Importance of Grip in Weightlifting (Straps or no Straps?)
Okay, I admit it. I’m guilty. I usually use straps when performing deadlifts, and I’ve taken criticism for doing so.
While it’s true that most lifters can deadlift more weight with straps than without, that’s not the reason I use them. In all honesty, my deadlift is only about 5 kilos/11 lbs less without the use of straps. I figure I make up for that by not using a belt. I don’t use a belt only because it feels uncomfortable to me on deadlifts. So why the straps?
I competed in Olympic Weightlifting from 1981–1989. During that time, I never did deadlifts. They were not considered beneficial to Olympic lifters at that time. I think that belief has changed, and more Olympic lifters are using the deadlift (in moderation) in training these days.
Olympic lifters were discouraged from doing deadlifts years ago. One reason was the grip is different from the grip used on the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk). On these lifts, we use a hook-grip (tucking the thumb under the forefingers).
The majority of competitive powerlifters use an over/under grip. With that grip, you have one hand with the palm facing down (standard/neural grip) and the other hand with the palm facing up (supinated grip).
When I first started competing in powerlifting, I continued using the hook-grip. I was able to do a 500-pound deadlift using the hook-grip. But once I got beyond the 500-pound mark, I found I could not hold the bar long enough to complete the lift. I was losing my grip. It’s important to note that it’s easier to use a hook grip if you have big hands (I do not).
So, if I wanted to continue to compete, I had no choice but to use the over/under grip. I did so grudgingly. One reason was that I wanted to stay true to my Olympic lifting roots. The other reason was I found that using the over/under grip also changed my arm position. When using an overhand grip, there is some separation between your arms and your legs in the starting position.
When using the over/under grip, one arm (the one using the underhand grip) touches the leg. That isn’t easy to get used to and can throw you off when you are accustomed to having that arm/leg separation.
I eventually became comfortable enough with the over/under grip to use it for maximum single reps, but never for multiple reps. For anything beyond a single rep, I used straps. Straps are not allowed in competition, but since I am not competing at present, I see no good reason not to use the straps other than to build up my grip strength, which I’m not concerned with for two reasons.
First, mostly everyone I shake hands with comments on my firm grip (naturally, I use a much gentler grip when shaking hands with a woman or small child). Secondly, I’m always the first person to help when someone is struggling to open a jar. So I think it’s safe to say my grip is plenty strong enough.
I’ve found what works best for me. Here are my suggestions for those of you who are undecided or who need a little guidance.
If you are a competitive Olympic weightlifter and include deadlifts in your training regimen, I do not recommend using the over/under grip. Why? That’s not the grip you’re going to use to do the Olympic lifts, so it doesn’t serve any useful purpose to use that grip on deadlifts. Another reason is that your starting position on deadlifts should not vary very much from your starting position on cleans. That not only includes your grip but your stance as well.
I do not suggest using a sumo stance, which is a wide stance used by some competitive powerlifters. You should approach your deadlifts just as if you were preparing to do a clean or a high pull. A high pull is an exercise used by Olympic lifters wherein you pull the bar as high as you can without going under it. Most lifters use straps when performing high pulls. Why? First, it enables you to use more weight without having to worry about losing your grip. Secondly, straps save your hands from over usage and torn callouses.
There are four different types of grip you can use for a deadlift. If there is a fifth, I’ve never seen it.
1 — Standard overhand grip without a hook. This grip is okay if you use a very light weight (60-65% or less of your best maximum deadlift). If you can use more than 65% with this type of grip, be careful when shaking someone’s hand because you have an extraordinary grip.
2 — Standard overhand grip with a hook. As mentioned earlier, this grip is vital for Olympic lifts. If you’re able to use this grip for deadlifts without any difficulties holding the bar and without it tearing up your hands, keep using it. However, this may prove to be too difficult if you do not have big hands.
3 — Standard overhand grip with the use of straps. If you’re a competitive powerlifter, you shouldn’t get too used to using straps since you can’t use them in competition. But they can be useful when you don’t have a contest coming up and you want to do some repetition work. If you’re a competitive Olympic lifter, I highly recommend using straps for deadlifts and high pulls. There’s no reason to beat up your hands. Save your hands for the snatch and clean & jerk.
4 — Under/overgrip. Most powerlifters use this grip, and with good reason. Since straps are not allowed in competition and a standard overhand grip without a hook will not enable you to lift your maximum weight, there is only one other option: a standard overhand grip with hooking. Some powerlifters use the hook grip, but they are in the minority. Unless you have big hands, it isn’t easy to hold over 500 lbs with a hook grip. I know because I’ve tried. If you can do your maximum deadlift with a hook, I recommend sticking with that grip. I believe it puts you in a much better starting position.
One final thought. Whether you are an Olympic lifter or a powerlifter, you are likely to get callouses. There’s nothing worse than having a callous tear off before or, worse yet, during a competition. I use coarse sandpaper on my calluses once a week. I strongly suggest you do the same.
For more advice on weight training, check out my book on Amazon.com.