by Jake Sterny
Straps, for those of you unfamiliar with this piece of equipment, are a tool that all serious strength athletes should have in their gym bag. Straps come in a few different styles and can help improve performance in various parts of training, but, if used too often or at the incorrect time straps might actually be hindering instead of helping your progress.
Strap In: 3 Rules for Strap Use
Being an athlete you should never become so dependent upon a piece of equipment that you can’t perform when it’s no longer available (i.e. belt, straps, wrist wraps, knee wraps, etc). Equipment fails from time to time and when it is no longer available you still need to perform. Straps are no exception to this but should be used during training to help improve your lifts. The following 3 rules are what I’ll use to determine if myself as an athlete or an athlete I’m coaching needs straps.
1.) What is the Goal of the Exercise?
-Is the goal to build grip strength or is it hold positions, build your legs and fix different parts of your pull? A good example of this is Snatch Complex or Hang Snatch work where the reps are a little bit higher and fatiguing hands could compromise your completing the complex efficiently(I.e. Hang snatch, reset, hang Snatch, drop the bar and deadlift back to the position, hang snatch). The goal or purpose of the exercise or complex should always be the first area you look to determine if straps can be used.
2.) What makes up the exercise?
-How many pieces does the exercise you are performing have within it? Are you performing singles or are you performing sets of five? Is it one lift or is it a complex of three different parts? Generally if the exercise contains a higher number of reps it may benefit you to use straps to allow for completion of the exercise properly or to avoid the example I listed above. One example of this is Hang Snatches in the 5 repetition(rep) range. I know from experience that one of the most miserable things you can do to your hands as an athlete is perform Hang Snatch work in the range of 5 reps without using straps. Another example of this is any form of Pause Deadlifts where the percentages are high. Performing these without the use of straps can smoke your grip.
3.) What is the percentage of the working sets and how new is the athlete?
-In my programming you’ll see a lot of overloaded pulling where straps become essential to even performing the exercise. The goal of course in overloading these Pulls is to get the athlete to move a weight with correct positioning in a percentage range that is above their normal working sets and sometimes above their maximal lifts. Another good rule of thumb is if the percentages are higher(I’m not talking 65,75, or even really 80%) straps may benefit your performing the movement correctly throughout the entire set. One other piece of information to consider is how new the athlete is to the sport of weightlifting. If an athlete is newer it typically benefits them to perform the movements without straps to build a good base of grip strength. This tends to be easier with newer athletes as the weights they are using in the working sets are not necessarily world record numbers.
Where Can Straps Hurt
-In using straps for the Snatch too often some performance issues can result. One area that I see often is Turnover. When we use straps all of time, especially in snatching where they’re not needed, we don’t necessarily need to focus on actively turning the bar over to get the bar overhead. This is where straps become a crutch because without the need to worry about our grip I’ve seen athletes get lackadaisical with this part of the Snatch. When they move away from the straps this can lead to a lot of this being left forward even if their pull from the floor to Position 1/Finish is correct. This is why I vehemently deny the use of straps on Turnover specific exercises like the Muscle Snatch.
2.) Weak Hands
-If you’re not getting any grip related accessory work in your programming(I.e. Farmers Carries, KB Swings, Pull Ups) and you’re relying on straps all the time in your lifts your hands can become weak. This can be seen when you need to move toward more classic lifts with singles.
3.) False Sense of Security
-In my opinion(of course not everyone agrees) if you complete a lift with straps and it is a Personal Record it doesn’t count. Or in other words it can’t be compared to your actual unstrapped max because you had the help of straps to earn that number. This is turn can lead to skewed percentages if you base your later working sets off of this number. The flip side of this is it could encourage an uptick in your lift if you base your working percentages off of that number.
The big picture of this article was mainly to encourage the use of straps at certain points but don’t become dependent on the equipment. If you are using straps for everything in your training it may be time to look at if they are actually becoming a crutch. In closing I personally love straps but only for certain things in my training and the training of those that I coach. I’ve gone through waves where they are extremely valuable to my training and other times where I relied on them too much and it actually hindered performance. Use the guidelines above to help you make an informed decision about straps.