Overhand, mixed, hook grip or straps?
The deadlift is often considered to be among those few holy movement archetypes that everyone should be doing. The mothership of all hip and back building. I agree. And while most seem to be in agreement that it's a good idea to perform this movement with a stable and neutral back, style of grip remains more elusive. You'll see different gripping styles and accessories used, and I often receive questions as to what I'd recommend. So let's get to it!
photo by @wearebru
Double overhand grip
Most of us will set up for a deadlift with both palms facing towards the body (double overhand). It feels solid, and allows one to 'break the bar' with the hands in order to help stabilize the upper body. However, the problem is that in most people the forearms are relatively unresponsive to exercise, and thus quickly become a limiting factor when lifting heavier weights. In this gripping style the barbell will tend to roll backwards and sag into the weakest point of the grip. This not only limits power transfer from the hips into the bar due to the opening hands, but it also causes many to hunch forward in order to try and push the bar against their legs in search of extra support. This is obviously a problem, so let's talk alternatives.
The first alternative involves gripping the bar with one palm facing away and one palm facing towards the body: the mixed grip. This hand positioning prevents the bar from rolling backwards and easily allows for up to 50% of extra weight to be held. However, the asymmetry is often a point of worry.
I believe that when doing conventional deadlifts with a proper abdominal brace the rotation will be limited to the shoulder girdle only, and that any asymmetry is negated by all the upper body work that is usually performed symmetrically. Going sumo changes the game however, because the supinated (palm facing away) hand will have to move in between the barbell and the leg, which can cause the barbell to drift towards the overhand gripping side. I think that mixing up the mixed grip (ba-dum tss) either each set or each workout will solve the symmetry issue, but there are some more options.
As always there is that deal with the devil that promises everything good. In this case: the hook grip. In this gripping style the index, middle (and possibly) ring fingers are wrapped over instead of under the thumb, which makes for an incredibly solid grip. The caveat? It hurts. Like hell. It is however the preferred technique by olympic weight lifters who can't risk not being able to fully transfer all power into the barbell.
While most can make it work for those quick and low-rep olympic lifts, I have only met a few lifters throughout the years who would pull slow deadlifts for maxes or high reps with this grip. If you're one of those Calvinists who can make it work: power to you. But I won't hold it against you if you decide that burning hamstrings are enough punishment for the day.
Straps and chalk - are they cheating?
Chalk absorbs the sweat in your palms and increases your grip strength, making sure that you are properly connected to the barbell and able to apply maximum force. Need I say more? A little tip: don't forget to chalk the outside of the tips of your index fingers, because this is where the incredibly important thumb locks down.
Then there's the question of using lifting straps. These little strips of cloth essentially absolve you from the need of having any grip strength. While I get it that some have reservations regarding their use, I think they have a place. Especially when doing something like aforementioned sumo deadlifts, or when pulling heavy partial deadlifts that may over-challenge your grip. As long as you don't use them unnecessarily for exercises like pulldowns or rows, grip strength should get plenty of work.
When to use what
My general advice regarding gripping style in deadlifts is this: do all your warmups with a double overhand grip until your hands give out, and then switch to a mixed grip in order to make sure your back and legs will be challenged for the day as well. When doing sumo or heavy partial pulls, don't be afraid to throw in the occasional straps in order to get the work in. Muscle tissue buildup in the forearms is very low, so grip strength is usually slow and hard to improve. It would be a shame to let your leg and back gains pay the price for that.