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Lifting Straps and Grip Strength

Importance of Grip Strength

“In the old days, Olympic athletes are amateurs. So they still need to work in the fields or factories, handling odd shaped objects. Nowadays, most Olympic athletes are professionals, simply used to only deal with small handles on dumbbells hence they lack the neural drive to their finger tips.” laments Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the most respected figures in the field of strength and conditioning. Pavel Tsatsouline, former USSR Spetsnaz trainer and subject matter expert for US special forces also emphasized the importance of neural radiation from tight fists for athletic power. Dan John, former US Olympian and coach echoes this sentiment.

This is the reason why both on my own training, and as I train my clients, I always emphasize on grip strength, using variety of handles such as fat grip and rope.

How NOT To Use Lifting Accessories

120 kg paused deadlift with no straps or weightbelt

Hence it is a shame that with the rising popularity of lifting accessories, increasing number of people are using them where they shouldn’t. Many times I walked into a commercial gym and see big muscular guys using lifting straps and lifting belts for everything including lats pull down! This is one of the causes of a modern day disease where seemingly big muscular men can hardly lift as heavy as a construction worker half their size. Those big muscles are just for show!

Its indeed an irony that although these accessories are originally developed for strength athletes, most of these same athletes do not rely on them as much as these cosmetic guys. Take a look at Dimitriy Klokov, noted Russian Olympic weightlifting medalist that only selectively use lifting straps and weight belts on his training videos.

How To Use Lifting Straps Properly

Lasso Type Lifting Strap

Having said the above, it doesn’t mean that there is no proper use of lifting straps. For example, if you are doing deadlifts and you are lifting at 95 – 100% your max, then the use of lifting straps could be justified if you want to prevent your callouses from peeling off.

If you are doing Olympic weightlifting and you are doing the hang and pull variations of your lift for reps, then the use of lifting straps would actually be ideal to make sure your grip position stays the same.

So yes, if you are serious in either powerlifting or olympic weightlifting, then you do need a lifting straps and for hygiene reason, having your own is ideal. If you are interested in finding the right lifting strap for you, you should read more about it here.

6 Training Myths that Should Go Away

Once you hung around at the weight room long enough, its unavoidable that you will start hearing some “tips” that many people believed in. Some sounded more scientific than others. But not all of these are true. The following are 6 myths circulating at many gyms that you should totally ignore.

Wear Weightbelts to Protect Your Back

curved deadlift

Seriously, this is a myth long proven to be false by Dr. McGill that you can read on his book Ultimate Back Fitness. Its not about how thick or tight your belt is, its about how you keep it in neutral position and use all your core muscles to stiffen it. The image above is definitely NOT something you should be doing with or without any weight belt.

Situps, Crunches and Russian Twists are your essentials for 6 pack abs

russian twist

More like essentials for bad backs. There’s a reason why US Army and Canadian Army finally listened to Dr. McGill’s research and do away with the speed sit up requirements, namely its true that its best for some people to avoid them. I for one haven’t done a single sit up for over a year and still keep my 6 pack abs. Back Mechanics will be a good place to start if you want to do away with these bad exercises and still maintain a strong core.

Machines are Safer than Weights

legextensionmachineexercise

This is a rather convenient myth to keep especially among lazy personal trainers that don’t really want to bother coaching proper technique to their clients. Fact is among serious, injury free lifters, machines are only useful for assistance lifts after they have done the big lifts (squat, deadlift, benchpress and Overhead press) and explosive lifts (Snach, Clean and Jerk and their variations) with free weights. And there’s a reason for that, namely that big and explosive lifts requires balance and multiple muscle coordination, hence have less risk of developing muscular imbalance or movement pattern dysfunction compared to machines.

You Must Confuse the Muscle for Gains

balance

This is a trend that started out with the bodybuilders and later expand to those trainers that believed in a perverted form of “functional training”. Interestingly, these are the very same people that do not have actual athletic performance as their benchmark. Fact of the matter is powerlifters and olympic weightlifters only focuses on limited number of exercises and yet are the strongest class of athlete strictly on the sagital plane of movement. Joint, muscle and bones becomes stronger by adaptation of progressive loading. If you keep on changing the method of loading every time you train, you will not get stronger any faster.

You Must Train to Failure for Absolute Gains

lean-muscle

Yet another myth from the bodybuilding circle. If you train for looks, not for absolute strength, and use lots of steroids, insulin and HGH, then this might be the case. But there’s a reason why real athletes have a motto “no ego lift”. If you struggle to get the weight up, then either there was too much repetition or too much weight in that set for you at the moment. Its not just for safety reason, but also to make sure that your “neural drive” i.e. your capability to activate as much muscle fiber as possible in a single contraction remains intact.

You Must Feel the Burn Before Your Muscle Will Grow

Campfire

OK, maybe not that type of burn, but you get the idea. This is yet another misguided thinking that started in the bodybuilding circle. Except that real lifters knows that you should first get your technique right first when you are starting. And even once you get into intermediate level, you must have volume days along with recovery days and intensity days to ensure a steady gain instead of a steady joint pain.

Calisthenics, Weights, and Performance Training

For those that are not familiar with the term, calisthenics is the fancy word for body weight training. And the web has no shortage of people proclaiming the superiority of calisthenics versus what is simply grouped together as “weight training”. Enough brain cycles has been devoted to the purpose of comparing these methods from the perspective of aesthetics. And unfortunately the calisthenics groups uses the big isolated muscle training machines people see at the gym as the short cut they see as all that is wrong with non-body weight training. On this article, I would like to bring your attention instead to view instead from the perspective performance enhancement. After all, not everybody trains just to look good in the mirror. Some people train to be healthy, increase their raw strength, or improve their athletic performance.

Isolated Machine Training

legextensionmachineexercise

Leg extension machine: gym staple that is a bane to lots of knee patellas. 

For the past few decades, most Western European and North American training methods seem to focus mostly on training muscle in isolation (just like bodybuilders) and cardio. This is due in part to the thought that specific muscles have specific function to create movements, size equals strength, the popularity of bodybuilding in the west and the thought that these bodybuilders are the epitome of fitness and strength. Interesting how its proven that bodybuilders are not the strongest people around. This is why every time you go to a big commercial gym, most of the floor space is dedicated to isolated muscle training machines or rows of assorted cardio machines. Interesting how the best NFL defensive linemen usually are not the one that is crushing it on the bench press during NFL combine.

Calisthenics

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The blog writer doing calisthenics, not much carry over to athletic performance

Born in the kiddie jungle gym and prison yard as a counter to the big commercial gyms with big isolated machines, some people believe that your body is the best machine. They would compare themselves with bodybuilders and claims that body weight training would not only make you look better, but would also increase your balance, speed, mobility, etc. Again, also interesting to see that world class athletes still uses a variety of weights, cables and stretch bands for their strength and conditioning in combination with some form of calisthenics.

Having said that, if you are interested in upping your calisthenics game, you could try your luck with tailor made programs to improve your gains such as here.

A Better Way to Train

First of all, I would like to emphasize here that free weight and cable machines are NOT equal to the big isolated machines (which I will here on refer to simply as “weight machines”). Main difference being that you can still plant your feet on the ground and train athletic movement patterns in all three dimensions with free weights and cable machines.

If your goal is muscle hypertrophy (big muscular look) , then by all means, I agree that the big machines offers the easiest progression (just add more weight) and safest training method for a newbie. If you want to save $$$ on gym fees, or you want to be “different”, then by all means, calisthenics are for you. However, if you are a rehab patient or training for performance (stronger or faster), you definitely need to train with a better method.

If a client walks in on my front door complaining about knee or low back pain, after finishing some movement assessments, the first few sessions would most probably involve body weight exercises with proper cues to ensure proper movement patterns.  You can check on some of the training I typically recommend on back mechanics. As a client progress, there will be time where some weight training will be beneficial. Training proper deadlift and single leg romanian deadlift mechanics for example, is highly transferable to everyday life as it trains clients how to bend down and pick up objects in the most spine and knee sparing way. And this simply cannot be imitated by either body weight exercise or isolated weight machines.

And although the pushup and its variations are excellent pushing exercise that combines the abdominal wall, a competitive athlete will need the challenge only squats and single leg lunges with a loaded bar can provide. This kind of challenge to the lower body simply cannot be replicated with sufficient difficulty with pistol and skater squats (unless the athlete is holding a free weight in the process, hence no longer qualifies as calisthenics in the strictest term).

Last but not least, although the use of some weight machines carries over the long run increase the risks of joints damage (knee extension, and ab crunch machine to name a few), calisthenics also have its risks. There’s a reason why the number of gymnasts suffering spondylolisthesis (a specific back injury) and shoulder pain are much higher than the average population. Hence, some forms of calisthenics are applicable to rehab patients and others for athletes, some forms of calisthenics are simply useless unless you are either a gymnasts or trying to show off.

Conclusion

Every form of strength training have its time and place. Some more justified than others. If you are already experiencing some sort of joint or low back pain, I would highly recommend you find a competent, above average trainer to ensure that you would be on your way towards being pain free. If you train to be stronger, faster or more explosive, then you must train the movement pattern you actually use and load it properly. In short, you should train with a purpose, not train for the sake of training. Proper training progressions and programming can be seen in more detail on Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Weight machines will not give you this and neither would static calisthenic poses. For the rest of you, getting of the couch and doing some exercise will bring more benefit than risk.