In previous posts, the topic of grip strength has been highlighted for its significant role in the deadlift and back training. Since grip strength is such an important factor in heavy lifting, I figured it would be a good idea to delve deeper into this topic, specifically when it comes to the pros and cons of using lifting straps to enhance or assist grip.
Any time you pick up and handle weights you are using and developing grip strength. The more you lift, the stronger your grip becomes and the heavier the weight you will be able to handle. If the core focus of your training is on heavy lifting, prioritizing multi-joint compound lifts (deadlift, bench, overhead press, bent over rows) using predominantly free weights over machines, your grip strength will improve as you develop greater overall strength. Using your unaided grip as often as possible is the best and fastest way to ensure your grip develops strong enough for heavy lifting.
Grip strength generates from the muscles of the forearms to the hands. If you feel your grip strength is lacking, there are specific grip and forearm exercises you can add to your training which will improve your grip. A few of these specific exercises are listed below.
So what about the use of lifting straps?
Lifting straps are strips of heavy-duty material (usually cotton, nylon or leather) that loop around the wrist. Pulled tight, the remaining length of the strap is wrapped around the bar and tightened so that when the weight is lifted a significant amount of load is transferred to the wrist, making it possible to lift heavier weight than with the unaided grip.
The main argument against using lifting straps is they significantly reduce the demand of grip strength in heavy lifts, and using them too often prevents the development of superior grip strength. This is a very good argument against their use and for beginners I would suggest training without straps for this very reason. Beginners will need to work on developing grip strength in order to progress to heavy lifting, and it is unlikely they are lifting heavy enough loads early on to warrant the assistance of lifting straps.
Making the argument for using lifting straps; they do allow you to lift heavier loads, especially in heavy pulling exercises for the back (and traps). Exercises like Bent Over Rows and T-bar Rows are great exercises for the back, and once you’ve been training a while, you’ll want to be doing these lifts using very heavy weights.
It is during high volume training using heavy sets of pulling exercises for the back that your grip is likely to give out. When this happens it is a good idea to use lifting straps in order to continue heavy training. Experienced lifters need to push their back muscles to the limit and stopping or not attempting heavier sets because of failing grip will definitely cut your back training short. So I’d advise using straps sparingly for heavy sets of lifts such as Bent Over Rows, T-Bar Rows, Cable Rows, Shrugs and Pull Downs. Just be sure to use your unaided grip as often and for as long as you can before pulling out the straps.
Of course there are other factors to consider. Someone with a history of pain or injury (tendinitis, bicep tear) might need to use straps more frequently to avoid repeat injury. On the other hand, someone training for sport performance, or training for competitions where grip strength is crucial or use of straps is not permitted, they would be better off never using straps and doing everything they can to train specifically for improved grip strength.
There is one exercise where I advise you DO NOT use lifting straps – DEADLIFTS! Not only would you be denying yourself the best opportunity to train your grip, the time spent bent over the bar as you wrap and tighten straps will put strain on your back and restrict airflow as you set up for your deadlift.
Using an over/under grip on the bar for your deadlifts will more evenly distribute the weight on your grip than with a double overhand grip. The alternate grip makes even heavy weight manageable for your grip. Using chalk and an over/under grip should allow you to deadlift as heavy as you can without your grip giving out. See my earlier post on Deadlifts for more info.
FOREARM & GRIP TRAINING
Grip is used constantly in a well-rounded program focusing on compound lifts and using plenty of free weights. Heavy lifting and frequent deadlifting is usually enough to challenge and develop grip strength. For additional grip training try adding a few of these forearm and grip strength exercises to your routine. Fit one or two of these exercises in near the end of an arms workout. You can also work these into a back workout to really annihilate your grip. Since you are training for grip specifically – DO NOT use straps for these exercises! (Click the exercise title for a link to demo).
Farmer’s Walk – A great compound exercise for the forearms. Also works abdominals, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, quads and traps. No special equipment necessary, heavy dumbbells or kettlebells will work great. Holding the weights at your sides, walk about 50-100 feet with quick even steps. Keep your head up and shoulders back, keep the weights at your sides and avoid swinging your arms.
Wrist Roller – A excellent exercise for the forearms that also works shoulders. Does require special equipment but there are machines that approximate this exercise, also easy to make your own using PVC tubing and rope. Hold the roller with an overhand grip, arms fully extended in front of you. Rotate one wrist at time to wrap the rope around the tube while raising the weight all the way to the tube. Once at the top, reverse the rotation to lower the weight all the way down and back up, using the same rotation direction until the weight has traveled all the way down and back to the top again.