Lifting straps are about the most cost effective of all training gear but there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on their proper use. If they are used wisely, they can be of great value to just about anyone training with weights.
Basically, lifting straps are made of strong fabric and are sewn or bolted on one end in a loop that fits around your wrist. The other end extends out for several inches. This end is wrapped around the bar and held inside your fist. Some of the weight is held by the wraps around the wrist, sharing the load with the hands. Of the two styles, I have experienced better durability with sewn straps. Since they’re inexpensive, you can afford to experiment with different types. Some straps also vary in the lengths of the end that is wrapped around the bar. Again, experiment.
Their main purpose is to assist in gripping a weight that would otherwise be too heavy to hold for the period of time that it takes to perform an exercise, eliminating gripping power as the weak link. Their most common use is for back work such as pull-downs, row, chins, deadlifts, and shrugs. There are other subtle benefits to them that I’ll deal with later. They are also controversial. Some experts feel they hinder development of gripping strength so necessary in many sports, as they are used as a crutch by weak gripped lifters.
Since back exercises are lifting strap’s main beneficiaries, I’ll examine some back moves for their application. Let’s say that you incorporate one arm dumbbell rows for lats. You start with a dumbbell that you have no problem holding on to, but as your lats and arms increase in size and strength, the heavier dumbbells you must use. This could cause you to have problems holding on to the dumbbell. Your lats are capable of 8 reps, but you can only hold on for 2 or 3 reps (this means you may have to interrupt the set every few reps to re-grip the weight). That takes away a lot of the intensity and concentration from the movement. Here, using straps would solve the problem. Using straps for these heavy sets would now enable you to get the whole set in and allow further increases in rowing strength.
Shrugs are prime strap candidates too. The weights used here are relatively massive and using straps would enable the lifter to hold on to big weights and not worry about grip. Chins benefit too, as would pull-downs. Many powerlifters can deadlift more with straps than without because they can’t hold on to the weight. However, the use of straps in competition is not allowed. Partial deadlifts in the power rack can use straps because on these, the weights can far surpass your gripping strength. You can hang from the chinning bar and do leg raises for the abs at high reps without your grip being the limiting factor.
One day when I was in the gym, a member asked the instructor why when he did back work, he pumped up his arms more than his back. Putting my two cents in, I suggested using straps. The subtle benefit of using straps for back exercises is that it can actually decrease the use of the biceps in many back exercises. By connecting the straps to the bar or handle, you lessen the involvement of your grip. This can result in less use of the biceps and forearms and allocate more of the movement or work to pulling the elbows down or back which is the direct function of the back muscles. If a lifter concentrates on pulling with the elbows and less with the arms, this connection can be further accentuated, thus more stimulation for the back and less for the arms. Arthur Jones, of Nautilus Fame, was one of the first to discuss the isolation of the back muscles in back work. Bypassing the use of the smaller, weaker arms muscles with straps can achieve this goal, of course to a limited extent, but much more inexpensively. Straps can be ‘high tech’. What will they think of next?
The fear of some experts
that using straps can hinder development of grip strength does have some
merit. If you overuse straps, you probably won’t develop more gripping
strength and you may lessen it. My suggestion is to use it only on
sets of exercises where your grip would prevent you from using the amount
of weight you could use. Start off the lighter sets without straps,
but on the max sets you should use them. However, I do feel that
using them on extremely heavy weights will add some strength to your grip
because of the overload and your ability to now hold on to those big weights
for complete sets. If you’re a powerlifter and you have trouble holding
on to your deadlifts, do most of your sets without straps. Some deadlifts
with straps are okay if they help develop your pull, but their overuse
won’t help come meet day. Since bodybuilders don’t really care about
grip strength, they can use them more, but I still recommend limiting their
use to heavy sets. Their constant use will take away from forearm
development necessary for a complete muscular development. I hope
I have shed a little light on the benefits and proper use of lifting straps
in training. They are an extremely cost effective tool that just
about every weight trainer can incorporate. Use them thoughtfully
and your training will be in ‘good hands’.