Dear Swole Woman,
I’ve been lifting pretty heavy (heavy for me, anyway!) for a few months and I’ve been pretty happy with my progress, especially with my deadlift, which was a problem for a long time due to some chronic back pain. With careful work and focus on form, I’ve been making comfortable gains every week. I’m now at the point, however, where my lack of grip strength is getting in the way. I PRed a single rep max this morning and felt like I could do more reps at that weight, but the bar slipped out of my grasp and I just couldn’t get my left hand to cooperate for another rep. I’m using gloves, which helps with the blisters, but do you have any advice on how to strengthen my grip or any hacks to get around the weakness?
Thanks a bunch! —Mary
Ok so, gloves are bad to use. Do not use them. They make the bar thicker and harder to hold onto, and for values of heavy weight, they put more material that can slip in between your bones and muscles and the bar itself that will actually still cause blisters or even make them worse. I’m sorry, but you have to lose the gloves.
Read here on the proper way to grip the bar in a way that will absolutely minimize the number of calluses you get. There is a right way and a wrong way. You should also try using mixed grip, one hand underhand, one hand overhand. If the bar is not perfectly straight (and cheap or heavily used bars are often bent from use), it might roll out of your grip, and a mixed grip will stop that. Some people favor one hand, but I alternate between both to help prevent imbalance between my two sides.
You can also get some chalk for your hands. If your gym doesn’t allow the kind that comes in blocks (which you can bring in a little tupperware container or plastic bag but can be a little messy) you can use liquid chalk, which is relatively expensive but extremely self-contained and will not get everywhere and give you away to a chalk-hostile gym.
Now, if after you do all this, and you’re still failing your lift, know that your grip is not always an isolated problem. If you’re really having to grip and rip every rep (i.e., not lifting with good form but just getting the bar up by the grace of a lot of heaving, leaving you very sore for the next few days), your form might be the problem, not your grip. Take note of whether you’re getting really sore in any spots you shouldn’t be, and shoot a video of yourself deadlifting so you can see exactly what it is you’re doing and if anything is wrong.
If it really, REALLY is your grip, there are a few things you can try—dead hangs from a pullup bar as long as you can (just grab on and hang there as long as your hands will let you), farmers’ carries (pick up a set of dumbbells or barbells and walk as far as you can, back and forth across a room if you have to. You can also try just grabbing the edge of bench with as much pressure as you can for as long as you can, and do a few sets of that. Grip can be tricky, but you will be opening all the jars and getting the best of every handshake in no time.
2023 addendum: If grip is specifically an issue in deadlifts, it's important to know that once the weights start to get pretty heavy (let's say over a hundred pounds), the bar will start to roll in your hands. To overcome this, you learn to use a "mixed grip," where one hand faces out, one in. This may feel awkward at first, but prevents rolling. If you ever want to deadlift any significant weight, you will have to learn to do mixed grip at some point. You can see me mixed gripping below.
I believe most people invert their non-dominant hand. I invert my dominant hand, but for a very long time alternated sides, thinking that not doing both would cause a muscle imbalance (it will not if you are doing a sufficiently otherwise-balanced lifting program).
Bonus: On pelvic floor challenges
Hello your High Swoleness,
I’ve been lifting for years but have gotten more serious and made some strides this year, partially due to your informative column! Well, about a week ago I was doing a set of heavy (for me) sumo deadlifts: 4-5 sets of 2 @ 210. My PR is 215, so I’ve pulled 210 before and my 1 rep max should be higher than 215. On my third set, I accidentally peed myself a little. Probably like 1-2 Tablespoons worth. I did the worst thing possible and immediately took to the internet. There appears to be two different camps on this, 1. Good for you, you peed yourself! 2. This isn’t normal, stop doing deadlifts, go see a Dr, never step in a gym again. Now I’m paranoid this is going to happen every time I do deadlifts, so I’ve been avoiding them for fear that it will be worse next time! Is there some sort of middle ground on this? I would love to feel comfortable enough to try deadlifts again!
Note: I’ve never given birth so I’m not used to leaking.
Dear god, please make this anonymous
Hello extremely anonymous!
So, this is a thing that happens with women. You are right that there are two schools of thought, but I wouldn’t characterize them the way you did. The first school is more like “yeah bro so hardcore, next time see if you can puke and then pass out at the same time and then spring back up and shoot a speedball and shotgun a Monster AT THE SAME TIME!” and then the other is like, “yes, something might be awry here.” Unfortunately, there appear to be way more people in the former camp than in the latter. If you spend any time on CrossFit or lifting YouTube, you will encounter a fair number of women who have been gaslighted into celebrating or dismissing their own involuntary urination.
Peeing doesn’t mean you can never do a deadlift again; while I am, for the zillionth time, not a doctor, my understanding is it can sometimes happen spontaneously with no underlying reason. But if it happens several times and with some regularity, it’s worth getting checked out by a doctor. It is frequently conflated with issues that can come with having been pregnant, but many women who never have been also have this problem. Men have it too, though less.
One of the sanest resources on this subject is a video by megsquats, who is herself a powerlifter. In this video she runs down some of the possible causes of this issue and interviews another woman who has never been pregnant who has this problem. As you may know, lifting involves flexing your pelvic floor and actually does make it stronger (which means you get to lol in the face of every yoni egg and pelvic floor circuit and whatever other bullshit the world has cooked up for us in this specific respect). Peeing can be the result of not only an UNDERactive pelvic floor (as is sometimes the case for women who have given vaginal birth, but for other never-pregnant women too) but also an OVERactive pelvic floor (signs of which include constipation and difficulty starting peeing). The video gets in depth on ways to deal with this issue, but you won’t know what your issue is and therefore how to work with it without going to a doctor first.
If you have a competition coming up or something, you can wear a panty liner or something just to be safe, but please don’t use this as a permanent stop gap. It is possible to learn to deadlift in a way that’s right for you such that this doesn’t happen.
This post originally ran on The Hairpin in 2018 and has been lightly edited.