Background Reduced muscle strength- commonly characterized by decreased handgrip strength compared to population norms- is associated with numerous untoward outcomes. Preoperative handgrip strength is a potentially attractive real-time, non-invasive, cheap and easy-to-perform "bedside" assessment tool. Using systematic review procedure, we investigated whether preoperative handgrip strength was associated with postoperative outcomes in adults undergoing surgery. Methods PRISMA and MOOSE consensus guidelines for reporting systematic reviews were followed. MEDLINE, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Clinical Trials (1980-2010) were systematically searched by two independent reviewers. The selection criteria were limited to include studies of preoperative handgrip strength in human adults undergoing non-emergency, cardiac and non-cardiac surgery. Study procedural quality was analysed using the Newcastle-Ottawa Quality Assessment score. The outcomes assessed were postoperative morbidity, mortality and hospital stay. Results Nineteen clinical studies (17 prospective; 4 in urgent surgery) comprising 2194 patients were identified between1980-2010. Impaired handgrip strength and postoperative morbidity were defined inconsistently between studies. Only 2 studies explicitly ensured investigators collecting postoperative outcomes data were blinded to preoperative handgrip strength test results. The heterogeneity of study design used and the diversity of surgical procedures precluded formal meta-analysis. Despite the moderate quality of these observational studies, lower handgrip strength was associated with increased morbidity (n = 10 studies), mortality (n = 2/5 studies) and length of hospital stay (n = 3/7 studies). Conclusions Impaired preoperative handgrip strength may be associated with poorer postoperative outcomes, but further work exploring its predictive power is warranted using prospectively acquired, objectively defined measures of postoperative morbidity.