To strap or not to strap? That is the question. Whether tis nobler to have your grip fail in the middle of a set or to maintain your macho hardheadeness in the face of complete wrongness….&c I guess I’m feeling a bit literary this morning. Anyhow, I want to talk about lifting straps but not about how to use them. Rather I want to address the question many trainee ask which is “Should I wear lifting straps?”
Why Wear Lifting Straps?
Before getting into the actual question, I guess I should address why someone would want to wear straps in the first place. Well, quite simply, they are grip aids, helping to ensure that you don’t lose your grip. In that sense, straps are almost universally used for pulling movements (though I recall an article years ago by a guy who wore them on squats so he wouldn’t quite on the set).
That means rows, pulldowns, chins, deadlifts, RDL’s, the Olympic lifts, and many others. Basically any time you have to grip a handle that is trying to “pull away from you” straps have a potential role. One of my trainees does heavy side bends on a cable stack and wears straps for example.
Types of Lifting Straps
There are actually multiple types of straps. I imagine most trainees are familiar with the typical long straps where one end slides through a loop. These are the kind used by the general trainee and bodybuilders and often you find them built into gloves.
Olympic lifters use slight different straps. They don’t give as much grip aid but can be “leg go” rapidly so that the lifter doesn’t break his wrist catching a clean or snatch. I’ll come back to this below.
You can also find a type of “strap” that is really more of a lifting hook. This has a piece that wraps around the wrist with built in metal hooks. These take grip completely out of the equation.
One of the newer designs of strap I’ve seen are the Cobra grips which are fantastic. It’s got a wrist wrap with the grip attached and you just fold the free bit around the bar and then wrap your fingers around it. My trainee Sumi Singh, who could never quite figure out the first type of wrap uses them for all manner of heavy pulling.
Those are the women’s version, by the way. They are smaller and, yes, they are pink. The same company makes a larger black model for the men. Take any issues you have up with them please.
Should I Wear Lifting Straps?
As with all equipment such as belts, knee sleeves and others, people argue about wearing lifting straps all the time. And there tend to be a couple of extremist viewpoints both of which are asserted very loudly.
Like so much on the Internet this is usually an issue of excluding the middle and ignoring context. Things aren’t simply X or not X even if that’s how a lot of people think. Which is just an obtuse way of saying that there are more than two options. So let’s look at the extremist viewpoints and how they might be right or wrong along with a compromise option I’ll describe at the end.
Always Use Straps: The Way of the Bodybuilder
Bodybuilders have usually been on the side of always using straps for pulling movements. The logic is basically that, since grip doesn’t matter to bodybuilders (it doesn’t) and you don’t want to ever let grip limit the muscle groups you’re trying to train (midback, lats, etc.) that strapping in makes the most sense.
To be honest, outside of a few specifics I’ll talk about below, this is probably the extremist stance I’d tend to side with if there were only two options (always or never use straps). There’s more than those two options of course. But outside of a handful of exceptions, using grips makes more sense than not using grips from this simply standpoint:
It is idiotic to let your grip limit your ability to train non-grip muscles.
Not being able to effectively train your midback or lats because your grip fails is moronic. Not being able to effectively do RDL’s or rack pulls because your grip fails is moronic. Letting a non-target muscle limit your ability to train the target muscle is moronic.
Never Use Straps: The Way of the Hardhead
At the other extreme are the, usually very vocal and very uninformed, folks who will say that using straps is a crutch (they think the same about all lifting equipment including belts, knee sleeves and probably a barbell that spins).
They will tell you that no real athlete uses straps, that you should just improve your grip or you’re a total noob wimp (Do you even lift, bro?), etc, etc. Usually these folk’s knowledge of actual training starts and stops with a book or two and maybe an article on the Internet and, honestly, they have no clue what they are talking about.
Make no mistake, there are absolutely athletes who must have a strong grip for their sport. Powerlifters don’t get to wear straps when they deadlift. Olympic lifters don’t get to wear straps when they clean and jerk and snatch. However, strongman/strongwoman/strongperson competitions do seem to allow straps. I guess by hardhead logic they aren’t real athletes. Here’s Eddie Hall only doing 500 kg (1102 lbs).
My point being that there are absolutely situations where an athlete must develop a strong grip. Not all of them are even strength sports. Grappling sports need a strong grip and I’m sure there are others. If your grip is now limiting your performance in your actual sport, you will need to train it. But this is a specific context where grip strength is crucial (and let’s not even talk about the grip focused weirdos).
But they go from this standpoint to the utter extreme of nobody should ever use any bit of gear. As I said above and want to reiterate, they tend to show this type of macho attitude towards everything. They only believe in squats and deadlifts, using barbells, no knee wraps/sleeves or belts and no machines (well except for pulldowns of course). It’s just your typical extremist hardheaded macho nonsense (seem almost universally in young males).
So those are the two extremist stances you typically come across when it comes to discussing lifting straps. Although I’ve already kind of given an opinion on both, let’s ask some pointed questions to see which stance is ultimately correct.
Why Would You Let Grip Limit Non-Grip Training?
Let’s say you are training deadlifts. Or RDL’s. Or hell any pulling movement for the midback or lats. If your primary goal is to train that movement, I have to ask why in the world you would limit yourself by your grip in the first place.
Yes, fine, deadlifts involve grip, so do RDL’s and all other pulling. But if the goal is to train the back, ask yourself why in the world would you let your grip limit training those muscles? Yes, fine, someone will argue “Just improve your grip” but that’s a different answer to a different question and not mutually exclusive in the first place.
The question that matters is this:
If the goal is to train my back, why would I let grip limit that?
Because there is simply no logical reason to let grip strength limit your ability to perform pulling movements. Now, since I know people will read that sentence as “So Lyle says wear straps for everything” and someone will assuredly claim I said that let me make it clear that that is NOT what I am saying.
I’m just asking a question that anybody arguing completely against straps should be able to answer rationally. And no, telling me that “Straps are for noobs, do you even lift, bro?” is not a rational answer. It’s an emotional one. Either come up with a logical reason or realize that you’re wrong.
To the above I’d add this. Let’s say you’re doing a lot of pulling movements in one workout. Maybe you start out with deadlifts or rack pulls before going to rows and then some chins or pulldowns (and maybe you hit some curls). Well that’s a lot of pulling. And unless you have grip strength and endurance from absolute hell, the reality is that your grip is going to fail at some point in the workout.
Maybe it’s early, maybe it’s late. That’s not the point. The point is that it will. At which point your grip is now limiting your ability to effectively train your back. If you are from the hardhead camp of never using straps well I guess that workout is ruined. Better to be macho than smart.
But what if there were a third option available?
Sometimes Use Straps: The Way of the Strength Athlete
It is occasionally asserted that real strength athletes don’t use straps, again by extremist hardheads who actually have no knowledge or experience with what real athletes actually are doing.
Top powerlifters routinely use straps, frequently for higher rep assistance movement after their primary pulling, where they usually do NOT use straps. So they might not strap on deadlifts nd then wear straps for higher rep back work where the goal is to improve something without letting grip limit them.
Here’s one of the best DL’ers in the world, Bennedict Magnusson lifting 340kg (that’s 748 lbs) for reps. Wearing straps.
Of course he doesn’t wear straps all the time. Powerlifting has a grip component and you can’t wear straps in competition. As above, these folks will train without straps on some movements and usually do direct grip work on top of that. This is of course completely logical. A powerlifter needs to have sufficient grip strength for the deadlift itself. Letting grip fail on assistance movements would be idiotic.
And Olympic Lifters, who’s sport, can really tear up the hands wear straps quite a bit although usage varies. Some teams save straps for near the competition so as to protect their hands (tears make it impossible to lift well), at least one team doesn’t wear straps in the morning workout but wears them in the afternoon workout (when grip is probably a bit fatigued and they don’t want to limit their actual training).
Here is Dimitry Klokov snatching 205 kg (~454 lbs) with straps.
But again it’s not as if Olympic lifters always using straps. They need a strong grip in competition and certainly get that work by training without them. But some of the highest level lifters do in fact use them both to protect their hands and so grip isn’t limiting on assistance work (frequently done for higher reps). There is simply no reason to let grip limit the actual training, macho hardheadedness be damned.
I would note that Olympic lifting straps are a bit different than the longer straps. They aren’t as supportive as the longer bodybuilding style straps and you still have to grip the hell out of the bar; most importantly, they release very easily if the lifter opens his hand which is a safety thing. Do not EVER use standard lifting straps (the long ones) for the OL’s, especially cleans or you will learn a very hard lesson.
Clearly the idea that you’re less than a real lifter for using straps is nothing but macho extremism (and I’m not cherry picking videos, these are the ones I found most easily, there’s lots more). It’s an opinion held by those who have read like one book but really have no clue.
The Middle Ground on Using Straps
Regardless of the above, regardless of the utter silliness in letting grip limit the performance of non-grip exercises, regardless of the fact that top lifters use straps, it is still not as if it’s an either/or situation. It has never been a situation where you shoulder either always or never wear straps.
So here’s an optimal compromise that will both ensure some grip training, ensure that your training doesn’t suffer and maybe make everybody happy. First let’s assume that grip is important to you for some reason. Meaning that it needs to get some grip stimulus.
To get that, I’d suggest starting pulling workouts without straps. You’re training what you’re training and your grip is getting a workout. At some point in the workout you will likely find that your grip starts to becomes limiting. Usually it will be towards the end of a set where you’re really struggling to keep ahold of the bar. Maybe it’s on your fourth set of deadlifts or third set of rows. It doesn’t matter when it happens.
If you have more back work to do, now you strap up for the remainder. Your grip has been trained in the first part of the workout and now you can ensure optimal performance of the rest of the workout without your grip limiting you. If you feel like you need even more grip work, do it as specific grip work at the end of the workout. If you need ideas on how to train grip, you can’t go wrong with the grip resources at Ironmind.
I know, it’s a crazy idea. But if something is limiting you, the best way to improve it is to train it directly. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to train your grip with heavy bar holds or shrugs than by doing more deadlifts. The first sucks but the second is exhausting.
Basically, an optimal compromise on this whole issue of straps is this:
- Don’t wear straps in a workout until you need them
- Then wear them for the remainder of the workout
- Do weak point work as needed
It just doesn’t seem that difficult to me.
Big Hands Mean a Big Grip
There are other issues to consider regarding grip, one that is often forgotten by larger men. Most of the people who have a great grip have big hands which makes some degree of logical sense. So just like guys who may be short and thick who can squat heavily without a belt, those guys may not need lifting straps at all. But they don’t represent all of the training world, either.
For the rest of us, lifters with proportionally smaller hands or wrists which usually means a worse grip. And for who intelligent lifting strap use may be absolutely crucial to get anywhere in the weight room. Such trainees may simply never get to a point where there grip is sufficient to get through a full pulling workout without problems. Even there, as I showed above, some of the biggest most genetically gifted lifters still use straps as needed. It would be idiotic for lifters with poorer grip potential not to do the same.
Now some will argue that the above still no es mas macho, they will argue that you should just keep training the movements until grip adapts. And, honestly, I’ve never seen this work. But I’ve never see the “Just train the movement more” approach to fixing a weak point work either. If triceps are limiting, just benching more never fixes it. Even if it did, direct triceps or lockout work fixes it a lot faster.
The same holds here. Not only is doing more sets of deadlifts or rack pulls or rows strapless unlikely to ever fix a grip deficit, it’s an exhausting way to do it. Just do some direct grip work after your main work a coupole of times per week. It takes 1/10th of the effort and works better to fix the problem.
What About Women?
And then there are female trainees, the number of whom are growing by the day. In general, women have smaller hands and wrists than men. On average women have been found to have 35-70% lower maximal grip strength than men. Readers might even consider that in Olympic lifting, women use a narrower diameter (and lighter) bar to account for this. For some reason, powerlifting has not followed suit.
The point being that while there may be men who are more likely to do without straps ever, this is far less likely to be the case for women. Men forget this of course and go about their macho hardhead ways about how straps are for noobs who don’t even lift. And for women, even moreso, it’s terrible worthless advice.
Yes, women can build their grip. Yes, women who powerlift have to develop their grip for a maximum single deadlift. But overall, they are also more likely to benefit from strategic lifting strap use than even men.
A Word About Chalk
Since it’s grip related, I should probably mention lifting chalk. This is magnesium carbonate (it’s not the same as blue pool chalk by the way) and is dusted on the hands to improve grip. Which it certainly does. In my own experience, weights I was able to lift with chalk became nearly impossible when I left my chalk at home.
This is especially true when you have issues with sweaty palms. At that point the bar gets downright slippery and chalk is almost mandatory. Which is unfortunate since some gyms disallow it, mainly because people are messy and don’t clean up after themselves. This is especially true if you tend to clap your hands together to make a big cloud. But chalk can be used without being an idiot about it.
Powerlifters, Olympic lifters and strongman/woman/person competitors usually use chalk in training. Many gyms have a small chalk dispenser so you can chalk your hands and not make a mess. Some take a little tupperware container and there are little chalk bags that climbers use.
Despite also improving grip, the anti-strap hardheads don’t seem to be as anti-chalk. This is probably because chalk seems hardcore and straps are what bodybuilders use (to hardheads, all bodybuilders are wimps).
But the same comments I made above would still hold. If you want to challenge your grip a bit more, don’t use chalk early in the workout. When your hands get sweaty (mom’s spaghetti) use it. Or just use it throughout like a “real lifter”. And then hopefully realize that you’re probably wrong in your anti-lifting strap stance.