Should you use weight lifting straps?
The subject of this blog – the use of straps in weight training and powerlifting – can be a controversial one. So who better to ask than one of the best-known names in the sport, Andy Bolton. Seven times WPC World Champion and the strongest British and European powerlifter ever, Andy holds the Guinness World Record for being the first person to ever deadlift over 1,0001bs (see our blog on: CMS has a chat with Andy Bolton).
Some of the best personal trainers, group fitness instructors and fitness instructors working with clients who want to increase the weight they can lift should ensure that they are informed about the benefits – and the drawbacks – of using straps in training.
The benefits of using straps in a deadlift
Without straps, Andy says, a deadlifter is solely dependent on finger and thumb strength. Also, you have to start “the pull” slowly, so that the bar does not slip.
With straps, you can start your lift with maximum speed and power, allowing you to increase force production earlier and complete the lift quicker.
Additional considerations when using straps
However, there are some considerations that weight lifters and their personal trainers or instructors should be aware of when using straps.
If you deadlift with straps, Andy recommends that you use a double-overhand grip. Why? This will dramatically decrease the stress on the bicep so you are less likely to rupture or damage it.
Although this is a weaker grip – and without straps you are a lot more likely to drop the bar – the use of straps will prevent the bar from slipping. This is especially true when you are using “figure eight straps”, which literally tie your hands to the bar.
In addition, because of the position your hand will be in during a double-overhand grip (knuckles facing down, as if punching the floor), it requires your shoulders to be further over the bar, which means your hips will be higher. This slight change in your starting position can both alter your technique (not always for the better) and also place more stress on the hamstrings.
To compensate, there should be a short-term reduction in the amount of weight you lift until your hamstrings have adapted to the additional stress placed on them, otherwise it could result in injury.
As only using straps can be detrimental, Andy warns that you should not use straps for every set that you deadlift. Instead, perform your warm up sets without straps and continue without straps until your grip starts to fail. Then, if needed, start using straps. Over time your grip will become stronger and you will still be able to overload the larger muscles.
Using straps as a powerlifter
Powerlifters are not allowed to use straps in competition. As a result, Andy suggests that it makes sense to train without them, as this will help you increase your grip strength as well as your major deadlifting muscles.
The idea of using straps so you can “overload” your major deadlifting muscles and therefore lift more will not work, because once you go back to lifting without straps your grip will not be strong enough.
Using straps for “strong man” training
Many people equate powerlifting with “strong man” competitions but, as Andy points out, they have different training requirements. In a strong man deadlifting event, the event is designed to test the strength and power of the posterior kinetic chain only, rather than the whole movement of the deadlift itself (posterior kinetic chain and grip).
As a result, competitors in strong-man events are allowed to use straps and so will therefore train with them, to familiarise themselves with their use and to limit the chance of a poor performance.
Using straps for body building
Body builders might use straps in pulling exercises, such as the deadlift, pull ups and seated rows.
Because body building is all about working the prime mover and causing hypertrophy to occur, a bodybuilder is less concerned with grip strength. Instead, they want to overload the prime mover without having to worry about their grip strength, which is why straps can be a useful training tool.
Straps for beginners
In Andy’s view, this is a categorical no. Beginners may be swayed by seeing straps advertised as “the official lifting straps” of the World’s Strongest Man competition and believe that this is what they need to improve at the deadlift.
However, Andy points out that all this promotes is a dependence on the use of straps, as well as other bad techniques such as “hitching” – using a shrug-like motion to lift the weight. Andy says that these techniques are only used by professionals in competitions because they are lifting their maximum or above. A beginner needs to understand that many years of perfecting their training techniques without straps will be required before progressing on to these advanced “cheat techniques”.
He also says that using straps as a beginner will only hinder progress: the deadlift exercise itself should train your grip strength adequately and, as you increase the poundage, your grip strength should also increase.
However if you are a beginner struggling to keep a grip on the bar – or a personal trainer working with a beginner – one option is to use a hook grip. This is where you wrap your fingers around the bar and “lock” your thumb over the index and middle finger. With practice this can result in a very strong overhand grip that won’t stress the bicep.
In conclusion, while straps can be a useful training aid for weightlifting, there are occasions when Andy Bolton would not recommend their use.
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