Lifting Straps - Eliminate Your Weakest Link
How to cinch up lifting straps: under, around and then over the barbell, with the excess curled by the thumb
During my competitive career as a powerlifter, I got a lot of grief for using canvas lifting straps. I came to powerlifting from Olympic weightlifting where everyone used lifting straps. The vast majority of powerlifters did not use lifting straps, nor would they ever use straps, viewing straps as an impediment to “building the grip.”
Weightlifters understood that in the hands of an expert weightlifting straps enables the lifter to perform more reps. Extra reps with barbells and dumbbells means additional muscle and strength, additional muscle and strength enable a lifter to break through to new levels of physique and performance. Why would you purposefully avoid that?
To activate the back muscles a payload must be pulled in one of three ways: upward, inward, or downward. Upward pulling back exercises include cleans, power cleans, snatches, power snatches, shrugs, and upright rowing. The inward pull (the payload is at arms-length and pulled to the torso) is used in rowing: barbell and dumbbell bent-over rowing, Dorian Yates 70-degree reverse-grip rows, seated cable rows, any type of machine row. Downward pulling back exercises can either occur when the payload is pulled to the torso, as in a lat pulldown or when the body is pulled upward towards the stationary pull-up bar.
I advise using lifting straps for all back exercises: upward, inward, and downward. Strap up and squeeze out extra growth-producing reps. Straps allow the experienced lifter to turn a single rep max into a triple, a triple into a five-rep set, a five-rep set into a set of eight reps, an eight-rep set into a ten-rep set, etc.
The beauty of lifting straps in back work is they take the grip out of the equation. This allows the much stronger back muscles to keep working when the weakest link in the chain (the grip) fails. All back exercises are grip limited. A gifted few, like Ed Coan, Mark Chaillet, Bobby Myers, and Richard Sorin have monster hands and vice-like grips. Others of us, like me, have normal grips. Others are genetically (like Fred Hatfield) challenged with weak grips.
I never lost a deadlift in competition because of grip: my gripping power was always equal to, or more than, my deadlift ability. The universal retort, the complaint against strap use, was that using lifting straps eliminated an opportunity to “build the grip.” It also ignored an opportunity to build the back.
If your grip is lagging, if you are losing limit singles because your grip gives out, then by all means, stay limited to whatever your subpar grip will allow. This in the hopes that someday your weak grip will improve. Meanwhile, my grip is fine, and I want an opportunity to overload my back muscles. I want to keep a set going without having to curtail the set because the grip failed. If my back muscles can keep repping, I want them to keep rolling.
Another problem: there is a strap learning curve. It takes practice and repetition to be able to strap-in easily and effectively. It takes patient practice to learn how to cinch yourself to a barbell. You start with a strap dangling around each wrist. Cinch the weak arm with help from the dominant hand. Immediately the dominant hand cinches itself securely to the bar. Powerlifters that fumble when cinching into a deadlift lose psyche and focus. Being bent over while trying to cinch straps is uncomfortable and awkward.
Learn how to use lifting straps while standing or seated: learn how to strap in quick and easy on lat pulldowns, chins, pullups, seated rows – not deadlifts, or exercises where you are bent over and uncomfortable while trying awkwardly to cinch straps. Take your time, and get your strap learning done on lat pulldowns, seated machine rows, chins, etc. The easiest way to become facile using lifting straps is to get in plenty of reps on the easy stuff. Start barbell work by strapping in for shrugs and upright rows. Add dumbbell rows, T-Bar rows, barbell rows and Dorian 70-degree rows; all produce more reps and better results using straps.
When you become adept strapping yourself in on the other stuff, try deadlifting, not before. You need to be able to cinch into a deadlift in less than 5-seconds. When strapping in becomes a non-event the muscle and strength gains begin. The more you use lifting straps the more you understand just how far past capacity you can push yourself when strapped in.
Imagine the muscle-building strength-infusing difference between an elite middleweight powerlifter deadlifting 550-pounds for 3 reps without lifting straps, all his grip will allow. If he straps up, he will pull 550 x 5 reps. Imagine how much strength and power those two extra reps provide? Why would you throw those unrealized gains from extra reps away?
Every serious progressive resistance trainer needs a set of lifting straps and needs to wear them continually on back training day: there is not a back exercise you can name that cannot be done better using straps to create additional reps.
I have said before that I think the two biggest coaching mistakes of my career were not shifting young Kirk Karwoski to an Ed Coan-Style, gorilla-stance sumo deadlift technique. That, and not insisting Kirk become strap-fluent.
At his peak, Kirk had 33-inch thighs and a 37-inch waist: his legs were so big that though he used a classical, Maryland-style conventional deadlift stance, his huge legs caused his stance width to be halfway between a narrow conventional stance and wide sumo stance – and not for the better. Kirk had the strongest legs in the world - and we never really harassed his unrivalled quad power in the deadlift.
Kirk used a lot of back in his deadlifts and that, to me was tragic. When you watch Ed Coan deadlift his historic 900, you see that he harnesses all the horsepower his 1,000-pound legs can muster. Coan totally involves his legs in the pull. Not so much with Kirk Too much forward bend for the guy with the strongest legs in the world. I should have had him open his stance and become strap proficient.
Kirk had grip problems – which we solved by having him pull faster. Whereas Mark Challiet could fight a deadlift like Hemingway landing a sailfish, Karwoski (and normal humans) could not. Kirk sidestepped struggle by developing an explosive pull. Instead of a normal lifter’s 3-second pull from floor to lockout, or a 5-second epic struggle deadlift, Kirk, at his peak, was pulling competition deadlifts to lockout in 1.5 seconds.
In the mid-1990s Kirk deadlifted 800 x 3 and 830 x 1 the following week. I think he could have sumo deadlifted 900-pounds had we harnessed his incredible leg strength and overloaded his back at the start of his incredible career. It is all academic.
Lifting straps are an essential tool. Straps are the back-training equivalent of a squat rack for legs, or a flat bench with uprights for bench pressing. If you are not using straps in your back training, you are throwing away gains in physique and performance. Period. No ifs, ands or buts. They are cheap and result-producing and there really is no excuse for not becoming strap proficient.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.