We’ve all heard the familiar tropes pedalled by males of generations past. They had it tougher. They were stronger. And we whippersnappers are, by comparison, snowflakes. According to these guys, they’re relics of a bygone age when you’d walk 54 miles to school in a blizzard and wrestle your dinner from the jaws of a croc. And the only screens in your life were flyscreens. Honestly, my truncated millennial attention span usually expires at the utterance of “back in my day”.
But while our conception of masculinity has evolved since the heydays of our fathers and grandfathers, when it comes to physical strength, they may have a point. In fact, if you were to arm-wrestle your father at the same age you are now, he’d probably kick your arse.
That’s the takeout from research published in the Journal of Hand Therapy, which suggests that men in their prime today are physically weaker than men in their prime just 30 years ago.
In the study, men aged 20-34 had lower grip and pinch strength – objective measures of strength in the hands and upper extremities – than men of the same age who undertook the same tests only three decades ago. In fact, men of 25-29 years living today have an average grip strength that is 12 kilograms lower than men of the same age in the 1990s.
What’s happened? What’s behind the enfeebling of today’s young men? The answer is straightforward: we have designed our lives to avoid hardship. The nature of labour has shifted to plonk most of us in desk chairs, from which we huddle over computers for umpteen hours per day. Men are now much less likely to find employment in fields that entail manual labour, such as manufacturing and agriculture, says Elizabeth Fain, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Winston-Salem State University in the US.
Fain uses the example of assembly-line work – largely a thing of the past due to automatation. Those blokes manning these lines were required continuously to handle and manipulate weighty objects, that strengthened their hands. That day-in, day-out grind likely plays a bigger role in increasing grip strength than weight training, which you do for maybe an hour a day a few times per week.
Unfortunately, while our hands are certainly occupied in modern life thanks to our phones and keyboards, it was the larger-scale movements of yesteryear that proved more beneficial to grip strength, Fain says.
While the results mightn’t be an immediate cause for concern as long as our dads are still around to open jars for us, it’s once we consider weak grip strength as an indicator of possible underlying health issues that alarm bells should ring.
The big squeeze
From the safety of your desk job, or while sitting behind the wheel of your automatic SUV with power steering, grip strength mightn’t seem all that important. But once seen for what it is – a proxy for your overall physical strength, predisposition to certain ailments (and even a predictor of your relationship status) – it might become a more prioritised part of your training.
A landmark study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that grip strength was predictive of strength in push-ups, leg extensions and leg presses. What’s more, the study authors explained how a weak grip – and the associated decrease in overall strength – tended to correlate with a variety of underlying health problems, including arthritis, heart disease and neurological conditions.
Later, a study published in The Lancet confirmed the earlier findings, suggesting that a five-kilogram decline in grip strength is linked to a 17 per cent increased risk of death from a cardiac event. As for non-cardiac diseases, the findings were similarly troubling, with the study suggesting that “low muscle strength might not play a major causal part in the occurrence of cancer, falls, fractures or the need for hospital admission for respiratory illnesses, but that, as with incident cardiovascular disease, low muscle strength predisposes to a fatal outcome if these non-cardiovascular diseases develop”.
The results indicated that grip strength could provide a simple and accessible method of testing for underlying health issues in high-risk demographics, helping with prevention or early detection of potentially fatal conditions.
“Grip strength might act as a biomarker of aging across the life course and [be] a particularly good marker of underlying aging processes,” wrote lead author Dr Darryl Leong.
Matters of disease and mortality aside, research out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Aging Center has found grip strength directly correlates with marital status. An analysis of more than 5000 adults found that men with stronger grips were more likely to be married than those with weaker grips.
Perhaps unfortunately confirming old-school rhetoric, the “results hint that women may be favouring partners who signal strength and vigour when they marry,” said study author Dr Vegard Skirbekk. “If longer-lived women marry healthier men, then both may avoid or defer the role of caregiver, while less healthy men remain unmarried and must look elsewhere for assistance.”
Whatever. You don’t need to get involved in the anthopological implications of all this. Just keep in mind when mapping out your next six-week training block that performing moves that add steel to your grip could firm up your chances of making it to 100.
Get Popeye forearms
The research is clear: brute strength in your hands is a marker of robust health. So, how’s your handshake? Like wet lettuce? Reverse substandard grip strength and forge formidable forearms by arming yourself with these grip-specific moves. They’ll do more than add girth to your arms. They could add years to your life.
1/ Towel-grip Dead Hang
Find a chin-up bar and hold yourself in a dead hang for as long as you can for 3-5 sets. At first, aim to hold yourself for 30 seconds. Once you can get to 60 seconds or longer, you’re a forearm freak show.
2/ Bottom-Up Kettlebell Shoulder Press
Slow and steady wins this race as you perform a shoulder press with your kettlebell inverted. Go (very) light to avoid any painful knocks to the wrist, ensuring you grip tight enough to limit gravity’s pull.Do 3-5 sets of 15-20 reps, then move on.
3/ Barbell Reverse Curl
This classic bodybuilding exercise will give you an epic muscle pump. Do 3-5 sets of 15-20 reps. Keep your reps smooth and controlled while focusing on driving as much blood into your forearms as possible. Want more gains? Immediately follow each set with 15-20 additional reps with a standard curling grip. This mechanical drop-set tends to turn those arm veins into anacondas.
4/ Sled Pull
Another classic move that will deliver a beach pump to rival Baywatch’s greatest. Attach a rope to a sled and walk down the track until the rope is at full extension. Keeping your back flat and your palms supinated, alternate left- and right-arm pulls, elbows in and squeezing your lats. Add as half of a brutal superset or complete on its own, adding weight whenever you get comfortable with the load.
5/ Farmer’s Walk
Brace your core and pull your shoulders back to ensure correct posture, resisting swinging your weights. Try not to truncate your steps as the burn sets in; focus on steady breathing. Enjoy the first few steps of this full body-burner since the farmer’s walk targets your grip and core – you’ll be battling after a few metres if the load is heavy enough.
6/ Dumbbell Zottman Curl
One of the reasons your forearms tend to lag your biceps is because you can use heavier weights on underhand-grip biceps curls than overhand-grip reverse curls. The Zottman curl allows you to benefit from the stronger underhand position on the way up (concentric contraction) but then loads up your weaker overhand grip on the way down (eccentric phase). Do 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps, taking 3-5 seconds on the eccentric phase.