Deadlifts are a lot of bang for the buck. They are one of the most effective exercises for developing strength, size, and performance, and a compound full body movement that recruits a high percentage of muscle mass. Whether the goal is to get strong, build muscle, burn fat, or enhance performance, deadlifts are an essential weapon for any serious lifter’s arsenal.
The deadlift is an exercise in which weight is lifted off the ground to the level of the hips. There are two main variations of deadlifts: Conventional deadlifts position the feet about shoulder width apart with hands positioned outside the legs; Sumo deadlifts position the feet much wider with hands positioned inside the legs.
A perfect deadlift is the most efficient way of lifting the weight off the ground. Yet for something as simple as standing while holding the weight, there are a large number of important variables at play. From foot placement, to knee alignment, to shoulder orientation, to head tilt, to hip depth, to the arch of the back, etc… all of these variables will affect how much weight one will be able to lift. The weakest of these variables is grip. A person’s grip strength is what fails first when performing deadlifts.
Fortunately there are ways one can use more or less grip strength by manipulating how the hands are positioned. There are five major variations on gripping the bar when performing a deadlift, each with its own pros and cons.
Also called a pronated grip, the overhand grip has palms rotated towards the body with thumbs outside of the fingers. This is perhaps the most natural way to grip a bar that is in front of someone. Unfortunately, it is also a weaker grip compared to the others discussed below. This grip recruits forearms the most and as such requires the most grip strength. Forearms are relatively weaker than the other muscles used in a deadlift and when they begin to fail, the bar can start to roll in the hands. Too much roll causes the bar to drop.
However, this grip is great if the goal is to increase grip strength. One technique for people working on grip strength is to use an overhand grip and then pause at lockout for a few seconds before returning the bar to the ground. This will increase the grip’s time under tension, which gives muscle fibers more time to tear and eventually grow bigger and stronger. Another technique is to warm up using overhand grip, continually increasing weight until one cannot hold the bar anymore before switching over to an easier grip.
This seems to be an effective technique as four time Mr. “Natural” Universe Mike O’Hearn says, “I’ll stay double over on the hand placement up ’till, you know, four, five hundred pounds.”
For a more forearm dominant workout, a pair of Fat Gripz will increase the diameter of the bar. This will recruit a greater amount of muscles in the forearm. One will not be able to lift as much, but this really puts grip strength to the test.
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This grip is also called staggered, over-under, offset, reverse, or alternating grip. A mixed grip is when one hand is pronated, palm facing you, and one hand is supinated, palm facing away from you. The “rolling” problem mentioned earlier is eliminated when using a mixed grip position due to the physics of reverse torsion.
The benefit of a mixed grip over an overhand grip is that one can lift more weight because there is less reliance on grip strength. The mixed grip is also not hard to learn or do, making it a favorite grip among many serious lifters.
While the mixed grip may be popular, it is not the strongest grip and it is not without its drawbacks. In a mixed grip one shoulder is externally rotated and the other internally rotated. This can lead to muscle imbalances, especially in the back due to its asymmetrical nature. Switching the pronated and supinated hand each set, or even every rep, can help solve this problem.
Originally used by Olympic weightlifters, later adopted by powerlifters and bodybuilders, the hook grip is the strongest raw grip one can use on a deadlift without assistance. The hook grip is similar to an overhand grip, with the exception that the thumbs are inside of the fingers in order to transfer the weight from the hands to the wrists. While it is the strongest raw grip, the hook grip is by far the hardest grip to learn and perform properly.
The hook grip makes it easier to lift heavy weight by relying less on grip strength to pick up the barbell by reallocating pressure into the wrists. The seal created by the fingers over the thumb prevents the “rolling” problem. The hook grip keeps the shoulders and elbows in a symmetrical position throughout the exercise. This eliminates the “imbalance” problem that could happen with the mixed grip. A hook grip also takes much of the stress off of the joints created by the twisting of a mixed grip.
However, the hook grip has the disadvantage of being painful, especially on the thumbs due to the high amount of pressure applied to that area. But as any seasoned lifter who uses hook grip will know, this discomfort passes as one gets more familiar with the grip. The use of tape or chalk can also help the grip feel more comfortable.
Thumb mobility will also be an important factor for hook grip, as the more mobile the thumb is, the tighter the grip. Ben Pollack offers an interesting tip to develop the thumb mobility.
“You can also get a butter knife and try and rub. Dig the butter knife in just like kind of a graston type movement into and around the base of your thumb on both sides. That will help and loosen up this area and give you a little more mobility. Even a little bit for me makes a huge difference.”
The hook grip can be difficult to learn and use properly. People with short and/or thick hands tend to have an especially hard time getting the hook grip down.A common mistake for beginners is they will just squeeze their thumb between their fingers and the bar.
To perform this grip, rotate the fingers away from the body and make a straight line with your interior edge of the thumb and interior edge of the forearm. Push the space between the thumb and index finger into the bar as much as possible. Wrap the thumb around the bar. Grab the thumb with the first two fingers and pull it farther around the bar. Rotate your hand inwards before closing the grip in order to secure the seal.
To do a barbell deadlift properly and efficiently, one needs to keep the bar close to the body. This can cause you to scratch you shins. Using a barbell also forces one to have either a pronated or supinated grip. A variation on a barbell deadlift is to use a trap bar, dumbbells, or kettlebells so that the palms face each other. This is called a neutral grip.
A trap bar is a bar that is usually shaped into a hexagon. This allows a person to stand in the middle of the bar and use the handles on both to neutral grip the bar. The advantage of using a trap bar instead of dumbbells or kettlebells is that one does not have to worry about arms swinging freely.
The neutral grip deadlift allows for more clearance for the knees to track forward since there is not a bar directly in front. It also naturally orientates the elbows back towards the hips, making it easier to have better form. Neutral grip is a relatively strong grip, and one will be able to lift more weight with it than an overhand grip. For this reason,neutral grip deadlifts are good for increasing grip strength.
Straps, Wraps, and Hooks
When attempting a max lift, it may be wise to just eliminate grip strength altogether. This is where accessories like lifting straps, wraps, and hooks come into the picture. These products are designed to allow for more weight to be lifted by transferring the load to the wrists instead of the hands. Grip accessories will avoid the limitations of forearm muscles and grip strength that are associated with deadlifting.
When using grip accessories, the other muscles that are activated during a deadlift besides forearms will be forced to work harder. In addition exerting more energy by lifting more weight, having experience lifting relatively heavier loads will better prepare when you attempting the deadlift raw.
Cons of grip accessories is that they can often feel awkward and cumbersome. Straps are notoriously difficult to put on correctly for beginners. Unsurprisingly, forearm muscles are not used lift the weight when using these accessories, they do not develop grip strength. Good grip strength is essential for any serious lifter and should not be neglected in training. Do not become reliant on grip accessories, instead they should be a supplemental part of your training.
The deadlift is an amazing exercise that should definitely be part of any training program. Although the deadlift is a relatively simple motion, standing up holding a weight, there are many variables and different ways to approach it.
How one decides to grip their deadlift will impact their training, just like deciding on reps and sets does. Using particular grips is a relatively simple way to train the body differently over the course of various workouts. Knowing how the body works and functions while using different grips can help optimize training by programming the workout and exercises that best fit one’s goals.