Ah, the deadlift—one of the most primal exercises one can perform in the gym. There’s just something so gratifying about lifting heavy weight off of the ground: your veins are bulging out of your arms, grunting like our primordial ancestors for the whole gym to hear, and you’re maximally recruiting every single muscle in your body. Whether you compete in powerlifting or you just enjoy the pure adrenaline rush after a solid deadlift session, optimizing your grip position in this lift will ultimately help you leverage more weight.
A Little Context
When I was in graduate school studying to get my Master’s my research question was thus: how does grip position change muscle activation in the forearms? I had noticed personally that it felt like I was engaging my muscles differently when using a hook grip as opposed to when I used a mixed grip. Upon doing some preliminary research out there to see what existed, I found very few studies. Some studies compared different grips in the pull-up and push-up, so I figured that we could find some interesting results in testing the deadlift.
As a weightlifter myself, I had always been taught to use the hook grip for cleans and snatches, but I never fully understood why. The only answer I could find in USA Weightlifting’s hand book was that hook grip reduced forearm muscle activation, but there wasn’t any research cited to support this claim. As such, I sought to find the answer myself.
The Study Design
Myself and my colleagues tested three different grip positions (hook grip, double overhand grip, and mixed grip) in the barbell deadlift at 50%, 70%, and 90% of their 1 RM. We measured EMG (electromyography) activity, which basically allows you to measure the strength of a muscular contraction. We hooked up electrodes to the brachialis, the brachioradialis, and the flexor carpi ulnaris muscle. In addition to measuring muscle activity, we also recorded barbell velocity data to see if grip position impacted bar speed. Our participants were men and women with at least 2 years of deadlifting and strength training experience.
In order to control for fatigue, we randomized the order in which we tested each grip for each participant. Finally, we asked our participants to rate the different grip positions from least challenging to most challenging.
Going into this study, I had hypothesized that a mixed grip would result in the lowest amount of muscle activity for our group. As it turns out, that hypothesis was correct—there was a statistically significant reduction in flexor carpi ulnaris activity in the supinated hand on the mixed grip (the hand that’s facing forward). To my surprise, however, there was NO significant difference in muscle activation between a double overhand grip and a hook grip. Effectively, my research disproved USA Weightlifting’s theory that hook grip results in a reduction of forearm muscle activity.
We also found that females demonstrated greater activation of the brachialis muscle (an elbow flexor) across all three grip positions, whereas males utilized the brachioradialis (another elbow flexor, which also supinates and pronates the forearm) to a higher degree than their female counterparts. The greater activation of the brachialis suggests females have a greater inclination to “lift” the barbell off the floor as opposed to ‘pulling’ the barbell up (i.e. greater use of the upper arm musculature in lifting the barbell as opposed to simply using the hands in a hook type manner). The higher activation of the brachioradialis within the male subjects highlights a greater tendency to “pull” the barbell off the ground.
In regard to changes in barbell velocity, the lifter’s hand position didn’t seem to have any noteworthy effect.
With this study in mind, it is obvious that the mixed grip is the best choice for anyone who is looking to deadlift the most weight possible. Often, one’s grip strength is the limiting factor in the deadlift. Athletes who are looking to increase their deadlift will benefit from training the flexor carpi ulnaris muscle, as it is strongly correlated with overall grip strength.
Additionally if your goal is to focus on barbell speed, then the grip position that you choose won’t matter much. If you want to read our complete study, take a look at the Works Cited below!
Grip strength is extremely important in strength sports, and coaches and athletes alike should place a strong emphasis on forearm exercises in their programs.
Pratt, J., Hoffman, A., Grainger, A., & Ditroilo, M. (2020). Forearm electromyographic activity during the deadlift exercise is affected by grip type and sex. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 102428.