Many people worry about hurting their back when doing deadlifts. This is certainly a concern if you are performing them with bad posture. However there is another area of your body that is also potentially at risk, yet is rarely discussed. That area, surprisingly, is your bicep.
First we need to examine why your bicep may be at risk of injury. The majority of deadlifters perform their reps with what is called the ‘mixed grip’ (or ‘over-under' grip). This grip is advantageous over a regular double overhand grip because, as anyone who has added a bit of weight to their deadlift has learned, the bar will eventually start to roll in your hand when a double overhand grip. The mixed grip prevents the rolling, but it does have one major disadvantage.
The mixed grip is a stronger grip as it ensures the bar won't roll in the hands.
When using the mixed grip, one arm is supinated. This is the side that has the palm facing out. Supinating the arm puts the bicep muscle under stretch (this is why bicep curls are performed under supination). This now puts you at risk of tearing a bicep while deadlifting, as the loads that your legs and back can move are much greater than the bicep. Now, admittedly, this is quite a rare injury, but it does happen and bicep tears may never fully heal if they are severe enough.
Anatomy of the biceps and illustration of supination (palm up) vs. pronation (palm down)
If you don’t believe me that this is something that can happen to you, just watch this video (props to you if you can make it through the full 3 minutes):
The solution: Hook Grip
Enter the hook grip. This is a pronated double overhand grip, meaning that your bicep is now no longer at risk. The 'hook' refers to using the thumb as a hook between your hand and the bar. Not only does this massively reduce the odds of a bicep strain/tear, but many people also find that the hook grip is actually a stronger grip for deadlifting (myself included).
To perform the hook grip, first wrap your thumb under and across the bar (left), then wrap your fingers over the thumb, squeezing tightly and pressing the thumb into the bar to grip (right).
A small pain to avoid a big pain
So this seems like the perfect solution, right? Well, while hook grip will protect your biceps and potentially make your grip even stronger, there is one caveat that I would be remiss not to mention: hook grip HURTS LIKE A MOTHERF***ER. Why? Because you have a large force compressing your thumb against a piece of knurled iron and, last I checked, thumbs don't offer much in the way of padding like muscle or fat. The first few weeks of hook grip can be very painful. Even after you've conditioned your thumbs to the hook grip, it's probably never going to feel exactly pleasant. However there are some measures you can take to ensure your thumbs don't take a beating.
Essential steps for switching to hook grip
MAKE THE TRANSITION SLOWLY. Start by using hook grip for as many of your warmup sets as possible, until your grip goes and you need to switch to mixed. Eventually start performing a few of your working reps with hook grip, then entire sets, etc.
2. USE CHALK. This adds massively to your grip and will make it less likely the bar will slip in your hands, which can be quite painful.
3. USE TAPE. Wrapping your thumb with light plaster tape will reduced the friction between your skin and the bar.
3. MANAGE YOUR CALLUSES. You should trim your calluses every week. Use a nail file, a nail clippers, a pumice stone, or whatever works for you. Just don't let them thicken or they will eventually tear.
4. USE STRAPS. Hookgrip is great but sometimes isn't feasible for high rep sets, or if your thumbs are just very beat up. In these instance it's handy to have lifting straps. Just make sure you only use the straps when you NEED them, or your grip will suffer.
Chalk is essential for a strong and safe hook grip
Anytime my thumbs are feeling beat up and I feel like going back to mixed grip, I just play that bicep tear compilation video to put it all in perspective.