Never drop the bar again.
Sounds tempting, right? If you’re a serious lifter, chances are that you’ve sometimes struggled to hold onto a heavy lift. If you’re someone who’s struggling with your grip, this is the article for you. Implement all of these methods (in order!) and that will never have to happen again.
Change Your Grip
The first mistake most people make when they find it hard to hold onto the bar is that they don’t know about different grip styles. There are three major ways to grip the bar.
The first is the double overhand grip. This grip is what most people start out with, and it seems natural enough, but the double overhand is actually the weakest of the three grips. Unfortunately, this is also the required grip when it comes to many pulling exercises that aren’t the deadlift, and this may limit your ability to move heavy weights.
The second, and most popular option long term, is the mixed grip, which can be used with the deadlift but not with other pulling motions. This involves the bar being gripped with palms facing in opposing directions - one up, one down. The mixed grip allows you to handle a lot more weight, and is more than enough for most.
One concern with the mixed grip is its asymmetrical nature. Since one palm is facing up and the other down, your shoulders and biceps will be placed in opposing positions. If you use the same combination of up and down for a long time, this may lead to muscular imbalances. You might want to switch regularly, reversing which hand faces up and which faces down, although one setup will probably feel more natural than the other.
Another concern is bicep tears. If you search “mixed grip bicep tear” on google you’ll find plenty of articles arguing over the presence or absence of the possibility of tearing a bicep while using this grip. During a deadlift, your arms are supposed to be straight and long, and if this is done right there should be little to no bicep involvement except as a stabilizer for the elbow joint. Rapidly starting a pull with slightly bent arms can start a quick extension of the elbow which the bicep tries to resist - resulting in a tear. So keep your arms locked straight from the start of the deadlift and it should never be an issue.
The third grip type is the hook grip. With this grip, you’re wrapping your thumbs around the bar and then wrapping the forefingers around the thumb, wedging it between themselves and the bar to create a hook which makes it much easier to hold onto the bar. This grip enables you to handle a lot more weight, but is also painful and difficult to get used to. It may be a necessity if you’re training for Olympic weightlifting or CrossFit, but it’s probably overkill if you’re anyone else. Instead, if you're still struggling with a mixed grip, you'll want to move on to...
Grip chalk dries out the hands and provides a grippier surface to stick to the bar, making it much easier to hold onto. Chalk is legal in all competitions and has no drawbacks - long term use doesn’t impair normal grip development in any way.
Chalk is also cheap as hell. It’s so cheap that they don’t really sell it in personal use sizes, meaning that any amount that you buy will last forever. Trust me, I’ve been trying to get rid of my first chalk purchase for the past five years. Put a chalk block in a plastic bag, be careful not to spill or puncture it, double up the bag occasionally if needed, keep it in your gym bag, and it will last you for years.
A word to the wise with etiquette: many commercial gyms will frown on the use of chalk, or may forbid it outright. If your gym isn’t a hardcore gym, don't be an idiot, and be polite with your chalk usage. Only apply a small amount to your hands - extra tends to end up everywhere. Keep an eye on your bag, and definitely don’t drop a plate on it (like I have - it was a mess and I spent twenty minutes wiping chalk out of cracks in the floor). After your workout, wipe off the bar and the floor around it of any remaining chalk residue. This should keep you in your gym's good graces.
Most people never need more than a proper mixed grip and some chalk, but if that's not enough, you may need to move on to:
Straps are constantly demonized in the lifting community. They’re not allowed in powerlifting competitions, and frequent long term use can impair grip strength development.
At the same time, however, there’s plenty of exercises where grip strength isn’t, and shouldn’t be, your primary focus. This can include weighted dumbbell single leg work, dumbbell weighted calf raises, shrugs, rows, pullups, and pulldowns. If you can hold onto your heavy deadlifts but your grip gets exhausted during longer sets of these secondary lifts, straps are the perfect solution.
Just save using them until your grip strength is already exhausted - this way it’s not affecting your long term grip strength development.
The number one problem I see with guys who try to fix their grip strength issues is that they’re doing weird stuff that has minimal carryover to actually holding onto the bar. According to the principle of specificity, we expect the best carryover to grip strength from the most similar actions - namely, holding onto a bar of roughly the same size.
But practically no one actually does that! You’ve got gripper devices, fat bars, plate pinches, and all kinds of other activities that certainly wear out your fingers, but likely have minimal carryover to a deadlift grip. Hell, I used to do a bunch of them myself. These methods do improve your grip strength, but not in ways that will help your deadlift. Plate pinches make you better at pinching plates together, and holding onto a bar makes you better at holding onto bars.
Here are three training methods you can use to build iron grip strength:
More pulling equals more grip training. Don't forget that rows, pulldowns, and pullups don’t just develop your upper back, they also develop your grip strength.
Kroc Rows are just high rep, heavy, one-arm dumbbell rows. Simple, sweet, effective, hard to beat. One of my favorites.
Want to get better at holding onto your deadlift?
Hold onto your deadlift more.
At the end of every set, lock out the last rep and hold onto it for as long as you can before you have to set it down.
You can also set the bar up with a lighter weight (25-50% of your max) and hold onto it for as long as you can, aiming to improve time. If you can hold 135 for 1 minute one week and 1 minute 15 seconds the next, your grip strength is improving.
A brutal method I learned at Westside Barbell was to add some band weight - a resistance band looped around either end of the bar and connected to the bottom of the rack - and hold this for time. Due to the instability of the bands, even a pretty light weight can be punishing.
Implement these into your training and you'll never be limited by your grip strength again.
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