Deadlifts are a great way to work almost half the muscles in your body—your hamstrings and back especially. But if you can’t hold onto the bar, it’s hard to benefit. Here are a few tips especially for deadlift newbies about how to make sure your hands aren’t your weakest link.
Consider which way your hands are facing
If you don’t think about it too much, you’ll probably grab the deadlift bar with your palms both facing toward your body. This is called a “double overhand” grip, and it’s actually one of the toughest ways to hold the bar when it gets heavy.
The problem with this grip is that as the bar pulls downward, your fingers will extend away from your palm. And the more your fingers extend, the more the bar can roll downward. If the bar is heavier than what your fingers can easily hold, the bar will eventually roll right out of your hand.
Stop this by using an alternate grip: one hand’s palm is facing you, and the other palm is facing away. The bar will want to roll in one direction as your right hand fatigues, but in the other direction as your left hand fatigues. As a result, the bar goes nowhere.
Which hand should be which? I recommend switching it up. I prefer to have my right hand overhand, so I do most of my warmup sets the opposite way, and switch to my preferred grip for my heaviest sets of the day.
Learn to hook grip
If you tuck your thumb underneath your fingers, it becomes nearly impossible for the bar to break your grip open. This is the hook grip, used routinely by Olympic lifters for the snatch and clean. It’s also handy for any heavy lift, although a warning: it hurts like hell.
With heavy weights, you’re pinching your thumb between your fingers and the bar. If there’s aggressive knurling (texture) on the bar, so much the worse. I know lifters who swear by the hook grip, and others who can’t stand it. If you’d like to try, here is an illustrated article explaining it in depth. You can also tape your thumbs to reduce the pain a bit.
Chalk absorbs some of the sweat that can make a bar slippery, and makes it a lot easier to hold onto. It’s commonplace in powerlifting and olympic lifting gyms, and absent (or even banned) in many commercial gyms. Liquid chalk is a good option if you have to sneak it in.
Use straps, depending on your goals
Lifting straps come in various styles, but they all do a similar job. You attach them to your wrists, and then wrap the straps around the bar, starting on the side that faces away from your palm. (Here’s a video showing what I mean.) With straps, you don’t have to worry about your grip at all; the strap takes care of everything.
Straps are controversial in the lifting world, not because there’s any inherent problem with them, but because a certain breed of gym bro will insist that if you can’t lift a weight without straps, you have no business lifting it at all.
This is clearly bullshit. If your back and legs require a 140kg deadlift to challenge them, but your grip can only handle 90kg, should you really forget about training half your body just because your grip hasn’t caught up yet? What purpose would that possibly serve?
Instead, use straps when using them will get you closer to your goals than not using them. If you’re using an appropriate grip (like alternate grip) and still can’t get through your deadlift sets, you need stronger hands. So perhaps you’ll do grip exercises, including farmer’s walks and as many of your deadlift warmup sets as you can, without straps. And then you’ll bring the straps out when you don’t want your grip strength to limit you.
For example, I don’t have any issues with my grip on max deadlift sets, but my coaches have instructed me to use straps on high rep sets of Romanian deadlifts. That’s because those aren’t meant to be grip exercises and they want me to go into the following workout with my hands feeling fresh. It’s all about your goals.
If you compete, consider your federation’s rules. In powerlifting, you only get credit for what you can lift without straps, so you have to figure out how to train for that. In strongman competitions, straps may be allowed, so deadlift grip may not an issue for you. And if you’re just lifting to build strength and you don’t care about competing, lift however the heck you want.