Weight Lifting Straps: What They Are, When and Why to Use Them
In my most recent article in WODTalk Magazine, I discussed the “hook grip.” Since I have been on the subject of holding onto the bar quite a bit lately both in articles and with my own athletes, this month I want to talk about grabbing and holding on to the bar with straps. I will also discuss what they are and why and when to use them.
I remember when I first learned how to use straps. I had a good friend show me - over and over again. I had to take them apart completely each time, loop each strap together properly (right and left), slide my wrists through them correctly each time, approach the bar and grab the bar, wrap the bar, unwrap from the bar, and repeat. Yes, over and over again. This is exactly how I teach others. You have to get used to straps first and it takes time. There is a right way to prepare straps for the wrists and to wrap them around the bar so I recommend that every lifter learn this first. Second, it is important to practice these seemingly simple tasks every chance you get as they can be deceivingly complicated at first. I promise, it will become second nature before you know it.
Straps - What Are They?
Straps are approximately 1" to 1-1/2" wide, 12" to 18" long, and made out of leather, canvas, or nylon. I personally prefer leather. While canvas and nylon tend not to bend out of shape as much as leather does, I do prefer a little give as I use these also for cleans. In a clean, a little give allows for more bend in the wrists, whereas a more rigid material strains the wrist. However, most people are not comfortable cleaning with straps and until they are I do not encourage their use. Using them primarily for pull variations or off the blocks, any of these materials are just as good as the others in my opinion.
Coach’s Note: Speaking of the “hook grip,” it is not necessary to use one when using straps.
The Purpose of Straps
The purpose of straps is to allow the lifter to focus only on the pull portion of the lifts versus focusing on the grip. While there seems to be much debate over their use for this reason, I will say, yes, you are correct - we do neglect the grip, but we do so on purpose. There are plenty of other opportunities to strengthen the grip but for now, my goal is to get a lifter to concentrate on their pull without worrying about doing them incorrectly due to a weak grip.
And, grips do weaken. Think about your common every day weightlifting workout. You might go from cleans to snatches, to hang cleans, to jerks and over time, the grip gets tired. No matter what the lifter’s program may entail, there is always the risk of sacrificing form as fatigue sets in. With poor form comes injury. Hence the powerful benefit of strap use. We can now use and/or maintain heavier weights than your grip can handle as it gets tired while not sacrificing form as a result and therefore preventing injury.
When to Use Straps
Straps are used with all pull portions of the two Olympic lifts - the clean and jerk and the snatch. Primary use is for pulls from the blocks. The purpose of the blocks is to break down the two lifts into their individual portions and/or segments. We can stack blocks at different heights to practice each position/placement along the motion of the bar, eliminating some elements of the full pull and concentrating on the lift at each individual stage of the pull. Straps serve the purpose of keeping the grip strong and secure so that the bar does not slip. In the pull portion, the lifter creates a tremendous amount of power output and straps keep the bar secure in the lifters hands. When a bar slips, form is lost and the pull fails.
I do not encourage the use of straps for cleans or snatches as using them for actual lifts takes a lot of time to learn and can be dangerous if not done properly. The last thing you want to do is catch a heavy clean or snatch with a wrist caught incorrectly in a strap. More than that, the previous concern over grip strength is relevant here.
Using straps for cleans can give a lifter a false sense of security and trick the nervous system into thinking it can match the weight when in fact the lifter does not have the strength to do so. When the hook grip does this, it is one thing. The hook grip can be used any time and on both Olympic lifts so there isn’t anything false about it. Straps cannot be used at all times. This is where the grip does need to be strong standing on its own. Building confidence is one thing, but a broken or sprained wrist is quite another. I personally am okay with more advanced lifters using straps for power cleans but even so, I tell them to wrap the strap around the bar only once for a quick release in the case of a failed catch.
My advice for using straps:
- Beginning Lifters: Do not use straps for at least 3 months until you have developed grip strength first.
- Intermediate Lifters: Use straps in warm-up sessions on various pulls and deadlifts only. Always use them off the blocks.
- Advanced lifters: Do not use straps 1-2 weeks out from competition.
Belt up, strap on, lift safe, train well!
Photographs provided by Katie Chasey.