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

Ok, feeling literary as I write this apparently.  Just one of those mornings.  Today I want to ramble about lifting straps. And no I’m not giving a how-to use them, there’s plenty of those out there already and I can’t honestly be bothered.  This is one of my overly pedantic articles about the typical arguments you see over their use.

And note that this is talking about pulling movements: rows, pulldowns, chins, deadlifts, RDL’s, the Olympic lifts, etc.  Certainly the occasional person has used straps for other movements (I recall an article years ago about a guy who would strap himself into back squats so he couldn’t quit on the set….ok).  But pulling is what straps are used for and that’s what I’ll focus on.  Do recognize that there are two primary types of straps, the long ones typically used by bodybuilders (and sometimes built into gloves) and the little blue kind that Olympic (and I imagine some powerlifters use).  They are somewhat different and I’ll talk about this a bit below.

Now, when it comes to talking about the use of straps in the weight room, there tend to be a couple of extremist viewpoints both of which are asserted equally loudly.  Just like everything else on the Internet; as usual this is typically case of excluding the middle and assuming that life can only count to two and it must be X or not-X.  Which is an obtuse way of saying that there are more than two options.  Anyhow.

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). Unless you have some need to build grip letting grip limit your pulling workout is nonsensical.

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, 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, certain athletes must have a strong grip (powerlifters, Olympic lifters, some strongman events) because you don’t get to wear straps in competition.  At some point, in these sports, you better get your grip in check or you’re going to be limited where it matters.   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 (they are usually also in the vocal camp of only squats, only barbell work, no machines, except when they justify pulldowns or something, no knee wraps, no belts, etc.).  It’s extremist hardheaded nonsense and again, doesn’t recognize a handful of things about real-world training.  It’s just a lot of macho posturing.  To address those, let’s look at a few questions.

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.  Ask yourself “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 (i.e. “Straps are for noobs” is not a rational answer, it’s an emotional one).

If you are training back and do deadlifts, rows and pulldowns (and maybe some curls for the girls), the reality is that your grip is unlikely to stay strong all the way through.  If grip is failing, your BACK workout suffers.  If you don’t use straps to correct that, that’s just stupid.

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 commonly do NOT use straps.  So they might not strap on deadlifts and 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.  So that grip doesn’t fail in competition.

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 202kg (444 pounds) from a deficit wearing straps.

Again, it’s not as if Olympic lifters always use straps.  They need a strong grip and certainly get that work by not using straps.  But they do in fact use them at the highest level.  Both to protect their hands and to ensure proper performance of (frequently) higher rep lifts.  There is simply no reason to let grip limit the actual training, macho hardheadedness be damned.

It’s worth noting that Olympic lifting straps are a bit different than the longer straps.  They aren’t as supportive 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.

But 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), an opinion held by those who have read a book but really have no clue.

The Middle Ground on Using Straps

And 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.  That you either always or never use straps (clearly strength athletes don’t).

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.  Assuming grip is important, start pulling workouts without straps.  Depending on how good your grip is you’ll eventually find grip starting to become limiting.  It might be on your fourth sets of deadlifts, your third set of rows, whatever.  Doesn’t matter when it starts to happen.  Just that it does at some point.

At this point, strap up.  Your grip has been trained but this will prevent you from limiting your actual workout by a failing group.  Then, if you want to improve your grip, do some actual grip training.  I know, crazy idea but if something is limiting, train it a bit extra at the end of the workout if it’s important to you.  You get grip work during the initial stuff, don’t let grip limit the other training AND work to fix a weak point.

I should also mention that a good buddy (involved for years in strength sports of varying types) has mentioned that EVERY guy he knows with a great grip has big hands.  Smaller handed lifters may benefit from intelligent strap usage for that very reason: they may never get to the point where their grip is sufficient to get through an entire pulling workout without problems (and see above: the best strength athletes, who usually have big hands, still use straps as needed).

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.  But, honestly, this idea, I’ve never really seen it work.  At least not for the majority.  Even if it did, it’s far more efficient to just put in a specific assistance movement.  Grinding out more deadlifts to improve your grip is silly: do specific grip training at the end which takes 1/10th of the effort and still fixes the problem.  That’s way beyond the scope of this, go to Ironmind, they are grip fanatics.

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 pool chalk by the way) and is dusted on the hands to improve grip.  Which it does but tends to be more about sweaty palms.  Certainly you get more friction between the hands and the bar which helps but a lot of people will skip it unless they are sweating a lot.  It can make a mess (the occasional gym will disallow it for that reason), especially if you like to clap your hands together and make a big cloud (which is fun) but it can be used without being an idiot.

Ol’ers do it all the time, using a small chalk dispenser to get their hands covered without messing up the floor or gym.  The same comments above more or less apply although I don’t think people argue against chalk as vehemently as they do for not using straps.  If you want a bit more grip stimulus early on, don’t use chalk; add it when grip starts to fail, and then do some grip work at the end to fix a weak point.

Summary

The universe can count past two and the training universe should learn to do the same.  Things are not X or not-X and the middle ground (X except when not-X) is usually the better answer.  Use straps as needed, to avoid letting GRIP limit training non-grip activities.

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