Gymnastic rings hanging from branch of sycamore tree, with a yoga mat in the foreground.

One side benefit to all the ring training I’ve been doing has been increased grip strength.

It hadn’t occurred to me in advance that this would happen, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Most people have poor grip strength (unless they either do manual labor, or else hang by their hands for some reason). Because most people start from a very low base, increased grip strength is easy to achieve.

Hanging exercises are a great idea for everyone. I encourage my taiji students to consider doing some sort of hanging exercise. They’re mostly seniors, so I admonish them not to actually hang by their hands without carefully working up to it, but just grasping something over your head, and then bending your knees to put a little weight on your hands will do a world of good for your shoulders. It will also start building grip strength. (In class I always joke that developing the ability to hang by your hands can save your life, if you unexpectedly find yourself in an action movie.)

I recently discovered that my grip strength had gone up in a way that was a little problematic: I was giving a dish rag a good squeeze, and found that it made my hand a little creaky: My grip strength was higher than it had been—enough higher to be out of balance with the strength of the joints and tendons in my hands.

There are two issues there. One is that grip strength for hanging from (or supporting yourself on) gymnastic rings covers a very narrow range of motion for the hands—the rings are just one diameter all the way around, and they don’t get smaller if you squeeze them, so you’re training your hands to be very strong in that one single position. The other is that muscles get stronger much faster than tendons do, so in a few weeks you can make your muscles strong enough that they can strain your tendons, while it takes months to make your tendons strong enough to stand up to the maximum force those muscles can exert.

After my experience with the dish rag, I got out my Power Putty. (It’s a brand of stuff like Silly Putty, but sold in a range of different stiffnesses. It’s marketed in the less-stiff versions to people who need physical therapy for some grip issue, and then in the more-stiff versions for people who want to build strongman-like grip strength.) I was a little surprised to find that the stuff I have—medium-firm—feels scarcely firm at all any more.

That’s okay. I’ve learned enough in the 20 years since I bought that stuff that I certainly don’t feel the need to get Power Putty in different stiffnesses.

The way to build further grip strength is to grip real-world things of a variety of sizes and textures. Squeezing dish rags is a great way to start. Hanging from tree branches (instead of just gymnastic rings) would be good too. Brachiating across monkey bars of various sizes will also be good. I’ve seen tricks for working on grip, such as putting a towel over a pull-up bar (or through a gymnastic ring) so that one hand is gripping the towel instead of the bar or ring.

Grip strength is strongly correlated with greater life expectancy (and superior health status in numerous other ways). This has to be one of the clearest cases ever where “training to the test” is useless—increasing your grip strength will not make you live longer—but living your life in a way that builds your grip strength is probably a great way to be stronger, healthier, more capable, and more comfortable as you age.

I think I’ll actually be using my Power Putty. It’s not really stiff enough to build my grip strength, but it’ll probably be just right to work on the tendons and joints in my hands. They mostly need time to get stronger to match the strength of my gripping muscles, but working them through a full range of motion will also help, and medium-stiff Power Putty will be great for that.