Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Grip Width on Pulls

by stef bradford, PhD, SSC | September 16, 2020

Lifters commonly use too wide a grip in the deadlift and too narrow a grip in the clean. This can happen due to prioritizing comfort, copying other lifters, lax coaching, or rushing during setup. When both errors occur in the same lifter, there's a good chance he's also lost sight of the main focus of each lift and the impact that small differences in technique make as the weight gets heavy.

In both the deadlift and the clean, the grip connects the body to the bar, with the arms acting as cables that transfer force generated by the hips and legs to complete the lift. The start positions are similar, but differences occur because of the range of motion of the two lifts. The correct grip width depends on the matching the proportions of the lifter to the demands of the lift that is being performed – force production over a short distance in the deadlift vs power production to accelerate the bar to the shoulders in the clean.

The Deadlift

The deadlift grip is set to prioritize efficient transfer of force from body to bar. In the deadlift set up, the grip is as taken narrowly as possible, just outside the legs. This means that getting the grip right relies on first taking the correct stance. Review that here.

deadlift grip width

A grip with arms hanging straight down from the shoulder, perpendicular to the bar when viewed from the front, enables the deadlift to maximize force production for three reasons:

1) A narrow grip minimizes moment arms at the hand and shoulder.

As a lifter trains the novice linear progression, grip strength eventually becomes a limiting factor. At some point, it will be necessary for the grip on work sets to be changed from a double overhand grip to a hook grip, alternate grip, or straps to continue to make progress. A narrow grip allows this break point to occur at a heavier weight since the hand is square to the bar and the fingers that contribute most to gripping force – the outside three – can wrap securely around the bar to produce a strong grip.

Similarly, the close position of the arm to the torso facilitates the job of the lats to pull the bar back against the legs and stabilize the standard pulling position off the floor. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the much harder hand and shoulder position we see with the snatch or snatch grip deadlift.

2) A narrow grip allows the hip angle to be more open at the start of the lift.

A grip taken with arms straight down keeps the arms long, with no angle to artificially shorten them. For many, a slight shift to a narrower grip will enable the lifter to set their back in extension because of the less-challenging position.

3) A narrow grip sets up an efficient ROM for the lift from floor to lockout.

We make the deadlift harder by adding weight to the bar, not by compromising the mechanics of the lift. This allows it to be performed in a consistent, precise manner and for the stress to be incrementally increased as we get stronger.

The Clean

The start position of the clean is superficially the same as the deadlift, but the endpoint of the lift and the process for getting it there are quite different. These factors change how the grip width for the clean is optimized. In the clean, the bar is accelerated from the floor to a position on the thigh from where the bar can continue straight up as vertically as possible as the hips and knees extend. The momentum generated carries the bar high enough to allow it to be caught on the shoulders.  

clean grip width

The grip width must be wide enough to establish the correct acceleration mechanics off the floor, to hit the the correct place on the leg in the middle of the pull for a nice clean vertical second pull, and to allow a secure position on the body for the rack. If the grip is too narrow, it hangs too low on the thigh, increasing the tendency to loop the bar forward or to bend the arms to sneak the bar higher up the leg before exploding. Adjusting the grip wider can help fix both tendencies.

Since the clean grip width balances multiple factors, it can take a few rounds of adjustment to find the best position. The starting point is to take a grip in the hang position that is one hand-width wider than the one used for the deadlift. The bar is then placed in the rack position on the shoulders and grip is adjusted – usually wider – to accommodate anthropometry and flexibility. Additional adjustments for the grip are made at the third position – the “jumping” position – as we teach the lift.

Most people balk at holding a wider grip and need to be prodded to move it wider and to reset it to the wider position after each rep. A wide grip on the clean does a few things to the lift:

1) A wider grip “shortens” the arms and keeps the back more horizontal through the bottom of the pull.

If the grip is too narrow, it makes the back angle too vertical for efficient acceleration through the majority of the ROM of the pull. The longer moment arm between the hips and the bar created by a more horizontal back angle is the acceleration tool used in the pull. It enables a more efficient “whip” through the bottom and middle of the pull that accelerates the bar far more effectively than a more vertical back angle.

2) A wider grip facilitates the rack by allowing the arms to rotate up into position on the shoulders without the forearms pushing the bar into the throat.

3) The wider grip used in the clean makes the start of the pull off the floor harder.

The start position of the clean and the deadlift are similar, but not the same. This is one reason the clean is included it in The Program – it's a different stress than the deadlift from set up to start to middle to finish. More on that later.

The wider grip used for the clean makes the grip less secure, makes the job of the lats harder, and puts the back angle in a more horizontal position. Since a clean is limited by acceleration, not load, and since back strength is developed by the heavier weights used in the deadlift, this is manageable. The challenge is to move precisely so that the correct positions are maintained as the bar is accelerated off the floor.

The early introduction of the hook grip for the clean also helps counter the harder position. The hook grip is much more secure than the overhand grip and will hold as the bar is accelerated, more than compensating for the stress of the wider grip. For most lifters, a hook grip also allows the bar to hang lower in the fingers, effectively lengthening the arms and minimizing the cost of grip width to the the back angle.

Take stock of the grip you are using for your pulls, and adjust it to optimize your performance for each lift. It's worth doing this on a periodic basis to guard against form creep as well as to fine tune after changing equipment – bar diameter, shoes, chalk – or gaining or losing weight.

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