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Where Does the Grip Strength for a Firm Handshake Come From?

I want to crush the phalanges of my adversaries, and gently comfort the metacarpals of my friends

It was the night of Governor Jennifer Granholm’s 2007 State of the State address, which was hosted on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives. Afterwards, a deluge of guests made their way through my place of business at the time — the Office of the House Speaker, where I exchanged pleasantries with each and every one of them, shaking their hands and swapping business cards before they moved on to press the flesh with the far more important people in attendance (I was a mere aide to the speaker). 

That’s when this guy in an immaculate navy blue pinstripe suit walked over, and totally owned me during our handshake. He used this grab-twist-pull method that yanked me completely off-balance, like he’d employed a rare style of boardroom judo to use my size against me. It was the only case where I ever felt like I’d somehow lost a handshake, which is theoretically a neutral, easygoing exchange.

I don’t know why this dude felt like he needed to manhandle me in my own office, but if I could revisit that episode, I’d advise him that he could assert himself and communicate his confidence far more effectively through a handshake that didn’t leave me feeling like I was in an MMA submission hold.

Where does the force come from in a solid handshake?

A solid handshake is all about the grip. In any setting but the pro wrestling locker rooms of yore — where you were supposed to use a soft “worker’s handshake” to communicate that you weren’t going to brutalize your opponent in the ring — you can use the controlled strength of your handshake to convey your respect and admiration for the person your pressing palms with. You can even use it to tease that fact that you’re packing a heaping helping of power beneath that tailored suit jacket, but you’re willing to keep your matchless strength restrained for the sake of everyone’s safety (and metacarpals).

Seriously, that’s all there is to it: grip strength, and maybe a bit of a full-arm flex thrown in just to punctuate the message that you can bring massive strength to bear in the other person’s favor should the two of you ever find yourselves standing back-to-back fighting off swarms of rowdy longshoremen during a pier-six brawl.

How do I ensure that my grip is indeed solid, but not overwhelming like you’re saying?

Grip strength is generally a combination of the force generated by the powerful muscles in your forearm as they connect with the much weaker muscles of your wrists, which then ties into your hands and fingers. Fortunately for you, there are untold ways to generate forearm strength, including many tasks or chores requiring you to control a weighted object with your hands and arms. 

To that end, most people who have a well-balanced resistance-training program will have no need to isolate their forearms, as they’re worked tertiarily during any exercise where the hand needs to remain rigidly locked into place to keep a weight from slipping out. This is true of exercises like the deadlift or any other form of a carry where a heavy weight hangs low and needs to be kept from dropping to the ground, and during virtually every exercise requiring heavy contributions from the biceps, like curls, pull-ups and chin-ups. Even hanging from a pull-up bar with flexed arms can be an absolutely brutal forearm strengthener.

If you truly wish to make your forearms the primary beneficiaries of your training, reverse bicep curls, hammer curls and wrist curls ought to do the trick. The first two place far more emphasis on your forearms and wrists than traditional curls. Meanwhile, wrist curls take the rest of your arm out of the equation and help you focus exclusively on the forearm muscles while they’re engaged with grasping onto a weight.

Should you prefer not to go the all-purpose route, you could just buy one of those grip-strengthening doohickeys and start cranking away. You may even still have one from the Hulkamania workout set you’ve got stashed in an attic somewhere. Either way, it will allow you to generate specific strength in the exact configuration your hand will be in during a handshake scenario.

You didn’t get to the second part of my question, though: How should I convincingly, but not overwhelmingly, apply that power to the handshake itself?

Don’t get impatient now. But since you asked (again), here’s how I’d answer that: The contribution of all of your fingers to the act of grasping is so significant that the omission of your ulnar fingers — i.e., your pinky and ring finger — from it can result in the loss of one-third to two-thirds of the overall force of a grip. 

You can employ this information in two ways. First, if you’re worried about your grip seeming insufficient, concentrate on squeezing from the lesser fingers of your hand to apply its full clamping might. Second, if you’ve been accused of possessing an apple-crushing level of gripping aptitude, using a light touch with your pinky and ring fingers should take a substantial amount of the pressure away, and lead to fewer faces turning purple in your presence when people are shaking hands with you.

Overall, never forget that handshakes are all about confidence and camaraderie, not violence. As memorable as my handshake in the House Speaker’s office may have been, I don’t remember anything else about the guy who shook my hand, aside from feeling like he’d basically beaten me up. It’s hard to build an enduring relationship — business or otherwise — with someone like that. After all, if you first extend a hurtful hand, it’s hard to imagine it ever transforming into a helping one.