by Marc “Spud” Bartley
I struggle daily with the deadlift and grip issues. I have written a couple of articles about this over the years but it still plagues me constantly. If you have not read any of my articles, I will introduce myself. My name is Marc Bartley and I am a top power lifter with elite totals in several weight classes but mostly in the 275s and 308s. I wear gear and lift where the best lifters lift. Unfortunately, my squat and bench have been great but my deadlift has lagged extremely far behind the other two in comparison. As a beginner, it is not unusual for a lifter to have a deadlift stronger then their squat. Over time, the squat and bench come up with practice. After a year or two, your squat should only be a 100-150lbs ahead of your deadlift at pretty much anytime. There are gear advantages which may widen this gap but normal circumstances with regular limb ratios, this 100-150lb range should be normal. Again, unfortunately for me, normal limb ratios are not the “norm”. I have often described my “limby disadvantage”, because I don’t like shortcomings as a term, as alligator arms or the T-Rex curse from God (big ass, big hams and strong hips). To further the misery loves company thing, I have thick meaty mitts so grabbing and holding onto a heavy barbell is a must for survival in the dog eat dog world of power lifting and dead lifting so here are a few suggestions from a lot of different people that have helped me greatly over the years.
The Wheelbarrow. This is the simplest thing I can suggest that will yield tremendous results over a short period of time. Almost ten years ago, when I first started power lifting., the hey day of Westside training when Louie’s combination of various systems was gaining momentum and popularity with the masses, this was suggested in one of his articles. Of course, back then we overdid everything to the extreme as we (Donnie T, Keith Ferarra and I ) would do the wheelbarrow twice a week for three laps each session around the gym (1/3 mile). I think one year we calculated the miles around 100 or so each!! This is ridiculous of course, and I don’t recommend this. But, back then, like most “newbies” we thought the more we did the stronger we would get overnight. This too is ridiculous as the human body will respond to extreme measures and training but only under briefs periods of time, not the years we did the wheelbarrow. Although, at the time, I was in the best cardio and the lowest body fat (7-8%) I have ever been , it did not make me strong, only strong looking’ I suppose. It did develop large forearms, big traps, big calves and some great grip strength. I would guesstimate a 10% increase in forearm and wrist size and definitely a thickening of the hands. Grip wise, I was very ,very weak at the time from years of using straps on everything and not training the forearms correctly (i.e. the lat pulldown boy and shrug specialist you see at the gym everyday.) To further validate the use of the wheelbarrow, at South Carolina Barbell we have a top ranked arm wrestler (Todd Hutchings) who uses it on a regular basis with great success.
You can get a wheelbarrow anywhere. We used the heavy duty metal one with the industrial wheel on it. If you get this one, eventually you will replace the wheel bearings. I can’t tell how many times we had it propped up on blocks like a redneck working’ on his car at the trailer park. We then filled it with several giant rocks and stones. I think it was 250lb to 300lbs. You can fill yours with whatever you like-plates, chains, people? The only problem we found was that if you tipped it over somehow, reloading was like the first ring of Purgatory. We made THREE one 1/3 mile trips with it twice a week, usually on a off day. We would PUSH it twice and PULL it once. I DO NOT recommend this. I think one or two trips (1/3 mile each) ONCE a week will do the same thing as we did. Don’t plan on using your hands for the rest of the day ! Towards the end of our wheelbarrow-a-thons, we created a plate loaded version with industrial bearings so we would never have to change it again. It is much easier to use and there will be less likelihood of it getting ripped off. We had two taken from the gym when they were left out accidentally If you are interested, I sell this version at southcarolinabarbell.com under Spud, Inc. Strength Straps and Products.
After several years of using the wheelbarrow, my grip improved to the point where I could hold 600lbs. with no problem. Weight beyond this, was a crap shoot so I had to search for other ways to cure my ails. My entire posterior chain and abs had become super strong and upper back was solid having squatted in the 1000s plus for several years now and doing good mornings in the 700s but the bigger deadlifts continued to slip . When they say you are only as strong as your weakest link, this is totally true. When I put straps on, I could lock the hips and fire off the glutes the way you are suppose to. For example, 700lbs with a suit after squatting and benching was a struggle, one day to test my belief in this, I pulled 700 with just a belt for three reps-conventional to boot! I am not bragging because if it doesn’t happen in a meet, then it’s not in the books. This just validated what I already knew.
I got John Brookfield’s book, Mastery of Hand Strength, on grip and read it enthusiastically. He has done it all grip wise and this is a great read. Some things I took to heart were his use of grippers so I bought the Captains of Crush numbers #1-4 and blob type lifting. The number four was just for fun. I think it’s about 360-400lbs of pressure to close it. There are only a couple of people in the world who can close this one or even the number three for that matter. Pick a gripper based on your strength level to start. I warm up with number 1 for a set or two of ten and then I do over crushes with the number 2 gripper and negatives with the #3. Do a set of 3-5 reps per hand. Wait a minute or two, then do the negatives for 3 reps per hand. This is one round. Do three rounds.
I know I didn’t explain either one of these. An over crush is where you wrap your hands around the gripper and then squeeze as fast and as hard as possible. Hold the gripper as closed as you can on each rep for 5-10 seconds. This simulates the time it would take to do a max deadlift. Negatives are just that, more then you can handle on the eccentric part of the movement. I used the number 3 on this one. Set it up in the hand like a over crush, now take the other hand and help close the gripper as far as you can. Now, hold the gripper closed as long as you can or 5-15 seconds tops. It won’t take long I promise. Only three rounds of these two together! After these, do your blob lifts. Blob lifts are usually the cut off end of old hex head dumbbells or the rounded version. I did not have any of these around at the time, so I used kettle bells (12kg or 26lbs) They are about the same size as the hex head dumbbells and actually work better. A blob lift is essentially a pick and hold for time, in this case 10-15 seconds is great. I would do 3-5 holds per sets for 2 or 3 rounds. The 12kg/26lbs is a little too light for me. This is where the kettle bells come in handy. The kettle bells have handles, if you did not know already know this, which makes them perfect for adding chain to while you are picking up the blob end of the kettle bell. This is also a form of accommodating resistance or adding lbs. as you move along your particular strength curve. Just put a chain link through the handle and lift! The chain I use is 5ft long and 5/8 inch think, I think. It weighs about 20 lbs. total to give you a frame of reference.
Additionally, at the time (2005), I had just gotten back from kettlebell school where Pavel gave me another idea for grip training. This exercise was soap swings! I have mentioned these before in another article but they are always worth mentioning again. A kettlebell soap swing is just what it says. Find a spot outside on the grass or put a mat down on the pavement, get a bottle of liquid hand soap and lather generously. Grab the kettle bell and start regular one arm swings. On the downward part of the swing, push the kettle bell down violently (like you are hiking a football), this will strain the forearms and hands heavily but it is great work. You will lose it several times as it will pop out. This is the idea, keep fighting to hold on. Three to four sets of 8-12 swings is plenty for this one. Make sure you have a rag around for cleanup. I am certain these things put me over the 740 mark at the 2006 Arnold and prepared me for the 2006 WPO Semi-Finals in NY before my tricep tear in December 2006. I had no issues gripping at the time. Usually, by the end of a meet my hands are swollen and cramping.
Every contest is a new preparation period that involves employing different tricks. As I was getting ready for the 2007 Arnold (before the tricep tear), I began to work on the hook grip. Again, I asked around because that is one of the main ways you will learn. Pavel suggested Brad Gillingham might help out so I emailed him. He offered some tips. The main one being an alternating hook grip which Mark Phillpi had also used successfully for years. I had not thought of this. So, I had been practicing stretching and holding the thumb under to get them used to the pain. Brad also suggested hooking the middle of the thumb nail, which is about all I can grab anyway because of my short thumbs and rough the nail up some to limit slipping. All of these suggestions worked to a degree. Under normal circumstances, I could get to around 400 lbs. before with a double overhand grip. Working the double overhand hook grip I got to 500 lbs. or so for around five reps at the time. After alternating the hook grip, around 600-650 lbs was the max I could hold to. From there, it just would not give me anymore so I backed off the hook grip and went back to a regular grip.
In the spring of 2007, I got invited to assist at kettle bell school and gladly accepted, plus I got a free re-certification which made it nice. Now, part of the re-cert is the one arm snatch test. Unfortunately, I have to do 37 reps per arm without stopping or putting it down and only one transfer to the other arm with the 24 kg (53 lb.) kettlebell. For me, this was awful and in my brain a complete waste of time, around 5 or 6 minutes to be exact. I survived it and passed. But, always trying to figure out better and easier ways to do things, I watched all the other assistants and instructors as they did theirs and of course asked questions. They were all effortless and not even breathing hard! Put it this way, I was about the only one with a giant power lifting belly but that also separated me from them as nobody bothered me all weekend! Anyway, I noticed most of them did a slightly different style, more of a shuffle from toe to toe and less push back of the tail, much less. In fact, almost none. It was more of a good morning then anything and the kettle bell rolls around the hand and not over it. This was Girevoy snatch style. In Girevoy kettlebell sport, most everything is on a time basis for the maximum reps possible, usually a 10 minute time limit. Sometimes it’s snatches or clean and presses (jerks). These are hugely popular in Russia and are gaining a large following in the US as well. The bottom line here is not the snatch itself, but the grip of the bell which makes the difference at least for what we are after here. Instead of gripping slightly off the middle of the handle, you grab in the corner with mostly the thumb and first two fingers. There is some help from the last two but not much. You then roll the hip and catch the kettlebell about halfway down as the kettlebell goes back as a good morning. I noticed the snatch did become easier but really did not notice any grip improvement until we did rack pulls below the knees with the bands. We took a monster mini and doubled it until we got about 250-300 lbs. of tension at the top. Usually, I can do 225 lbs. of bar weight plus the bands for about 475-500 lbs. total with the double overhand hook grip before I have to go to a straight alternating grip. For some reason, it was much easier so I added a plate to 315 plus the bands for two, no problem. Again, no problem. So I went to 405 lbs. plus the bands with only minimal hand problems for two reps. This is a 650 lb. to 700 lb. with a double overhand hook grip, not the alternating hook grip best of around 600-650 lbs! I can’t wait to test the alternating hook grip now.
These are the stages of my grip journey thus far. They will change again as I search for anyway to get to the sacred 800 lb. deadlift barrier with less then average tools. Take what you need as always and always share your information because somebody somewhere has already done the impossible and you never know where you will get help from, usually the most unlikely places and people. Please visit us at southcarolinabarbell.com and see our products, articles and other great information.