Articles


An Examination of Control of the Supine Hand in a Heavy Deadlift

by Mia Inman, PhD, SSC | July 31, 2019

In heavy deadlifts, the limiting factor in being able to complete the lift is often the ability of the lifter to hold onto the bar. It is fairly well known that what the hands can’t hold, the back won’t lift. A double-overhand grip is useful for lighter weights, but when the weight increases on the bar, the lifter has the option of switching to a hook grip, an alternate grip (sometimes known as a mixed grip), or straps. The latter is not permitted for strengthlifting or powerlifting competitions, and is not relevant here. A hook grip, while more secure than a double-overhand grip, can be painful and is less often used, especially by novice lifters who are unprepared for this added degree of discomfort.

An alternate grip, the subject of this article, uses a prone grip for one hand and a supine grip for the other. The advantage of using this grip is that while the bar may try to roll out of the fingers of the prone hand, it is rolling into the fingers of the supine hand, or vice versa. Very heavy deadlifts have been successfully completed using this style of grip, whereas they would have failed with a double-overhand grip. (The hook grip has also been used successfully for heavy deadlifts, but is not the subject of this article.)

While the alternate grip improves the lifter’s ability to hold onto the bar and complete the lift, there are disadvantages to this technique. One disadvantage is the asymmetry that is introduced at the shoulders, as a result of one arm (supine hand) being in external rotation, and the other arm (prone hand) being in internal rotation. This asymmetry causes the muscles that control the shoulder and arm to be loaded at different levels of tension, and this asymmetry translates back to the spine and hips, causing asymmetrical stresses along the segments and at the joints.

Furthermore, there is a tendency of the supine hand to drift away from the legs and forward of the mid-foot in an alternate grip deadlift. This forward drift of the bar introduces an unnecessary moment arm into the barbell-lifter system, which takes energy to counter and thus detracts from the objective of pulling the weight vertically from the ground to the lockout position. This moment arm can pull the lifter’s body forward off balance, causing a missed lift. Furthermore, since this unnecessary moment arm is lopsided, occurring preferentially on the supine hand side, this exacerbates the asymmetries within the lifter’s body.

We believe that this problem is multi-factorial, and this article will examine possible explanations for why it occurs and cues that might be useful for countering this tendency. The discussion below is speculative in nature, and tries to understand and explain this problem from the perspectives of anatomy and physics.

Basic Mechanics

The ideal bar path in a deadlift is one that is vertical over the mid-foot (the balance point of the lifter-barbell system) from the floor to the lockout position. This requires an initial setup position that places the bar over the mid-foot, and pulling mechanics that maintain that horizontal position with respect to the mid-foot during vertical movement of the bar. This has been discussed at length in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition as well as articles and videos  and will be briefly summarized here.

In order to lift the most weight, the lift must be as efficient as possible. This means that we strive to only apply effort directly against the force of gravity against the bar, which is always vertical. Any energy expended in moving the bar or controlling body position horizontally cannot be applied to lifting the bar vertically off the ground. Therefore, the bar must be placed over the mid-foot, which is the balance point of the human body when standing, and maintained over the position during the following steps:

  1. Stand with your feet under the bar and the bar 1” from the shins.
  2. With stiff knees, reach down and grab the bar just outside your legs.
  3. Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar, putting the shins at a slight angle, with shoulders slightly ahead of the bar, so that the arms are angled back at 7-10 degrees and the bar is under the scapula.
  4. Take a big breath, brace your torso, drop your belly down between your thighs and squeeze the chest up to flatten the back and take the slack out of the bar.
  5. Push the floor away and drag the bar up the legs, maintaining a flat back.

It is critical to keep the bar in contact with the legs during the entire pull to maintain the bar directly over the mid-foot. Any drift of the bar away from the legs requires energy expended to pull the bar back and/or stop the body from falling over. This requires the application of sufficient force to maintain the bar position against the legs and, importantly, equal force applied to the bar against both legs to prevent the bar leaving the leg on one side (Figure 1).

optimal situation in pull
Figure 1. Optimal situation – shoulder extension force applied on both prone (red) and supine (green) sides is equal and greater than the gravitational moment force applied around the shoulder. [Click figure to enlarge]

To the uninitiated, it might seem that a vertical arm angle would be the most conducive to maintaining a vertical pull off the floor, as an arm angle other than vertical will result in a moment force around the shoulder joint due to the effect of gravity being expressed vertically down the length of the arm. This moment force will try to move the arm to a vertical position, so why not employ a vertical arm in the first place?

If the bar is over the mid-foot and the arm is vertical, almost all of the lifter’s body is behind the bar with the body's Center of Mass (COM) over the heels, making for an inefficient pull. The only way to maintain balance over the mid-foot is to drop the hips and bend the knees further forward, and this would push the bar forward of the mid-foot. This would introduce an unnecessary moment arm expressed along vertically down the entire length of the body with the foot being the point of rotation. At light weights, you may be able to get away with such inefficiencies; at heavy weights, this position cannot be maintained, and the hips will shift upward and the shoulders will shift forward.

Instead, we begin with a higher hip position with slightly angled shins and shoulders just ahead of the bar. We can overcome the moment around the shoulder joint, expressed vertically down the arm, by applying shoulder extension force to the humerus. The muscles contributing to shoulder extension are the latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoids and triceps, with most of the force coming from the latissimus dorsi. The latissimus dorsi (or “lats”) originate along the spinous processes of the inferior six thoracic vertebrae (T7-T12), the lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5), the iliac crest, and ninth to twelfth ribs, and inserts on the intertubercular (bicipital) groove near the head of the humerus. A detailed mechanical analysis in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition (Figures 4-25 and 4-26) shows that positioning the shoulders just ahead of the bar such that the arms are angled back slightly, with the bar over the midfoot and shins against the bar, aligns the muscular and skeletal system such that the latissimus dorsi are pulling on the humerus at a 90 degree angle, producing the most shoulder extension force.

For the barbell to maintain contact with both legs, the forces acting on either side of the body must be equal. In a double-overhand or hook grip, where both shoulders and arms such that both hands are prone, this is relatively easy to manage, assuming that the shoulders are in the correct position just forward of the bar. However, in an alternate grip deadlift, the supine hand has demonstrated a tendency to drift forward of the shins. This implies that there is an unequal force distribution pulling back on the bar on either side, i.e. the prone-side is applying a greater shoulder extension force than the supine side.

This article discusses a number of possible reasons for this commonly observed phenomenon; these reasons may be acting individually or in concert to produce this undesirable effect. Each aspect of this multi-factorial effect will be discussed individually and possible solutions to address these issues will be given. Let me say at the outset that I do not know the distribution of how each factor impacts the ability to keep the bar against the legs, nor the degree of magnification by multiplication of the factors. Might I suggest that this would make an excellent dissertation topic for a graduate student.

Effect of a First Class Lever

It is possible, for reasons that will be explained below, that the shoulder extension force on supine-side of the body is simply insufficient to counter the gravitational moment force trying to make the arms vertical. However, it is also likely that the shoulder extension force on the prone-side of the body is higher than the shoulder extension force on the supine-side of the body. This difference in force production between the two sides creates a 1st Class Lever, with the bar contact point against the prone-side shin being the fulcrum (Figure 2). More force applied on the prone-side than can be countered on the supine-side will make it more likely that the bar on the supine side will drift forward of the bar even if the force due to shoulder extension on the supine side is greater than or equal to the gravitational moment force around the supine shoulder wanting to pull the bar forward.

class 1 lever
Figure 2. Class 1 Lever formed by the latissimus dorsi pulling the arms back on either side of the bar, with the prone-side leg as the fulcrum. Shoulder extension force applied on prone side is greater than that on the supine side. [Click figure to enlarge]

Because this is a Class 1 lever, if you pull back as hard as possible on the prone side, you may exacerbate the tendency of the supine side to swing away from the shins. Therefore, to assist in maintaining the bar against the shins on the supine side you should, as much as possible, control the bar against your shins on the prone-side. It may be tempting to pull back as hard as you can with your prone hand, thinking that this will help control the position of the bar along its entire length. However, this will have the opposite effect that you seek. Moderate your shoulder extension on the prone side to control the rotation along the length of the bar.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of horizontal moment arms along the length of the bar. There is a Moment Arm on either side of the Class 1 lever fulcrum (the point of rotation – the prone-side shin), acting as a multiplier to the shoulder extension force on each side. Moment is the product of the force applied and the length of the moment arm. The longer the moment arm, the greater the moment force.

Once the bar rotates away from the supine-side shin, there is a significantly larger moment arm on the supine side compared to the prone side (Figure 3), and this should assist in countering the larger shoulder extension force produced by the prone side. The fact that, given that this advantage, the moment on the prone side can overcome the moment on the supine side, the shoulder extension force produced on the supine side must be significantly less than on the prone side, and/or other factors may help to push the bar away from the shins. For those of you who have used a cheater bar on a wrench to turn a frozen bolt, think about how much force production disadvantage must be on the supine side to overcome the advantages of such a long moment arm on that side.

Given this analysis, a lifter might be tempted to take a wider stance or grip to exacerbate the difference in moment arms to try and overcome the larger moment force produced on the prone side. However, a wider stance and grip may result in a more horizontal back angle, closed hip angle, and longer bar path to lockout. It would be wiser to avoid adding these additional hindrances to efficient execution of the deadlift.

effect of the moment arm in the class 1 lever
Figure 3. Effect of Moment Arm in the Class 1 Lever formed by the latissimus dorsi pulling the arms back on either side of the bar, with the prone-side leg as the fulcrum. Shoulder extension force applied on prone side is greater than that on the supine side. [Click figure to enlarge]

Next, let’s look at some of those factors that may cause such a reduced shoulder extension force on the supine side and/or effectively push the bar away from the supine-side leg.

Effect of the Supine Grip on Arm Angle

As has been discussed at length, in our standard deadlift setup the shoulders are just ahead of the bar with the arms inclined back at a 7-10 degree angle from vertical (the exact angle will depend upon anthropometry). This places the bar directly under the scapulae, enabling the latissimus dorsi to pull back on the humerus at the most efficient angle of 90 degrees. With a double-overhand or hook grip and symmetrical shoulders, the arms will be inclined back at the same angle on both sides. However, when you use a supine grip on one side of the bar, your hand moves from the front side of the bar to the back side of the bar, putting your hand behind the bar on the supine side. As a result, your supine arm is inclined back towards the hip a few degrees more than on the prone side. This likely results in an angle of slightly less than 90 degrees at which the latissimus dorsi pulls back on the humerus. This is a less efficient angle with which to pull, and as a result, less shoulder extension force operates on the humerus, and therefore on the arm, hand, and bar.

Figure 4 shows an example of the magnitude in the change in arm angle. When Elliot’s hand is in the supine orientation, his arm is approximately 3 degrees posterior to the position that it holds when his hand is in the prone orientation. You can also see that his supine arm covers more of the logo on his shirt and more of his knee and shank. While the difference between the prone and supine arm angle is not very large, this will result in a few degrees of change in the angle that the latissimus dorsi pulls on the humerus, and that may equate to a reduction of a few percent in the shoulder extension force able to be applied to the humerus. At very heavy loads, this shoulder extension force reduction may be sufficient to allow the gravitational moment force acting around the shoulder joint to pull the bar forward of the shins. Once the bar begins to swing away from your leg, momentum may carry it further out than where the lat pulls at 90 degrees on the humerus. Furthermore, when it is not against the shin, it is forward of the mid-foot and is harder to control, and therefore is more likely to swing away.

effect on the supine grip on arm angle
Figure 4. Effect on the supine grip on arm angle. [Click figure to enlarge]

Is there something that you can do to fix this issue? Unfortunately not. Some lifters may adjust their supine-side shoulder slightly back to account for the difference in arm angle, to maintain the latissimus dorsi attachment at 90 degrees to the humerus. While this would solve the problem of arm angle, it would introduce additional asymmetries into positioning of the spine and hips, and could be a cause of injury or a missed lift.

There are advantages to a supine grip and there are disadvantages. This effect falls into the latter category. The asymmetry of the stresses introduced at the shoulders is a disadvantage of this type of grip, but must be endured in order to improve the ability to hold onto the bar.

Effect of the Stretched Latissimus Dorsi

With the hand in the prone orientation, the insertion point of the latissimus dorsi on the humerus is in the medial position, i.e. inside the arm facing the torso. Shoulder flexion moves the arm forward of the hip, stretching the latissimus dorsi further beyond its resting length, and a muscle stretched beyond its resting length has a reduced ability to produce force. When a supine grip is used, the insertion point of the latissimus dorsi is rotated from a medial position to an anterior (forward-facing) position. This results in further lengthening of the latissimus dorsi muscle, compared to the prone side. Therefore, the latissimus dorsi muscle on the supine side cannot produce as much shoulder extension force as on the prone side, and this could contribute to the decreased ability to maintain the bar against the supine-side leg.

Given the earlier supposition that the supine hand shifts the arm angle slightly back toward the hip, this may slightly decrease the length of the latissimus dorsi on the supine side, but is unlikely to have a significant effect. Note: if you let the bar drift forward of the midfoot, this further lengthens the latissimus dorsi, further reducing the shoulder extension force able to be produced, and you may have an even harder time pulling it back.

The reduction in shoulder extension force due to the stretched latissimus dorsi is another disadvantage of the supine grip and, unfortunately, there is no cue that can be used to overcome it.

We’ve discussed the difference in forces generated against the bar on either side of the body, and in the reduction of force on the supine side due to mechanical and anatomical reasons. Now let’s turn our attention to potential reasons why the supine hand might “push” the bar away from the supine-side leg.

The Effect of the Internal Rotation of the Humerus

The next factor that may be involved with forward drifting of the supine hand is internal rotation of the humerus. Internal (medial) rotation of the shoulder and arm is caused by the following muscles: latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, the anterior deltoid, and to a lesser extent the subscapularis and teres major. We will focus primarily on the actions of the latissimus dorsi.

There are multiple functions of the latissimus dorsi, including: 1) internal rotation of the humerus, 2) adduction of the humerus, and 3) shoulder extension, as well as 4) shoulder retraction and 5) shoulder depression. Our interest here is primarily with regard to the functions of internal rotation and shoulder extension. The degree of internal rotation of the humerus due to contraction of the latissimus dorsi is in the range of 70 to 90 degrees, or a little under a quarter turn. The range of motion with regard to shoulder extension is ~ +170 (full flexion) to -40 degrees (hyperextension).

Let’s begin with a discussion of forces pulling on a wheel (Figure 5).

Example 1. A tensile force is applied via a rope attached to the wheel at the bottom position (A). In this case, the tensile force on the rope immediately pulls the wheel downward.

Example 2. The point of connection (A) of the rope is at the top of the wheel, and the rope is wrapped around the wheel with tension applied to the rope below the wheel (B). In this case, any tensile force will turn the wheel until connection point (A) is directly in line with the tension on the rope (B) - then the tension will move the wheel down.

Example 3. The point of connection (A) of the rope is at the top of the wheel, and the rope is wrapped around the wheel with tension applied to the rope below the wheel (B). In this case, any tensile force will try to turn the wheel until connection point (A) is directly in line with the tension on the rope (B). However, a countervailing rotational force applied to the wheel will prevent rotation of the wheel, holding connection point (A) on the other side of the wheel from the tension on the rope (B). This tension force can then move the wheel down, while maintaining the point of connection (A) on top of the wheel.

wheel analogy effect of tensile force on rotation and motion
Figure 5. Wheel Analogy: Effect of Tensile Force on Rotation and Motion [Click figure to enlarge]

Let’s translate this analogy into the situation of the prone and supine hands on the bar in a heavy deadlift, to see what happens when a contractile (tensile) force from the latissimus dorsi (rope) is applied to the humerus (wheel).

Figure 6 shows that on the prone hand side the humerus is already at the limit of internal rotation, and the insertion of the lat on the humerus is in the medial orientation. The humerus cannot rotate internally any further, so all of the contractile force from the latissimus dorsi can be applied to pulling the prone hand back, resulting in maximum shoulder extension force.

effect on the humerus and hand on the bar of force from the latissimus dorsi insertion.
Figure 6. Effect on the humerus and hand on the bar of force from the latissimus dorsi insertion. Prone-side hand subject to shoulder extension; supine-side hand subject to internal rotation. [Click figure to enlarge]

Conversely, on the supine hand side, the humerus is oriented at the limit of external rotation, and the insertion of the lat on the humerus is in the anterior orientation. Per the wheel analogy, the contractile force from the lat on the humerus may preferentially cause internal rotation of the humerus, rather than pulling the humerus back, to try to move that insertion point medially/posteriorly to be in a more efficient position for shoulder extension.

Furthermore, as noted above, with the hand in the supine position the latissimus dorsi is in a stretched state. A muscle stretched beyond its resting length will, in the absence of muscular effort to maintain that stretched state, try to return to its resting length. Try it for yourself. Hold your arm by your side with your hand in a supinated position, then relax the muscles of and around your arm and shoulder. Your arm will internally rotate until your palm is facing your body. As shown in Figure 7, internal rotation of the humerus results in internal rotation of the supine hand on the bar. This is in contrast to the prone side, where contracting the latissimus dorsi results in shoulder extension pulling the bar back.

effect of internal rotation of the arm and supine hand on the bar
Figure 7a. Effect on the humerus and hand on the bar of force from the latissimus dorsi insertion. Prone-side hand subject to shoulder extension; supine-side hand subject to internal rotation [Click figure to enlarge]
effect of internal rotation of the arm and supine hand on the bar
Figure 7b. Another view - Effect on the humerus and hand on the bar of force from the latissimus dorsi insertion. Prone-side hand subject to shoulder extension; supine-side hand subject to internal rotation. [Click figure to enlarge]

When the supine hand on the bar is subject to internal rotation (Figure 8A), two things could happen:

1. The 4th and 5th fingers of the hand could lose their grip on the bar as that side of the hand rotates laterally-posteriorly (Figure 8B).

2. The thumb-side of the hand could rotate medially-anteriorly and push the bar forward (Figure 8C), thus exerting a turning force on the bar. The point of rotation is the prone-side leg (Figure 2), and this effect may be exacerbated by the Class 1 Lever around that fulcrum.

effect of internal rotation of the arm and supine hand on the bar
Figure 8. Effect of internal rotation of the arm and supine hand on the bar, [Click figure to enlarge]

Since the first scenario would weaken the grip on the bar, it is more likely that the second scenario occurs, pushing the bar away from the leg. In other words, contracting the latissimus dorsi may internally rotate the humerus, and result in the bar being slightly pushed forward of the supine-side leg. At this point, control of the bar against the leg is lost, and the horizontal moment force expressed along the bar as a result of the shoulder extension force applied on the prone side (Figure 3) further rotates the bar horizontally away from the supine leg. As the bar moves forward of the shin, this may stretch the latissimus dorsi even further beyond its resting length, thereby further decreasing the force with which it can contract.

This may occur unless the humerus (the wheel) is rigidly fixed in external rotation (Figure 5: Example 3). The muscles that hold the arm in external rotation are the Posterior Deltoids, Infraspinatus, and Teres Minor. Since it would be impractical to cue your lifter to contract those individual muscles, a cue that may hold the humerus in external rotation, preventing the tendency to internally rotate the hand, is to think about pulling the supine thumb back. Contraction of the latissimus dorsi will then be focused on shoulder extension force pulling the bar back against the shins.

Another muscle that causes internal rotation of the humerus is the Pectoralis Major. This muscle belly originates along the medial part of the clavicle, the sternal head, upper costal cartilages (1-6), and the aponeurosis of the external oblique. It inserts on the lateral lip of the intertubercular (bicipital) groove of the humerus (lateral to the attachment of the latissimus dorsi) and on the crest of the greater tubercle of the humerus. With the hand and humerus in the supine orientation, the pectoralis major is also stretched beyond its resting length. If you let your chest cave in/upper back round during the deadlift, the pectoralis major will shorten, exacerbating the tendency for internal rotation of the humerus and consequently the supine hand. Furthermore, if you let your back go into significant flexion, this may also slightly change the angle at which the latissimus dorsi pulls back on the humerus, reducing the shoulder extension force. To avoid these phenomena, keep your chest up, with a tight thoracic upper back, to keep the shoulder in external rotation as you pull.

The Effect of the Supination of the Forearm

As there is virtually no rotation of the hand with respect to the forearm, supination of the hand is achieved by supinating the forearm, which is controlled by the biceps brachii and supinator muscles pulling on the radius bone. The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle belly that crosses two joints: the shoulder and the elbow. The biceps brachii originates at points along the scapula and insert at the radial tuberosity on the radius bone of the forearm. The functions of this muscle belly are supination of the forearm, elbow flexion and, to a lesser extent, shoulder flexion.

The natural resting position of the hand/forearm is with a prone palm/medial orientation, and the elbow slightly flexed. When you contract the biceps brachii to supinate the forearm, that contraction may drive a small degree of elbow flexion, which could push the bar slightly forward of the shins. This can be countered by a strong contraction of the triceps to prevent elbow flexion, or simply a cue to keep the arm straight.

This supinated position with a straight arm puts the biceps brachii, and bicep tendons, under a greater degree of tension than would be present down the prone arm. This added tension has been known to cause rupture of the bicep tendon at the distal end, although this phenomenon is primarily associated with trying to jerk the bar off the floor, possibly with a slightly flexed elbow that straightens suddenly as the weight is realized by the hands. This gives extra incentive to maintain a straight arm, take the slack out of the lifter-barbell system during the setup, and squeeze the bar off the floor.

This article speculates as to possible reasons why it can be difficult to maintain the bar against the shin on the supine side when using an alternate grip in a heavy deadlift. A multitude of factors may be involved, including:

1. The Class 1 lever formed by pulling the bar back too hard with the prone hand, causing the bar in the supine hand to rotate forward.

A reduction in shoulder extension force on the supine-hand side due to:

2. The change in arm angle due to the position of the hand behind the bar, and thus a change in the angle of the latissimus dorsi attachment to the humerus of less than 90 degrees, and

3. The latissimus dorsi being stretched more on the supine hand side as a result of external rotation of the humerus pulling the insertion point to an anterior orientation;

Pushing the bar forward of the shins due to:

4. The tendency of the humerus to internally rotate under contraction of the latissimus dorsi, rather than extending the shoulder, causing the thumb-side of the supine hand to rotate forward, 

5. The tendency of the humerus to internally rotate if the chest caves in causing the pectoralis major to shorten, causing the thumb-side of the supine hand to rotate forward, and

6. The tendency of the biceps brachii to flex the elbow while maintaining a supine orientation.

Some of these factors may be more important than others, and they may combine to exacerbate the tendency of the bar to drift forward of the supine-side leg. Some cues that may help to overcome these factors are summarized in Figure 9. Give these a try and see if they help with your control of the supine hand in a heavy deadlift. Personally, I’ll stick with the hook grip.

cues for controlling the supine hand in a heavy deadlift
Figure 9. Summary of suggested cues for controlling the supine hand in a heavy deadlift. [Click figure to enlarge]

My thanks to Messrs Rippetoe, Delgadillo and Meggers for discussions of these concepts at the 2019 Denver Starting Strength Seminar, and to Elliot Wiggins for assistance with the photos that were included in the article and used to create the line drawings.


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