Deadlift Muscles Worked: Grip Function and TrainingNo matter what we want to lift, carry, grip, or hold, our hands have to keep up with our strength. But don't worry. If you have been doing your deadlifts properly, you've already been training your grip. Here, we'll talk about some ways to keep training your grip without limiting your deadlift progress.
Deadlift Muscles Worked: Grip Function and Training
While most gym time is spent building the large, powerful muscles of the legs, hips, trunk, and upper body, your grip is potentially the biggest impediment to translating that strength to the everyday tasks of life. Outside the gym, using strength often begins with the large, powerful muscles, but it ends with force being transferred to something in our hands. No matter what we want to lift, carry, grip, or hold, our hands have to keep up with our strength. But don’t worry. If you have been doing your deadlifts properly, you’ve already been training your grip. Here, we’ll talk about some ways to keep training your grip without limiting your deadlift progress.
At some point—usually sooner than later—back and leg strength will outpace grip strength in the deadlift. The reason why is simple: whereas the back, hips, and legs contain most of your body’s muscle mass, there are only a few relatively small muscles in your hand and forearm that contribute to grip strength. The flexor digitorum superficialis and profundus muscles flex or “curl” your fingers (“digitorum” refers to your digits or fingers). The muscles that flex your thumb are the flexor pollicis brevis and pongus (“pollicis” refers to the thumb). These muscles are extrinsic to the hand, meaning their muscle bellies are located on your forearm. There are some muscles intrinsic to your hand that contribute to grip strength as well, but they are smaller and dedicated to fine motor functions rather than blunt gripping force. Developing a strong grip is more about function—coordinated force production—than training individual muscles. So, when our deadlift strength starts to rip the bar out of our hands, how do we make the coordinated force production of these muscles more efficient and stronger?
Well, we don’t. At least not directly. The way we progressively overload the big muscles of the body doesn’t work as well on small muscles, like those involved in our grip. So, we cannot improve our grip with a simple progression, which means our standard, double-overhand grip will not keep up with our deadlift strength no matter what we do. So, first, we need to change our deadlift grip to allow the lift to progress.
There are three different types of unassisted grips we typically use for deadlifting. The standard grip (also called a double-overhand grip) is the one in which both hands face your body. When you grip the bar this way, the bar is attempting to open your fingers by rolling out of your hands. Your muscles must contract isometrically to prevent that from happening.
A more secure grip than double overhand is a “mixed grip.” For a mixed grip, you supinate one hand, turning it outward. This balances the “rolling” action of the barbell; as the bar attempts to roll out of one hand, it rolls into the other. This means that the only force trying to open your hand is the force of gravity pulling straight down on the bar. While this is much more secure than a standard grip, we often do not prescribe it for lifters because of the inherent asymmetry. When a hand is supinated, it moves away from the body. This is known as a “carry angle” (try it and watch your arm naturally hang farther away from your body), and this distance varies from person to person: the greater the carry angle, the more pronounced the asymmetrical loading on the body. The pronated hand can be moved out to try to reduce this asymmetry, but this results in the bar being lifted higher, which is more work—obviously a compromise. Supinating a hand may also compromise the efficient action of the latissimus dorsi, often leading to the bar “drifting” away from the legs on that side. Still, the mixed grip is a good grip for competitive lifters who struggle with a hook grip.
A hook grip is a friction grip. You place your thumb against the back of the bar and trap it there by wrapping your fingers around it. The security of this grip comes from the friction coefficient between the fingers and the thumb, with your thumb being squished and structurally preventing your fingers from opening. This is a powerful grip that can take some time to get used to. It is an excellent grip for heavy deadlifts but not the best for training your grip strength because it relies so heavily on friction.
The amount of force you can produce with your grip depends on the security of the grip itself. There is an inverse relationship between how secure your grip feels and how much gripping force you produce, meaning you can grip a lot more forcefully with a double overhand grip than a mixed or hook grip. The more secure your grip, the better you can train your deadlift, but the less forcefully you have to use your gripping muscles to hold on to the bar.
How to Train Your Grip
This means you should consciously train your grip strength once you change your deadlift grip for your work sets. The first and best way to do this is to continue to use a double overhand grip for all the warm-up sets that you can. Your grip strength should not limit your deadlift training, but just because you hook grip your work sets does not mean you should hook grip your warm-up sets as well.
Use a double overhand grip for as long as possible on your warm-up sets. As your deadlift progresses, your warm-up sets will get heavier as well. This can provide enough stimulus to continue training your grip alongside your deadlift.
Dedicated Grip Training
Some sports and hobbies require extra grip strength, and some people just want to develop an impressive grip. If you need dedicated grip training, you will likely need to use assistance lifts. Here, instability is your friend. Axle bar deadlifts and presses prioritize grip strength. Using a fat bar for pull-ups will also tax your grip and force your muscles to work harder. The increased force production here comes from the insecurity of gripping the extra diameter of the bar.
Dedicated grip training should follow the same rules for programming assistance work as any other weakness training. While there are specific tasks for which you might want to train your grip, you should focus on general strength of the muscles first. Many grip training enthusiasts will identify three types of grips—a crushing grip, a pinching grip, and a supporting grip—and while these represent different orientations of your fingers, they involve the same muscles. As always, exercise selection should progress from general to specific, and basic training principles apply. You must require your grip to resist greater and greater forces to get stronger, whether from more weight or instability and harder work.