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Lifting straps - strap up and lift big

  Lifting straps are pieces of fabric, or leather that you wrap around your wrists and the bar to secure yourself to the bar. They are a controversial accessory among many lifters where I liken them to marmite – love them or hate them. Personally, I love lifting straps. Here's why. For this article I will refer to the deadlift as the primary exercise but my opinion is the same for pull up variations and certain olympic lifting derivatives. No doubt you’ll all agree that the deadlift, or one of its derivatives, is a must in most training programmes because it is a multi-joint exercise predominantly targeting the posterior chain. The deadlift is quite simple but can be tough to master - the principle of a deadlift involves picking a weight up from the floor to a standing position, shown in the image. There are plenty of technical tutorials and videos online explaining how to deadlift correctly.

Deadlift grips and alternatives to lifting straps

These images (below) display various grips that are normally used when deadlifting; pronated grip with or without straps, and a underhand-overhand grip. To improve the grip on the barbell, lifters can use chalk, straps, or change their grip position. The use of chalk improves the grip on the barbell and I would definitely recommend using it when competing or training grip strength, however how available is chalk in commercial gyms? Your best bet is to use something like GoNutrition's Liquid Chalk. Lifting straps are cheap gym accessory that increase the ability to grip the barbell. The lifting straps wrap around the bar in the opposite direction of the hand and are attached at the wrist, which creates a counter‐rotational force. However this reduces the ability to train the grip strength. The overhand-underhand grip is common among power lifters because they are not allowed straps when competing. This grip improves grip strength on the barbell (compared to pronated grip) but creates a significant bilateral asymmetry in muscle activity of biceps brachii and brachioradialis, with more activity in the supinated hand. Most lifters have a preferred side, often their dominant hand, and research suggests this can lead to asymmetry of the musculature. Therefore, it may be preferential to use a pronated grip to avoid asymmetric training or at least cycle the deadlift grip if it’s specific to your sport (eg powerlifting).

How to grip the bar

How to grip the bar when weight lifting

Pros and cons lifting straps

Lifting straps improve grip strength - this is often the limiting factor for failure when deadlifting, lifting straps are used to improve your ability to grip the bar and therefore perform more reps. Lifting straps reduce the risk of calluses - lifting straps are wrapped around the bar in the opposite direction of the hand and are attached at the wrist, which creates a counter‐rotational force and reduces the risk of calluses. Straps help you lift heavier weights - straps take a large amount of stress off of the forearms and reduce the activation of the brachioradialis and biceps brachii (Beggs, 2011) allowing you to lift heavier and stress the posterior chain. Grip strength may suffer – a fair point, lifting straps won't train your grip strength. There's also an element of alpha male opinion here - “just man-up and lift” and “straps are for women”. In my opinion, these people are just too arrogant to admit when they are wrong. If you tear open a callus, it will cause severe discomfort if ignored, potentially reducing the intensity and training may even be halted whilst recovering.

What lifting straps do

Basically straps allow you to cheat your grip strength, which may sound like a negative, but it’s not. If your grip strength is fatiguing before your target muscle group(s), in this case the posterior chain from the deadlift, then you’re not training to your full potential. For example, you may be able to deadlift 150kg without straps for two reps (A) and do 150kg for six reps with straps (B). I know which example I would be; (B) because it would allow for greater gains or larger musculature. I’m not slating grip strength, it is important in some sports and has value, but you should train it separately. If you are deadlifting to improve your grip strength, throw the straps to the side, but make sure when you’re training your posterior chain, get those straps on for your working sets. Lifting straps give you an advantage in the gym, much like lifting suits, weight belts, or weightlifting shoes, they create a compensation so you don’t have to. Even Olympic weightlifters cycle how often their specialised equipment to ensure a full raw range of motion. There are certainly times when straps are not required and can be misused, the bench press for example, which I have seen. The bench press does not require huge amounts of grip strength and you’re not gripping the weight against gravity. Only use straps when you feel your grip will fatigue before your target muscle group. This is my opinion and I may well be biased towards lifting straps but the fact ‘you can lift heavier with straps’ sells it for me. When I leave the gym after a heavy lifting session, I know I couldn’t have completed any more reps and I don’t have blood on my hands.
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