something to happen to the muscles themselves,” says Nelson. “A bigger factor is your ability to extend your wrist or bend your fingers. You must have good mobility at the wrist in order to have proper grip strength.”
 
For example, a good grip requires the ability to your wrist 30 degrees (bending the wrist slightly upwards), a difficult task if you have tennis elbow. “The same muscles that extend your wrist attach just above your elbow,” says Nelson. “Lack of mobility in the wrist joint and arthritic fingers both contribute to a weak grip. If you have arthritis in the joints of your fingers, pain becomes a factor on top of lack of mobility.”

(MORE: How to Ease Arthritis -- and Stay Active)
 
Grip Types
 
Grip refers to both precise fingertip pinching type actions as well as the gripping action involved in opening jars. The different types of grips are categorized based on the way the hand is being used. In general, two major types of grips exist:
 
Power grips, in general, refer to what most people think of as grip: the handshake-type grip used for opening jars, where the object being gripped rests firmly against the palm and all fingers. Within this overall category are the cylinder grip (holding on to a tennis racket), ball grip (opening a jar) and hook grip (carrying a suitcase).
 
Precision grips refer to a weaker grip position where objects are held between the thumb and one, two or three fingers. Examples include a plate grip (for holding a dinner plate); a pinch grip (holding a sewing needle) and a key grip (yes, for using a key). Picking up a small object like a button requires a precision grip called a pincer grip.
 
It's easy to see how an inability to perform these simple tasks could affect your quality of life. And a sudden loss of grip strength should be checked by a physician to rule out anything serious. "Loss of grip strength may occur with disuse, nerve compression, carpal tunnel or thoracic outlet syndrome (compression of nerves between the collarbone and first rib)," says Chris Sorrells, a certified hand therapist.  
 
Ways to Improve Grip Strength
 
Over 30 muscles are involved in movement of the hand and forearm and many come into play during gripping. "For this reason, it's necessary to strengthen the entire hand and arm, not just one part," says Sorrells.

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Surprisingly, the popular tennis ball squeeze exercise many of us perform while working or watching TV may actually worsen some injuries. "If you have a repetitive strain injury (i.e. carpal tunnel syndrome), you may make symptoms worse by repeatedly squeezing a tennis ball," says Sorrells. "If you have pain or discomfort, consult with a doctor or hand therapist for a personalized program."
                                       
Try the following grip exercises, which are best done with therapy putty developed for this purpose. Find putty online at Amazon or check your local medical supply store. Available in varying degrees of resistance, most people can work with medium (athletes typically use the stronger versions). In lieu of putty, experiment with rubber bands for the abduction (bringing fingers apart) exercises and clothespins for adduction (bringing fingers together) moves.
 
This total program may be done one to three times in succession but no more than three to four times a week, says Sorrells. "The muscles in your hand are like any other muscles," says Sorrells. "So don't overdo." And avoid doing these exercises at work when your hand muscles may already be fatigued:
 
Finger Puppets: Press putty between thumb and fingers, keeping fingertips straight. Repeat 10 times.
 
Donut Hole: Make putty into a donut and loop it around fingers and thumb. Stretch the loop by opening hand at large knuckles only, keeping thumb as still as possible and fingertips straight. Repeat 10 times.
 
One-Hand Clapping: Keep fingertips straight and press putty towards the base of palm with thumb to the side. Repeat 10 times.
 
Rock 'n’ Roll: Using straight fingers, roll putty back and forth on a flat surface, being sure to use all fingertips. Repeat with each hand.
 
Knuckle Sandwich: One hand at a time, keeping knuckles straight, place putty at the base of the fingers and squeeze putty with fingertips.

Spider Fingers: Make a loop out of the putty and place it around fingertips and thumb. Stretch the loop by extending middle and tip finger joints, keeping thumb and large knuckles still.
 
Straight and Narrow: Place a cylinder-shaped piece of putty between straight fingers and squeeze and release. Repeat between all fingers.
 
Main Squeeze: Place putty in the palm of your hand and squeeze using all fingers and your thumb. 

Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.