Deadlifts are one of the biggest lifts you’re likely to ever do in the gym, because your butt and back and legs contain some of the strongest muscles in the human body. With their powers combined, you can move a lot of iron. But there’s a weak link, for many of us: Our grip.
This is where straps come in. You simply wrap a piece of tough fabric around the bar, and your grip is no longer an obstacle. But this leads to controversy. If you can’t hold onto that heavy bar, is it really fair to say you can lift it? Then again, if your body is strong enough to get the deadlift bar off the ground, is it really fair to let your puny hands hold you back?
Let’s look up the rules
To determine if something is cheating, we need to decide what rules apply. Let’s look up the rules for the two sports where deadlifts are most notably contested: Powerlifting and strongman.
In powerlifting, straps are not legal. (Here is the USAPL rulebook, for example: There’s a list of allowable “personal equipment” starting on page 18, and it does not include straps.) Check out this video of the world record holders in each weight class as of the time the video was made: None of them are pulling with straps.
But in strongman, they often are. (The rules for strongman aren’t standardised, so there’s no consistent rulebook, but promoters typically do allow straps on most deadlifts.) Here is Lucy Underdown pulling 300 kilograms for a recent record; you can see her put straps around the bar before she settles in and begins to pull.
If you’re on your own in the gym, though, nobody is following you around with a rulebook, so you have to make the decision on your own.
What are the pros and cons of using straps in the gym?
The downside of straps is that they don’t challenge your grip. If you always used straps for pulling exercises, you might not ever see your grip get stronger. For that reason, many lifters avoid using straps at all. If they can’t grip a weight, they won’t lift it.
The upside of straps is exactly the same as their downside: They let your gripping muscles take a break. This may allow you to lift heavier with straps than without, or to do more reps without worrying about your grip fatiguing.
Most competitors, in both strongman and powerlifting, do some of their training with straps and some without. But if you don’t intend to compete and just want to get stronger in the gym, you can do whatever you like — including always or never using straps, depending on your preference.
How to get the best of both worlds
To be a well-rounded strong person, you’ll probably want to use straps sometimes. Here’s what I recommend:
- When you’re doing deadlifts, do as many as you can without straps.
- If your grip fatigues before you’re done, use straps as needed to finish the workout.
- If you’ll be doing high rep sets of something that you know will fatigue your grip, consider using straps. (For example, Romanian deadlifts or rows.)
- Do grip workouts afterward (or on separate days), because dedicated training will help your grip become stronger. We have a guide to improving your deadlift grip here.
This is pretty much what I do. I don’t use straps for lifts that I am practicing to competition standards (like a deadlift, or a snatch) but I do keep a pair in my gym bag to use for overload work (like heavy rack pulls) or high rep work (like Romanian deadlifts in sets of 10). I also do grip workouts on the regular, and as a result my deadlift strength has gone up over the years, and my grip has gotten stronger. If you use them right, straps are a great training tool.