Researched by Eric Troy and Joe Weir,
Written by Eric Troy
Here's the scenario: A strength trainee walks into a gym (or bar) and sets up to deadlift around 335 pounds, which will be a new personal record if he pulls it off. This guy weighs around 160 to 175 pounds. He's average weight and average height for a male.
As he has worked his way up from an initial pull of 150 pounds (with good form) his only problem has been maintaining quality and progressing in a sustainable way. Only recently has his grip strength started to pose a problem, but he's managed to hold onto the bar and his latest personal record is 325 pounds.
Today, he's warmed up just right and acclimated himself with single repetitions to around 320 pounds. Now, he's ready to try for 335. Problem is that on the last lift he almost drops the bar. He always uses a pronated (over-handed grip) and only on occasion has he switched to an alternated grip (one hand pronated one hand supinated or underhand) and that was only after high volume sessions. In other words the absolute weight of the bar hasn't been a problem; it was simply grip fatigue.
But today he has only managed to warm up and acclimate and he is going to have to switch to an alternating grip. So, he grabs on with the right hand in an overhand position and the right hand in an underhand position and suddenly it's much easier to hold onto the bar.
Enter dude who fancies himself an Olympic lifter. He's seen our guy switch to his "over-under" grip and he reckons he has some expertize on the issue. "You should use a hook grip. That's what I always use and I've never had any problem with grip. It's much stronger."
Our scenario is typical. The prevailing question is what grip should we use for our heavy deadlifts, when the double overhand grip will not suffice. The prevailing assumption is that one of two options, the alternated grip or the hook grip, is the better choice. However, many have begun to assume that the hook grip is the best choice for deadlifters. After all, that is what the Olympic weightlifters use, and they certainly must be able to hold onto the bar, mustn't they? Regardless, many holdouts still say that the alternated grip is just as good.
There is a great reason to question these assumptions since the hook grip is a painful and potentially injurious grip for deadlifting and requires a great deal of adjustment (euphemism for pain) to get used to.
So what's the answer? Is there a difference between the efficacy of the alternated grip and the hook grip for the deadlifter?
How Does the Alternated Grip Work?
The alternated grip (aka alternating, mixed, over/under grip) works by solving a basic problem. When we hold a heavy barbell in a hang position, the bar tends to rotate toward the ends of our fingers. This happens because as our grip fatigues our hand begins to open, allowing the bar to roll down and out of the hand as the fingers extend. This makes it very difficult to hold onto the bar.
This is why deadlifters need to prioritize supporting grip work rather than crushing grip work or other types of grip strength training. But, no matter how much supporting grip work we do, there always comes a time when the weight exceeds our ability to maintain our grip and the hand begins to open, allowing the bar to roll. Switching the direction one hand is facing counters this rotation. Thus, having one hand pronated and one hand supinated cancels out the rotation of the bar. While the bar is trying to rotate toward the fingers of one hand, the weak links, it is also trying to rotate, in opposition, towards the fingers of the other hand. The result is the ability to hold more weight and for longer. Depending on the lifter this could be up to twenty percent more.
Most deadlifters have a preference for grip. Some use a pronated grip all the time except when they absolutely must switch to an alternating grip when their grip strength is failing. Since the pronated grip is harder, using it preferentially trains the grip while giving them the extra padding they need by holding the alternating grip in reserve.
Other trainees opt for the alternated grip from day one simply because it is easier and they can hold more weight. The logic there is that stronger is stronger. However, what these trainees are missing is that eventually, when the alternating grip fails as well (and it will), they will have no alternative other than straps. We must realize also that the alternated grip is not a "stronger" grip but simply an augmented one. Eventually, these lifters will have to play catch-up with dedicated grip strength (supporting grip) work. The lesson here is train your grip from day one. Using a regular pronated grip, which means both palms are facing your body, challenges your grip and makes it stronger. Saving the alternated grip for when you really need it provides a padding.
Supination and Pronation of the Forearm and Hand
Let's explain this another way. The alternating grip is not "magic." There is a simple mechanism at work. Having a stronger supporting grip in general means you can support more with a double overhand grip and also with an alternating grip. Since the double overhand grip trains the supporting grip by forcing us to maintain our hands closed or lose the bar, our grip gets stronger. This simply means that in the long run we can avoid using straps for longer. And if we do supplementary grip work, we can support some amazing loads! But the alternating grip is not the only game in town. The hook grip can also be used.
What is the Hook Grip?
Well, technically the hook grip is different things to different people. For those who study grip there are various names used to describe the same type of grip. For instance, the basic grip that we use to carry a suitcase at our side is sometimes called a hook grip. This is a thumbless grip where the fingers form a simple "hook" and the hand remains flat. The object being gripped is held against the palm by the flexed fingers but the hand itself does not wrap around the object, as the palm remains relatively flat. The position of the thumb has little to do with the grip's classification and, in fact, it is the four fingers positioning the object against the palm that provides the strength of the grip, with the thumb being essentially nonfunctional. This is one of the most basic ways for a human to hold something. This is clearly not how we hold a barbell during the deadlift.
The hook grip is considered by some sources as one type of power grip along with the spherical, disc, and squeeze grips. The major distinguishing factor of any power grip is that the object being held makes contact with the palm. This is compared to a precision (or pinch) grip where an object is held precisely between the fingers and thumb, as when using a key or pencil. The pinch grip is a great deal weaker than the power grip since the power grip gets its force from the major extrinsic grip muscles of the forearm.
However, during the deadlift the entire hand comes into play and the palm and fingers wrap around the bar. The greater the load that must be supported the more the fingers will flex, and as the challenge is increased the thumb will tend to become more adducted. You can easily see this continuum with a light briefcase versus a heavy bar.
The Hook Grip
image by Baddriver
When we grip a bar we use a cylindrical grip. As the hand wraps around the object and the palm makes contact with it it is also called a palmar grip.1. When loads are supported with a palmar grip the fingers flex at all three joints and the thumb will adduct against these in opposition to provide a buttress, but, again, it provides little force of it's own.
However, as lifters, we consider the basic grip we use to be a power grip (it is one type of power grip), and our hook grip has nothing to do with suitcases, or the fingers forming a hook. Instead, our hook grip is a grip in which the thumb wraps around the bar first and the first two or three fingers hook the thumb. There is also a reverse hook grip in which the thumb is placed over the first few fingers. The central misconception about the hook grip, then, concerns the thumb and its contribution to force, but like the standard palmar grip with thumb as buttress, the thumb is not a functional part of the grip's force.
Still, the hook grip is a mainstay for Olympic weightlifters. Even when it is not technically needed for absolute supporting strength it is considered a must for safety's sake. Why?
Why Do Olympic Lifters Use the Hook Grip and Do They Really Need It?
Losing your grip on the bar during an Olympic lift like the Snatch or the Clean and Jerk would be a very bad scene indeed. Regardless of how strong your "power grip" is this safety consideration should be enough to persuade most Olympic lifters that a more secure grip is better. An Olympic lifter cannot use straps since he or she cannot be tethered to the bar. An Olympic lifter also cannot use an alternating grip. Such a grip position would simply be impossible while performing the fast lifts.
Using a hook grip for safety, therefore, is a logical and rational choice. It is often assumed, however, that the Olympic lifter would be limited by a regular grip. Olympic lifters rarely do any dedicated grip training yet they rarely report any issues with supporting grip while lifting. The assumption then is that the hook grip is stronger and this makes all the difference. This leads people to assume that the hook grip would also be superior for deadlifting. The central misunderstanding here is that hooking the thumb actually allows more grip force to be applied to the bar thus making the hook grip stronger than either the double pronated power grip or the alternating grip. As pointed out above, the thumb brings little to no force to the grip and hooking the thumb simply performs a similar function to the alternating grip as it counteracts the bars rotating outwards toward the opening fingers. So, like the alternating grip, the hook grip is not a "stronger" grip but a more secure grip.
Still, there are more assumptions at work here. Often, statements are made to the effect that if an Olympic lifter does not use a hook grip, he or she is leaving kilos on the floor. It is common belief, in fact, that a hook grip always allows a lifter to lift more. Is this true? Are there data to suggest this? Not really. One way to go about this may be to compare the Olympic lifts to the deadlift. That is, after all, the crux of the issue. The practice of using the hook grip for Olympic lifting is not in question here. It is a sound practice if only for safety's sake. It is the assumption that what is good for an Olympic lifter is good for a deadlifter that we must explore.
Olympic Lifts and Deadlifting challenge the Grip Differently
Let's take an 'average' deadlift of around 350 lbs by an average guy of around 160 to 175 lbs. I.E. this is what an average and healthy male could accomplish fairly easily without being a deadlift fanatic, etc. and so on. Let's also assume that somewhere past around 300 to 335 is where the average guy starts having grip problems on his deadlifts. This article will discuss male lifters simply because we have more information concerning them.
Take that same average guy and it will be a pretty good accomplishment for him to do a body-weight clean and jerk, meaning that managing a body-weight clean and jerk is about on par with getting the deadlift to the 300 to 350 range. It may be and even greater accomplishment since some male lifters pull close to 300 pounds the first time they deadlift but due to the technical nature of the clean and jerk and the rate of force development needed it is unlikely, if not impossible, for an initial clean and jerk to be comparable, relatively speaking, to the deadlift.
For the Snatch Lift, a wide grip is normally used. This makes for more difficulty holding onto the bar since the force is distributed outward towards the smaller fingers. I will not even attempt to quantify this except to say that one should not underestimate the added grip challenge of a wide grip, especially given high rate of force development. A hook grip, theoretically, should be more essential for a snatch lift than for a clean and jerk, assuming a wide grip is used, which is almost always true.
We will assume a shoulder width or medium grip, as in a clean and jerk, to compare with the deadlift. So now we can compare the grip challenge of a 350 pound deadlift versus that of a 175 pound Clean and Jerk for our 175 pound subject.
Our lifter's overhand grip began failing at around 330. So for his 350 pound deadlift he has to use an alternating grip or a hook grip. But for the Clean and Jerk he is only lifting 175 pounds. Why should his grip be challenged at all? It is challenged because of the added http://www.gustrength.com/glossary:inertia inertia, which means additional pounds of force against the grip. Now, for a very accomplished lifter the added inertia may be somewhere between 35 to 52%. So, for a lift of 175 pounds the added inertia makes it as if he is lifting anywhere from 235 to 265 pounds.
Keep in mind, though, that our lifter isn't "very accomplished". He is a dabbler in the fast lifts. He probably won't make it to the 35% range. More likely he will manage about 25% added inertia to the bar, if that. So when he pulls 175 pounds it will be as if he is pulling around 215. There may be other forces at work as the bar will interact differently with his hands than it does with a deadlift, which is a "straight up and down" lift. But it is plain to see that 215 pounds is a far cry from 350 and his clean and jerk is hardly a huge grip challenge. This doesn't mean that he shouldn't use a hook grip for added safety and security but that the hook grip will not make the difference between success or failure.
For an advanced Olympic lifter with very big pulls the numbers change considerably, of course, since world record lifters get up to weights that would challenge the grip of an average deadlifter. And even if the added inertia is only around 25% the difference can become staggering. If you took the world record clean and jerk of 580 pounds, you have a 725 pound effect in a conservative scenario. But since the conservative scenario is impossible (the lift would fail) you'd have at least around 800 pounds or more with added inertia. Is the hook grip essential for Olympic lifters then? Seems like it.
But we are not considering advanced lifters with record pulls. We are considering the average gym rat who dabbles in the fast pulls. The hook grip will probably not be essential unless he starts devoting a much larger percentage of his training buck to the O-lifts.
When he pulls the 350 pound deadlift, however, it will be "like" he is pulling 350 pounds. And he will need to support this weight for a much longer time, necessitating some type of augmented grip. The time that a deadlifter must hold onto the bar is far longer than that of an Olympic lifter. This crucial difference seems to go unrecognized much of the time., but a deadlifter will have to actually support the weight of the bar for at least twice as long. The Olympic lifter must only actively support the weight of the bar, plus added inertia, for a moment during the second pull as the rest of the lift to the racked position is accomplished by momentum. This also means that the grip challenge of a deadlift begins immediately as the bar is lifted from the floor whereas it is only upon the second pull that the grip is fully challenged during the clean.
We can add to this the fact that most deadlifters hold the bar an additional second or two at lockout to be sure of a full finish and then continue to hold onto the bar for a little longer while returning it to the floor. Most Clean and Jerk lifters simply drop the bar, although this practice is certainly not necessary for the average O-lift dabbler. All in all, the difference in support time between the two lifts is massive. The grip challenge of a deadlift and clean and jerk, and for that matter, the snatch, simply cannot be meaningfully compared. The deadlift is the greater challenge by a landslide!
There is no reason to suggest that the hook grip is superior to the alternating grip "just because Olympic lifters use it." Yet, the grip is often portrayed as having almost magical properties, allowing the lifter to go on adding weight to the bar forever without the grip ever slipping. This is pure nonsense and is usually perpetuated on forums by bodybuilders rather than accomplished deadlifters. Like many strength training practices the evidence for the superiority of the hook grip is anecdotal. Both grips, alternated and hook, seem to accomplish the same task. They prevent the bar from rolling. So why not use an alternated grip?
Reasons Against using an Alternated Grip for Deadlifts
The typical reasons noted against and alternated (over-under) grip for deadlifting are that it is uncomfortable for the shoulders and causes the bar to be skewed slightly on one side away from the body. Some find this difference to be significant and problematic but most lifters seem to adapt to using an alternating grip and there is no credible reason to suggest otherwise. Many lifters tend to be more comfortable with always having the same hand supinated but if possible it is best to alternate the supinated and pronated hands for balance about the shoulder girdle.
It is often stated that the alternated grip puts uneven stress on the back and even that it has been proven to cause injury. Very few things have been "proven" in strength training, even when it comes to injuries so when the word comes up be suspicious. The trainee should use his or her best judgment when choosing the right grip and the presence of marked discomfort or pain should definitely contraindicate use of the mixed grip. Although many back injuries happen during the deadlift and people often jump to conclusions concerning the grip position the "evidence" against the alternated grip is nothing more than conjecture and opinion.
Another frequent question about the alternating grip is whether the bicep of the supinated hand will be more subject to strains as a result of the increased tension on that side. I (Eric) explored this question in the blog post "Bicep Tears from Deadlifts?". To sum up the conclusion from that post here, there is no reason to blame the alternating grip for bicep injuries during deadlifting. The never-ending stream of anecdotal reports about the dangers of rupturing a bicep with the mixed grip will probably never end since there is a confirmation bias at work. The offending practice, the tendency to flex the elbow of the supinated arm ends with the switch to hook grip. For these lifters, the hook grip may be a blessing since they never would have excepted that the problem was with their bad habit rather than the grip's fault. However, the thumb damage they incur after years of abuse will likely not be reported. Again, many lifters will not see or admit to their own mistakes. Therefore, anecdotal evidence, for or against either grip choice, simply cannot be relied upon.
There is a danger of inadvertently flexing the elbow of the supinated hand, however, and this is most likely to occur during very heavy lifts, especially ones that are grinders. Since this is the time when you are most likely to actually suffer a tendon strain, you must learn to be extra wary. Sometimes, when we are struggling to complete a heavy lift, the bar gets stuck somewhere above the knees, and may rest on the thighs. To complete the lift, we tend to "hitch" the bar up in any way possible. It is VERY easy to start pulling at the bar through the elbow, and the supinated arm place the biceps tendon under the most tensile stress when we do this. This, or a similar occurrence, is when the injuries most likely occur. And, as I explained in the article I linked above, they do occur, it's just that they are not caused by the grip itself, but by a bad habit. Other mechanisms that lead to this common inference linking alternating grip to biceps injures are explained in the article.
It should be clear that the other problem with these reports is that for every group of trainees that use the alternated grip successfully for years with no injury or problem the one or two dramatic reports of "detached" and ruptured biceps will stand out and give many the false impression that these injuries are happen more often than they do.
As you should see from the above data and explanation, the evidence should not lead us to assume the hook grip has any special efficacy as compared to the alternating grip. Although we have found no experimental data to support this, our experience suggests that the hook grip has no special advantage at all over the alternating grip and the belief that it does seems to come from the mere fact that Olympic lifters use it as a matter of necessity (they cannot use an alternating grip or straps). There also seems to be an assumption that Olympic lifters face an equal or even greater grip challenge than deadlifters and we have shown that this is clearly not the case.
The supposed problems associated with the alternating grip, as mentioned above, don't hold a lot of water. Some lifters do have problems using the grip and this is usually associated with shoulder discomfort but in general the over/under grip is easy to adopt and easy to acclimate to. What's more it is unnecessary to use it all of the time but only for the heaviest near maximal lifts, especially when additional supportive grip training is undertaken, which has benefits which go beyond just deadlifting.
Hook grip, however, can be extremely painful and damaging to the thumb. It is important to recognize that the force you are lifting is not an indication of the force being applied to the joints of the hand. In order to design finger prostheses it has been necessary to study these forces and resultant studies have found that the forces involved are from twice up to ten times the applied load, depending upon the specific joint in question. The hook grip causes the joints of the thumb to undergo a significantly higher stress than during normal gripping positions. The stress is not only due to the action of the index and middle fingers pressing the thumb against the bar but to the thumb taking on much more of the load, by being brought against the bar, than it normally would during it's buttressing role with normal gripping.
The thumb is essential to finer gripping activities especially to provide precise positioning of small objects during pinch gripping. Damage to the nerves and joints of the thumb could result in permanent disability and loss of dexterity. The pressure of the fingers against the distal phalanx of the thumb is extremely painful and the stress on the interphangeal joint cannot logically be seen as something the joint was meant to endure. We are often told that the thumb will adapt to this treatment. Such an adaptation would almost certainly be maladaptive.
What Does the Pullup Hang Test Prove?
In my experience, the pullup hang test proves nothing. The pullup hang test is attempting the prove that the hook grip is stronger by having a trainee hang off a pullup bar by first hanging with the thumb behind the bar in line with the hand (a thumbless grip), then hanging in the conventional way with the thumb over the fingers, and finally hanging with a hook grip, with the thumb jammed between the fingers and the bar. First let's address the validity of the test, looking at what is sometimes called "content" whereby we are asking if the test is measuring what it is proposed to measure. Although the pullup test may have "face validity" meaning it appears casually to assess the potential of the grip to the trainee or other observer this does not mean it is valid, from the standpoint of content, to an expert.
First we can ignore the test with the thumbless grip as this is not a grip most people would tend to choose if given the choice. As mentioned above, as gripping challenges become more demanding the thumb tends to adduct in opposition. Most people would not do a pullup with a thumbless grip. It is more fair to only compare a thumbed grip with a hooked grip.
But what of the test itself? The idea is that the rolling of the bar is eliminated so that the "strength" of the grip itself is tested. Is it valid, however, to use a test of endurance to compare the strength of two different grips? Of course not. The test would make more sense if the trainee were made to strap on so much weight that he or she could barely support it while hanging from the bar. The test is not a valid test and it would be extremely difficult to construct a valid test as it is trying to test the force potential of the grip by measuring its staying power. The test also assumes, while not actually testing, that it is the inherent force potential of a grip that makes it work better although this may not be a valid assumption.
There are many factors that can and will influence the outcome of the test including the body weight of the testee, the relative comfort of familiarity of each grip, and even the enthusiasm of the testee for performing the test! Even more important, for those who would bring up this pullup test, is that we are comparing the hook grip to the alternated grip, not a double overhand grip.
What of the claims about the results of these (albeit informal) tests? In my personal experience and upon asking trainees to do this since working on and updating this article there has been no difference. In fact, most people, including myself, simply feel that the thumb against the bar makes them feel as if they are gripping a wider bar, thus making it more difficult, not easier. However, my informal and non-controlled tests don't prove anything more than the claims of positive results for the hook grip. Again, there just does not seem to be any convincing scientific evidence that the hook grip is actually stronger and it would take an actual scientific inquiry conducted by a qualified researcher, not a seat-of-the-pants "test" to provide this evidence.
The added security of the hook grip, in this author's experience, is negated when the rolling of the bar is not a factor, as would be the same for the alternated grip. Again, to be clear, we are not saying the hook grip is not a more secure grip than a standard power grip for Olympic lifters. We are saying it is not stronger than the alternated grip for the deadlifter.
There is no reason to suggest that the hook grip has any special efficacy for the deadlifter as compared to the alternated or "mixed" grip. Statements concerning the superiority of the hook grip have taken on an "everybody knows" connotation which is related to the common logical fallacy "argumentum ad populum" (or numerum). It is the "bandwagon" school of belief which appeals to "common knowledge". Many people seem to believe, without question, that the hook grip is superior for deadlifting, but this does not make it true.
The belief seems to stem from the hook grip's use by Olympic lifters who are commonly reported as rarely having grip issues or using additional supportive grip training. As we have asserted, this must also be based on an assumption that the Olympic lifts challenge the grip in a similar or even greater way than the deadlift. As we have shown, this is certainly untrue.
No objective reason can be found to suggest the greater efficacy of the hook grip over the alternating grip for deadlifting and both grips seem to perform the same task. Various dangers are proposed for the mixed grip but these dangers are supposition at best and based on potential whereas the damage to the thumb by the hook grip can be clearly demonstrated, for the lifter, by the great pain caused to the digit. Pain is a signal that the body is injured or in the process of being injured; it is not a signal that the body is undergoing some type of "adaptation".
When choosing the grip to use for our maximal work we must use evidence and knowledge about grip mechanics rather than anecdotal reports from lifters and "common knowledge" assertions. To me, the alternated grip seems the better choice and is just as effective as the hook grip while being easier to adapt to. The only easily recognized exception I can think of is a trainee who has trouble supinating one or both hands during the deadlift due to previous biceps tendon injuries. However, this would likely only affect one arm and so the affected arm could be used with the hand pronated, despite a logical assumption that switching the supinated and pronated hands often would be a good idea for most lifters.
A permanently numb thumb has been reported by some who use the hook grip for deadlift habitually for years. This has been attributed to the damage done to the nerves in the thumb and it is said that having a numb thumb is an advantageous adaptation so that the lifter cannot feel the pain caused by the hook grip. Only idiots would make such statements which brings us to another problem which is very relevant to this discussion of grips. Many trainees have been led to think that "every opinion counts" and all assertions and arguments must be duly considered because to do less would mean we are not being "objective" and scientific. Being objective and scientific has nothing to do with giving undue attention to patently idiotic statements, such as "having a numb thumb is good." Although having a permanently damaged thumb may mean the ability to ignore the damage done by the hook grip it is by no means a positive thing! Thumb dysfunction would be expected after prolonged abuse of this kind. However, as with the conjectured evidence against the alternated grip, the evidence for thumb damage from hook gripping is anecdotal. It should be pointed out, however, that the mechanism by which this damage would occur is much more concrete than the mechanism by which back injuries would occur from the alternated grip. Immediate and lasting pain is usually a better indication of a potential problem than conjectures of danger based on personal opinion.
The alternated grip should, for now, be considered as effective and viable as the hook grip for deadlifting and claims against it should be taken with a grain of salt. It is ironic that a grip which results in immediate and lasting pain for most lifters is thought to be superior to a grip which is usually used comfortably and easily by lifters who wish to employ it. Hopefully this article will serve the reader well in evaluating which grip to employ and failing that, help to direct further inquiries.
Regardless of what grip you choose, you will want to train your grip to keep up with your dead lift. If you are into grip training for it's own sake, check out all the great products from IronMind, like their famous Captain's of Crush Grippers.
Unless otherwise noted, all images on this page used under license. ©2010 Publictech, Inc. Images not for reuse.
1. The Training of a Weightlifter, R.A. Roman, translated by Andrew Charniga, Jr. , Sportivny Press, Livonia Michigan, 1988
2. Field, D., and R. Soames. "Chp. 2." Anatomy and Human Movement: Structure and Function Ed 5. By N. P. Palastanga. London: Butterworth Heinemann, 2006. 211-13. Print.
3. Rybski, Melinda, and Ost Lynn. Van. "Chp. 8." Kinesiology for Occupational Therapy. Thorofare: Slack, 2004. Print.
4. Long Et Al., Charles II. "Intrinsic-Extrinsic Muscle Control of the Hand in Power Grip and Precision Handling: AN ELECTROMYOGRAPHIC STUDY — LONG Et Al. 52 (5): 853 — Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery." JBJS Online - The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Web. 04 Oct. 2010. <http://www.ejbjs.org/cgi/content/abstract/52/5/853>.
This page created 04 Oct 2010 16:40
Last updated 03 Feb 2014 14:14
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