We have all seen it, the guy at the gym who throws on straps almost immediately into his workout.
He smacks his hands in some chalk like Lebron James during his pre-game ritual, and it doesn’t matter if he is deadlifting, benching, or performing machine preacher curls; you can almost guarantee he has some wrist straps on.
Gym culture now-a-days has been saturated with lifting accessories. Wrist straps, belts, knee wraps, you name it.
For the average gym member, who may not specifically compete in any sport or competition, they can probably get away a bit more with overusing accessories.
Athletes and competitors, however, tend to rely too much on accessories when it comes to certain movements.
Grip Training and Wrist Straps
Wrist strength is not the first thing people think of during training. As a matter of fact, it often gets completely ignored in a training program. Yes, you are working your forearm muscles in a lot of movements you do, but how efficient are you?
By using straps on light loads, you’re decreasing the amount of motor unit recruitment that is necessary to produce the force throughout the entire movement. You would never see a lineman or a wrestler put on wrist straps to compete. Why would you train as such then?
In case you are wondering what wrist straps are, they wrap around your wrist, and then you wrap them around the bar and squeeze your hands overtop, as you pull the weight toward you, the straps allow you to hold the bar in your hand longer than your regular grip would have allowed.
This sounds wonderful right? In some cases, it is wonderful.
Top powerlifters use wrist straps, but there are two reasons that make it okay:
- Their sport involves the use of wrist straps
- They are often deadlifting over 750+ lbs
How often are you maxing out at anywhere near that? Unless you are a powerlifter, the answer is probably never.
Let’s break it down into some Human Anatomy
The wrist has two compartments, anterior and posterior. Speaking from anatomical position, the anterior compartment contains your wrist flexors, while the posterior compartment contains your wrist extensors.
It’s important to know the functions of your flexors and extensors, so that you can understand exactly how to develop these.
Remember: anatomical position!
The posterior compartment of the forearm contains the wrist extensors1. These are responsible for extending the wrist. These are the muscles that help you wave goodbye to the lunch you ate before leg day.
The muscles responsible for wrist and digit extension are:
- Extensor Carpi Radialis– Extension and Abduction (moving wrist away from midline of the body)
- Extensor Carpi Ulnaris– Extension and Adduction (moving wrist toward midline of the body)
- Extensor Digitorum– Extension of wrist, Extension of middle and ring fingers, weak extension of index and pinky finger.
- Extensor Digiti Minimi– Primary Extensor of the pinky
- Extensor Indicis– Primary Extensor of the index finger
- Extensor Pollicus Longus/Brevis- Thumb Extension
As you can see, there are a lot of muscles jam packed in to a very small area, with most of them performing different actions.
The anterior compartment of the forearm contains the wrist flexors2. These are responsible for making a fist, or clenching your fingers together in fit of rage when a restaurant doesn’t have 50% sodium free, low fat, gluten free ketchup, however you want to imagine it.
The muscles responsible for wrist and digit flexion are:
- Flexor Carpi Radialis– Wrist Flexion and Wrist Abduction
- Flexor Carpi Ulnaris– Wrist Flexion and Wrist Adduction
- Palmaris Longus– Wrist Flexion (fun fact: not everybody has one of these! Check and see by touching your thumb to your pinky and seeing if the tendon protrudes down the middle of your wrist)
- Flexor Pollicus Longus– Flexes the thumb
- Flexor Digitorm Profundus/Superficialis– Flexion of the digits
- Honorable Mention: Brachioradialis- This is not a wrist flexor; however it is an elbow flexor and is generally the most visible muscle that appears on your forearm, especially when performing hammer curls.
How You’re Cheating Your Grip
Now that our anatomy lesson is over, I can delve a bit more into the reason behind this article. As stated before, wrist straps decrease the necessary amount of motor unit recruitment because it allows the wrist to have somewhat of a “backup” plan when they fail during a lift.
This may seem a bit counterproductive if you’re an athlete and you compete in any contact sport that relies heavily on grip strength. Think about it, you play sports with your hands (unless you’re a soccer player, then this article doesn’t necessarily pertain to you.)
The first point of contact in any sport is typically something involving your hands, and your fingers gripping something, whether it’s a basketball, a football, or a person’s arm in a wrestling match.
So, why would we train in a fashion that hinders our ability to develop strength in our grip?
Throwing on straps when you are deadlifting 55% of your 1 Rep Max will NOT help you achieve your maximum potential. The crime in this action is that you are cheating yourself of gaining any grip strength from the get-go. You are training your forearms to not produce as much force as they would have to normally while under tension.
This will lead to issues if you ever attempt to max out on a deadlift, your grip strength will not be strong enough to exert enough pressure to “grip’n’rip” that bar off of the floor.
Or worse yet, wrist strap training has very little contribution to sport-specific movements. If you’ve trained your wrists to rely on straps, they won’t be able to perform to maximum potential when you need them to in competition.
P.S – When you meet your girlfriend’s father for the first time, you don’t want to shell out a wimpy hand-shake do you?
When They Are OK
Lets not get it twisted- I am not saying we need to take all of our lifting accessories to the dumpster out back and burn them (however that might do some people well).
There is a time and place for everything. Belts, wrist straps, knee wraps all have their place in a training program. There comes a time when you are attempting a new max on squat and require a belt so you don’t collapse your vertebrae through your knees, totally acceptable.
If you are attempting a new deadlift max, wrist straps may be useful in getting a total body feel for the weight so your mind and body can wake up and realize you’re about to hit a PR (everyone knows all you have to do is tell your body it’s PR day, it totally works 100% of the time.)
My main take away from this article is wrist straps are a lifting accessory. Key word is accessory. They shouldn’t always be relied on during gym time. This will lead to imbalances and weaknesses in your grip, which will not be impressive when it comes time to perform during a lift or an athletic competition.
Find a balance when you use wrist straps. There are certainly times that may call for them, but generally you would gain more by ditching them 90% of the time and developing real strength in your hands.
Train your grip. Go as long as you can without relying on wrist straps. Use alternated grip if you must do so. If you focus on your grip, it will increase your abilities and confidence in the gym and during competition.