Beginning with wrestling and soccer, Jake has been immersed in fitness nearly his whole life. Personal training and studying exercise in college were the natural progression of that passion. Competing locally in bodybuilding and powerlifting, Jake currently studies exercise at university and does online coaching at Jackalstrength.com.
The deadlift: king of lifts, right? Do it right and the benefits are numerous, do it wrong… well, it is infamous.
Regarding conventional deadlifts, you’ve probably heard that alternating grip (sometimes called the over-under grip) is “bad”.
First off, what does bad mean? “Bad” is an ambiguous term that people use to describe things that they don’t understand. Does that mean it will negatively impact your goals? Will it be effective at creating the desired stimulus? Will it increase risk of injury? Create muscle imbalances? Let’s break down what’s actually going on so we can analyze the pros and cons of the alternating grip.
Let’s begin with the shoulder joint(s). The humerus, the scapula, and the clavicle meet forming the glenohumeral joint and the acromioclavicular joint (the sternoclavicular joint and the scapulothoracic joint are also involved, but we’re not going to focus on them right now). The structure lends little in the way of stability but allows for high levels of mobility. The result is essentially a stick with a ball on the end, held in place by a number of rubber-bands of varying strengths. These joints can be incredibly stable and strong (ever seen Zydrunas Savickas log press 489.5lbs?), but the muscles involved are prone to imbalances.
It’s easy to see why; the list of muscles involved in internal rotation is extensive and mechanically advantaged (pecs, lats, teres major, etc.) when compared to the muscles performing external rotation (infraspinatus, teres minor). The result? Powerlifters who somehow have the same posture as the sedentary tech guy sitting at a computer all day. And no, it’s not just their “tight pecs” that create this semi-permanent state of internal rotation.
But let’s get back to the deadlift before we get too off track.
A proper double-overhand grip (or hook-grip, for the masochists out there) sets both hands in-line on the bar and uses the external rotation of the humerus to stabilize the shoulders and upper-back. This stability allows for proper force transference through the legs, the torso, down the arms, and… often fails at the hands. The bar just wants to roll out of your hands because the opening of your hands is in the same direction.
So you switch to an alternating grip.
Alternated grip places one arm in the same position as before, but the other arm is now supinated. This is where it gets tricky. If your shoulder has proper strength, stability, and range of motion, then your infraspinatus and teres minor stabilize the shoulder, your biceps stabilize your elbow, the alternating grip stops the bar from rolling, and you just blast through your lift. New PR. Congratulations.
But what happens if your shoulder doesn’t have that proper stabilization? What if you have the classic powerlifter slouch? Something has to stabilize the shoulder in order for this movement to be performed. So your biceps, those glorious peaks, step in; on the proximal end they stabilize the shoulder, while on the distal end they are still required to stabilize the elbow. (Un)luckily, your grip is now solid, so you blast off, straining for that PR, and suddenly you feel a searing pain in your arm. Required to maintain extreme tension at both ends, your bicep just tore. Say goodbye to those glorious peaks.
To summarize: double-overhand grip stabilizes the upper-body well, but it does have its drawbacks when it comes to overall grip strength. The alternating grip is significantly better for grip strength, but it must be done well to ensure biceps safety. Which one should you do? That’s entirely up to you, your body, and your training. Just be smart and honest with yourself; clearly assess what is best for you.
At the end of the day, what grip you use when deadlifting is a lot like… well, deadlifting. Do it well and you’ll find great success. Do it poorly and you’re in for a world of hurt.