Few people think about the technique involved when they think about lifting weights. Those that don’t lift weights (or don’t know how to do it well) assume that you just pick up something heavy and put it down again. In reality, it is the tiny details of technique that make all the difference in lifting weight injury-free and also in making massive progress.
An important but rarely mentioned piece of the puzzle is how we hold a weight with our hands. Not sure what to do with your hands when lifting weights? Or maybe you never even thought about it. While certain movements will require their own distinct variations, like a front rack with a barbell, this article will go over the general rules for hands and wrist placement in the most common movements to keep you safe and making gains.
Grabbing a dumbbell or kettle bell
This may sound obvious but too many inexperienced lifters grab a dumbbell (DB) or a kettle bell (KB) off center. For example, they will grab a DB with their hand right next to one of the DB heads, instead of making their grip in the middle of the handle. Not only is this awkward and inefficient but can potentially torque your wrist at an uncomfortable or unsafe angle during the movement. When using one hand, grip the DB or KB right in the center of the handle.
Grabbing a barbell
Most likely you will be using a barbell (BB) with two hands so it is wise to measure your grips to make sure your hands are equal distance from each other and from the center of the bar.
You can do this in two ways:
- Place your thumbs next to each other in center of the bar and then walk your thumbs to pinky fingers until at your desired distance on the bar (this method is very useful for pull ups/chin ups and lat pull downs)
- Use the smooth and textured markers on the barbell to aligned your hands evenly
Grip Right for Better Calluses
All lifters will have to contend with calluses. There is no way around it and having some calluses is actually beneficial. They are the body’s natural response and defense to the frequent abrasion and folding from gripping. Excessive calluses can be problematic when they are prone to ripping due to improper grip technique as explained in Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. If, for example, in the deadlift you first grip the bar in the middle of your hand, as you lift the weight off the ground gravity will pull the bar down to your fingers, folding the skin just above the fingers. This folding will stimulate more callus growth. Instead, initially setting up your grip on the bar just above where the fingers meet the palm will make the bar slide less and fold less skin and therfore cause less calluses. As a note, using gloves to prevent calluses will decrease the security of your grip and increase the diameter of whatever you are gripping. We won’t comment much on gloves usage here and you can make your own decision about what your priorities are when lifting.
Server hand to serve up some injuries
Regardless of the type of weight (KB, DB, BB), for the most part we want to keep the wrist as straight or neutral as possible. Allowing the hand to lay completely flat backwards while holding a weight (like a server holding a tray) is a perfect scenario for some injuries and also making less gains. For example, a powerful, safe, and efficient barbell back squat requires the elbows to be lifted, creating a shelf with the traps, and the wrists to be “revved forward” in a neutral position. Otherwise, if the wrists are bent backward, some of the weight of the barbell is taken on by the wrists during the squat. This is a precarious situation to be in. Even in the bench press, the wrist is almost neutral with the weight resting on the heel of the palm, not laying back over the knuckles or near the fingers. This neutral wrist creates a frame with the skeleton and does not interfere with the weight transfer from the bar to the body so you can lift more weight safely and efficiently. The same is true for angling the hand too far forward when the wrist is bent forward.
As mentioned, there are more nuanced wrist configurations when isolating the forearms or in certain lifts which are beyond the scope of this article.
External Rotation Saves the Day
Some of the ingredients of the secret sauce for safe progressive lifting is in external rotation. Now, this doesn’t exactly happen in the wrists. It happens more in the shoulder or the hip. This external force creates tension and transfers to the hand and foot placement. Instead of allowing the wrist to flop forward or backward when picking up a barbell, think instead about creating external rotation with the neutral wrist we’ve been going on and on about in this article. You can create this tension by imagining in you are holding a stick in both hands, arms outstretched in front of you, and you want to snap the stick in half. The way your arms rotate externally is the movement you re-create when setting up a bench press (beginning with a little more internal rotation, like bulldog arms, at the initial gripping) or the way your create tension on the barbell in a back squat. This external rotation recruits more muscles and usually creates proper body alignment.
Hopefully these general and basic questions have been answered:
- How do I hold a dumbbell or kettle bell?
- Where do I put my hands on a barbell?
- How do I grip a weight?
- What is my wrist position when lifting?
With this knowledge you can be mindful of the way you are gripping your weight of choice and you will be on the path to safe, effective weight training.
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