Hardcore lifters often associate the use of lifting straps with a weak grip. Avoiding straps during heavy staples like deadlifts, rows, and pulldowns can be good for building forearm and hand strength, but there are also strategic uses for straps.
Straps should be mainly used where grip is the limiting factor, or in the execution of exercises to create a stronger mind-muscle connection in specific muscles. Here's when you should start strapping up and when you should just go raw.
When To Use Them
To progress in the gym, you'll need constant long-term overload. But once you're close to your physical potential, more glaring weak links will eventually come to the forefront of training. And that'll make it harder to keep pushing the load in the big lifts.
Using straps strategically during supra-maximal loaded training can be advantageous. It'll keep you from being limited by your grip strength and allow other muscles of the body to be overloaded.
The hand, wrist, and forearm musculature is slow-twitch dominant, which means it's designed to withstand extended periods of tension. Your grip is built for endurance, but there are times in advanced training where the total time under tension (TUT) can be limited by your grip.
In more advanced bodybuilding programming that involves high relative intensity, like extended drop sets, partial reps, and isometric holds, your grip shouldn't be your limiting factor if you're wanting to reap the benefits of extending a set and chasing a pump.
For pulling movements, where intensity techniques are implemented, straps are actually a preferred setup in order to maximize the challenge of each set. You can also use straps in more isolation-based movements to emphasize muscular actions at the back, shoulders, or even the lower body.
Using the lat pulldown as an example, the primary muscular mover should be the lats. But many times the forearms and biceps can take tension away from the lats, making it extremely hard to elicit strong, high-quality contractions.
By using straps, the grip can relax while the biceps are also de-emphasized, which shifts the load more directly to the lats. This same principle can apply to higher-rep deadlifts with a back emphasis, direct shoulder work such as lateral raises, and even during lower-body movements like lunges with heavy dumbbells held at the sides.
When NOT To Use Them
If you're new to the strength game, ditch the straps. You're improving motor skills and learning to tap into full body tension. Going strapless for the first one or two years will help strengthen your joints and prevent unnecessary shoulder, elbow, and spinal pain.
Lift with your bare hands to improve the irradiation effect, which transfers force from the hands up into the kinetic chain. Sure, it'll place a ceiling on the weights you're able to handle, but this is a good thing when movement patterns are first being developed.
What about the more advanced lifter? While you've earned the right to train heavy, there's a slippery slope for strap work. You still need to be judicious with it.
Sure, strapping up will allow for heavier weight to be moved, especially if your weakest link is at your fingertips. But even for the advanced, straps should be used sparingly, and only sprinkled into top-end sets. All warm-up and ramp-up sets should be done raw, and a vast majority of accessory pulling should also be taking place without straps.
Finally, if grip or bicep strength are your weak link, use heavy, raw grip work to bring these up. Then, as the grip and forearms become more emphasized in raw training, your biceps will also be recruited at a higher rate, due again to the law or irradiation. While this is a great thing to bring up these problem areas for more advanced lifters, having your grip and biceps take over during pulling-based exercises can be a challenge. Use straps wisely if that happens.