The Deadlift is one of the most basic exercises out there. It's not fancy, it's not pretty and it's not a fad—but it sure is effective. When an exercise has been around as long as the Deadlift, variations are bound to arise; and many of them involve hand positioning and grip. How, why and where you grab the iron can impact the exercise in numerous ways, and knowing the pros and cons of the various Deadlift grips is beneficial for any athlete.
STACK talked with Tony Gentilcore and Tony Bonvecchio of Cressey Performance, and J.L. Holdsworth, professional powerlifter and owner of The Spot Athletics, to learn more about hand placement for the Deadlift. Check out the video player above for a demonstration.
Position: Pronated grip with both palms facing you
One of the biggest Deadlift debates concerns whether you should use an overhand grip or a mixed grip when performing the exercise. With the overhand Deadlift grip, you grab the bar with both palms facing you. This really challenges your grip strength, meaning you get a phenomenal forearm workout when you Deadlift.
However, the reliance on pure grip strength is a double-edged sword. Using the overhand grip with heavy loads or high reps, lifters sometimes find their lower bodies are capable of completing the lift—only to have their grip strength fail.
Gentilcore says, "The overhand grip is considered very safe, and it really builds up grip strength. However, your grip can quickly become a limiting factor when you move to heavy loads."
Another plus for the overhand grip is that it allows you to easily keep the bar close to your body. "The overhand grip is ideal for good shoulder and upper-back position, because it's easier to keep the bar close to your body," Bonvecchio says.
Position: Alternating hand positions, one hand overhand, the other underhand
The mixed grip features one hand in a pronated position and the other in a supinated position—in other words, one palm faces you and the other faces away. I won't bore you with the science of centripetal force, but this positioning allows for greater grip strength, meaning your grip is less likely to fail on heavy loads. However, this comes at a cost. "This grip generally allows people to lift more weight, because grip strength becomes less of a limiting factor. However, the mixed Deadlift grip creates a higher potential for injuries such as biceps tears, and may result in muscle imbalances," Gentilcore says.
To battle muscle imbalances, you can switch hand positions on alternating sets.
Another potential downside of the mixed grip is that it can permit the bar to drift away from your body. "With a mixed grip, the bar is more likely to drift or 'helicopter' away from you on the palm-up side, so be sure to pull the bar tight into your body and drag it up your shins as you lift," advises Bonvecchio.
Position: Overhand grip with fingers wrapped around the thumbs
Used by many power lifters, the hook grip is essentially an overhand grip, but you curl your thumbs inward and place your fingers (usually your pointer and index fingers) on top of it. The hook grip is favored by many experienced lifters, because it allows for phenomenal grip strength and avoids the potential of bicep tears that comes from Deadlifting with a supinated grip.
So why doesn't everyone use the hook grip for Deadlifts? Well, it's awkward and it hurts like hell. Some lifters say it feels like their thumbs are going to dislocate. "It can enhance your ability to grip the bar, but it also can be really painful," Bonvecchio says.
Over time, some lifters get used to the pain (or get used to ignoring it.) "I highly recommend putting athletic tape on the thumb when you first try this grip," says Holdsworth. "It's an extremely good way to Deadlift, but until you develop a callus there, it's very uncomfortable and can rip the skin."
Deadlift position: Hands just outside the knees
Sumo Deadlift position: Hands inside the knees, about a foot apart
Snatch Grip Deadlift position: Index fingers on outer rings of barbell
How wide you grab the bar is one of the most fundamental components of Deadlifting, and different variations call for different hand widths.
For standard Deadlifts, your hands should be just outside your knees. Obviously, that changes based upon how wide apart your feet are. Gentilcore says, "I like to tell people to assume a power position with their feet for a standard Deadlift, which basically means the stance you'd use to perform a vertical jump. From there, you want your hands just outside the knees."
He continues, "For Sumo Deadlift, hand position will be inside the knees, about 12 to 14 inches apart. I generally tell people their grip will be half in the knurling of the bar and half in the smooth part." The Sumo Deadlift is often found to be easier on the back than the Standard Deadlift, but both the feet and hand positioning limit its range of motion—meaning the bar doesn't have to move very far to complete a rep.
The widest grip one will use for a Deadlift is when the lifter performs a Snatch Grip Deadlift. This has the feet in a standard Deadlift position, but the hands are much wider apart. "This grip will increase the range of motion of the exercise," Gentilcore says. "I typically have people place their index fingers on the outer rings of the bar." Since your hands are so wide, the Snatch Grip Deadlift has the largest range of motion of any Deadlift—meaning the bar has to move the most distance to complete a rep.
Trap Bar Grip
Position: Neutral grip, hands at your sides with palms facing in
The Trap Bar Deadlift uses a trap bar, which is sometimes called a hex bar, instead of a barbell. Due to the design of the trap bar, hand position is quite different from a standard Deadlift. The trap bar requires the lifter to use a neutral grip, grabbing the handles on either side.
Bonvecchio says, "The trap bar reduces sheer stress on the spine, because you stand inside of the bar instead of behind it like with a straight barbell. Having your hands at your sides can make it easier to grip the bar. Most trap bars have a higher starting position than normal barbells, making them a good choice for beginner lifters and for athletes who can't keep a good lower back position during standard Deadlifts."
But the trap bar Deadlift does have drawbacks. Bonvecchio continues, "It's easy for the knees to shift inward or forward, resulting in a more knee-dominant lift than the desired hip-dominant technique. The bar can also drift in four directions—forward, backward, and side to side—whereas on a barbell Deadlift the bar can only drift forward."
Lifting straps are an accessory usually made of nylon, leather or canvas wrapped around both the lifter's wrist and the barbell, in essence binding the bar to the athlete's hands. Lifting straps make grip strength weaknesses a non-issue when performing Olympic lifts. Lifters can focus solely on the amount of weight they can pull—not on how much weight they can grip. You might be able to use more weight with lifting straps, but at the cost of sacrificing gains in grip strength.
"If you're deadlifting with the intent of increasing force production in the lower body and not improving grip strength, straps are fine and there's no reason not to use them," Bonvecchio says.
However, straps are banned in most competitions—so if you're preparing for an event, don't rely on them. "If you can't hold onto it without straps, you won't be able to complete the lift in a competition," Holdsworth says.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock