Gripping the Bar for Deadlifts: Correct Grip, Supporting Strength, and Calluses
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28 Oct 2011 14:57

This post is meant to discuss three basic propositions about training the deadlift. The first concerns a statement that we frequently read or hear concerning the development of supporting grip strength for deadlifts: Deadlifting is all you need to train your grip for deadlifts. I'm going to explain to you why this false assumption is made and how it is not true for everyone. The second has to do with the correct way to grip the bar. I am not sure that many people even know there is a correct method to grip the bar that results in a more secure grip and more protection against ripping the skin, and ripping off calluses. The third concerns calluses themselves. So here goes.

The Deadlift is All You Need for Supporting Grip Strength


Wrong. For most average lifters, this is absolutely not true. Just training the deadlift alone, by virtue of having to grip the bar, does not automatically mean that your grip strength will progress in step with your deadlift progress and that you will never have to use any kind of dedicated, extra grip training. It is certainly true that deadlifting itself is the primary means of developing your supporting grip strength, but that doesn't mean that it is enough.

Now, it should be a bit self-explanatory. Do you really expect your grip, controlled by small muscles, to progress right in line with much larger and coordinated muscles like your thighs, hips, and back? Do you expect the strength in your hands to progress in a way that corresponds with the strength in your entire body? A bit naive, don't you think? So why do people say it so much?

Assuming they are not being defensive about their own lackluster grip strength, it's probably because they have never pulled above 300 to 325. It could be a little less or a little more. You see, an average male, with average grip strength can pretty much support at least 300 on the bar. Yep. Average grip strength is much stronger than you thought, I'll bet. Hey, you may be below that. Nobody falls perfectly at the top of the graph. That's not the point. The point is, a guy who worked his deadlift up from 150 to say, 325, may think that the deadlift has been training his grip and so think that this means that "all you need for grip strength is the deadlift." What he didn't realize is that his grip just hasn't been that challenged yet. If anything, he trained and built up endurance, but not necessarily absolute gripping strength. At some point he will have to augment his grip with alternated or hook grip; or use straps; or do some grip training on the side to keep his grip in line with the weight on the bar. Probably he will have to do both. That is, he will have to use an augmented grip or straps and yet still need to do dedicated grip training.

Proper Way to Grip the Bar

Most articles and explanation get this wrong. Dead wrong. Good one right? There are two opposite viewpoints: One says you should "grip the bar with the palm." That confuses most trainees. How the heck do I grip with my palm? I use my fingers to grip things. Well, you are correct, sir. You can't grip anything "with your palm," as such. What people mean by this is that you should seat the bar in the palm of your hand first, between the thumb and forefinger, and then wrap the fingers around. This will bunch and pinch the skin at the base of the metacarpophalangeals (base of fingers), pulling at the calluses if they are there and/or causing them to develop as ridges which are more easily torn off in the future. They may also press on the underlying tissue and bone while lifting, causing pain.

The second viewpoint says you should "grip with your fingers." As if there was any other way. But what they mean is that you should hook the bar with your fingers and then squeeze it in, thus allowing the bar to pull at the skin at the base of the fingers, which results in ripped calluses for some lifters, some of the time. Wrong again. This results in a less than secure grip and may actually cause large calluses to develop in places that are more uncomfortable, such as the proximal interphalangeal joints of the fingers.

The best way to grip the bar is actually what comes out of these two incorrect instructions. That is, those who give the first two methods are just repeating something they heard without understanding the steps involved and you will see how it can be misconstrued as "grip with your palm" or "with your fingers." So here is how to do it:

1. Seat the bar on the part of your palm just underneath base of your fingers, the place where the biggest calluses tend to form. Press the skin against the bar firmly.

2. Maintain this contact with the bar while pushing your hand forward, away from you, so that the skin under your fingers is dragged slightly backwards, toward the base of your palm. This will cause your hand to start to bend around the bar.

3. Keep pushing forward, maintaining pressure, and bring the palm of your hand onto the bar by placing the webbing between the thumb and index finger around the bar. So now, you are "palming" the bar. Your fingers should have naturally wrapped around the bar and your thumb should come to rest near, or over, your index finger, depending on your inclination.

4. Rotate the bar away from you until your wrist is straight.

Although I wrote this out in steps, it's all done at the same time. If you can use it, gym chalk will help a great deal. Chalk does more than just provide more friction for you grip, it helps to facilitate getting a better grip in the first place. Although there are only subtle differences between this and the way most people would "naturally" grip the bar, the skin under the fingers is not snagged nearly as much. You may have a slight bit of discomfort in your hand, as you may be palming the bar correctly for the first time. Your hand will relax more over time and this should feel normal to you with practice.

Obviously, we are assuming that you do not think that the 'correct' way to grip the bar is to use a hook grip. The hook grip is an augmented grip and is not something most lifters would turn to right off the bat so this post assumes that you are gripping the bar according to most people's natural inclination, which would be in a "power grip" where the thumb comes around the bar to buttress the grip. Using the method above for an alternated grip is a bit more tricky but the steps are the same.

Whether to use the hook grip to augment your grip, when needed, or to use an alternated grip is up to you to decide. This article, Hook Grip Versus Alternated Grip For Deadlifts, contains the most thorough breakdown of the the issue that you will find, whether in a book or on the internet, and it gives my conclusion as to the best course of action.

Myths and Facts about Calluses from Deadlifting

Myth: You must care for you calluses or they will tear off. You must shave them down with an emory board or some other implement regularly. You must keep your hands moisturized, etc.

The reality is that some people have their calluses over-grow and feel very uncomfortable when lifting. They may also have them frequently rip off during deadlifting, severely impacting their training ability until the skin heels. And other people rarely think about their calluses except to be thankful they are there to protect their skin..and to display as a badge of lifting honor. So, remember that this is a case of 'speak for yourself.' It is difficult to be sure why some people have problematic calluses and some don't. Part of it is incorrectly gripping the bar, so hopefully we've got that sorted out. But the rest of it we may be able to tease out by understanding a bit more about callus formation.

Calluses are caused by the same thing that blisters are caused by: repeated mechanical trauma to the skin in the form of pressure and friction resulting in a heat buildup. If the trauma comes too often and is too severe, a blister will form. A blister is a raised separation of the dermal and epidermal skin layers. These raised skin sacs (vesicles) are filled with a clear or serous fluid. They form to act as a sort of padding to protect the underlying tissue from further damage.

Although many experts write about how to get rid of calluses or care for them, most athletes would rather have a callus form than a blister. Well, when the mechanical trauma is repeated, but not for too long or too severely, a callus will likely form instead of a blister. So, a callus can be thought of as a more permanent and positive adaptation to the stress on the tissues. They are usually asymptomatic except for pain caused by large calluses pressing on underlying or adjacent tissues. Sometimes calluses are problematic but this can usually be prevented. For instance, over-large calluses on the feet in painful areas are usually caused by poor fitting shoes. The moral, if there is one, is that even good things can sometimes come with a cost.

If you develop overly large calluses on your hands from lifting, and this causes pain, you can gently file them down with a file or pumice stone. But if your calluses don't give you any problems, by all means, leave them alone. Calluses are actually toughened areas of skin and they don't just automatically rip off every time a breeze blows, which is what some lifters seem to think. They are, however, more susceptible to tears because the area of skin that forms the callus is thicker and less elastic than the surrounding skin, moving as a unit. When tears happen, it is not the callus, of course that is tearing, but this large unit being pulled away from the surrounding skin. It is more likely that heightened activity or friction (perhaps because of frequent failing of grip) causes a blister to form underneath the callus. Yes, a blister can form under a callus. This weakens the integrity of the callus, making it prone to being torn. So, trim and manage your calluses as you need to, but don't try to get rid of them. You need their protection, otherwise, you'd end up with blisters.


Deadlift Bar Gripping Video

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General References

Shultz, Sandra J., Peggy A. Houglum, and David H. Perrin. Examination of Musculoskeletal Injuries. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2010. 642.

Arndt, Kenneth A., and Jeffrey T. S. Hsu. Manual of Dermatologic Therapeutics. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007. 46-48.


This page created 28 Oct 2011 14:57
Last updated 27 Sep 2012 00:47

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