Your deadlift grip width might seem like an insignificant talking point when it comes to your powerlifting technique. However, I commonly see lifters grip the bar with such glaring faults that if they just tweaked a couple of small things they would be lifting a lot more weight.
So what should your grip width be when deadlifting? Your hands, as an extension of your arm, should fall naturally below the shoulder. As you bend over to grab the bar, you don’t want to place your hands any wider or narrower than how your arms naturally hang toward the floor. With a proper grip width, you are able to engage your lats much more efficiently, as well as reduce the range of motion of the deadlift.
As a powerlifting coach, there are specific ways I like to cue my athletes to grab the bar properly and some key things to avoid. I’m going to talk about conventional deadlifting at the start of this article and will finish with sumo deadlifts.
Why Grip Width Matters For Deadlifting
There are three main reasons why you want to focus on the right grip width.
1. You’re able to engage your lats much more effectively
One of the most improtant elements about the deadlift set up is engaging your lats.
Having your lats engaged will allow you to maintain your upper back position, as well as keep the bar on your shins and thighs as you drive the barbell upward.
With an effective grip width, your lats can be turned on and kept engaged throughout the entire range of motion.
2. You’re able to reduce the range of motion of the deadlift
The narrower the grip width, the shorter the range of motion.
To reduce the range of motion as much as possible, you’ll want to grab the bar at shoulder-width distance.
If you grab any wider than shoulder-width, you’ll pull the barbell a much further distance than necessary, which will impact your performance.
If you grab any narrower than shoulder-width, you’ll struggle with keeping your lats engaged, which as mentioned previously is important in maintaining bar control.
3. You’re able to maintain a strong grip on the barbell
Choosing the proper grip width will allow your hands to grab the bar much stronger. This will increase your ability to hold onto the bar under maximal loads and prevent you from dropping the bar at lock-out.
Clifton Pho, the 66kg World Junior Champion, wrote an article on how to maximize your deadlift grip, which covers the different grip styles that you can implement while deadlifting. If you’re interested in learning about the double overhand, mixed grip, and hook grip, I encourage you to read that article.
How I Like To Coach Grip Width For Deadlifting
The metaphor that I like to give my athletes is that your arms are chains and your hands are hooks.
When you bend over to grab the bar, you should let your arms hang in front of you like chains. At this point, they are loose and simply dangling down. As you continue to reach toward the floor, your hands will wrap around the barbell like hooks. Wherever your hands naturally fall on the barbell through this process is where you should grab the bar.
For most people, this will be somewhere around the shoulder-width grip. There are some exceptions to this, which I’ll explain later.
What you want to avoid is forcing your arms outward or inward from the body any more than they naturally hang down in front of you.
Three Cues For Setting Up Your Grip Width
Here are three general cues for you to follow when it comes to setting up your grip width on deadlifts:
1. Your hands should be placed one thumb-length from your shin.
If you stick your thumb out on the bar, you should just be touching your shin. This will likely be around the shoulder-width distance I mentioned above.
Again, if it’s not shoulder-width, no big deal. I’ll explain how your stance and overall bodyweight size will impact your grip width later.
Simply put, what you’re trying to gauge with the ‘one thumb length’ cue is whether or not your hands are too wide on the bar. If your hands are too wide then you’ll be pulling the bar extra range of motion, which will hinder your ability to lift maximally.
For my athletes, I use the one thumb-length distance as a general gauge and then compare this grip width as it relates to their shoulder width.
2. Don’t grab the bar in front of your shins
Let’s say you’ve followed my recommendation above and you naturally hang your arms down to grab the bar, but they fall in front of the shins.
This is not a position that you want to be in because your hands are too narrow and it will prevent you from having the bar on your shins and thighs as you pull the weight off the floor.
In this case, you’ll want to make sure you follow the ‘one thumb distance’ rule mentioned above.
This is why the one-thumb length cue exists. It’s to allow for some modifications to the shoulder-width grip.
3. Grip the knurling as much as possible
The knurling is the rough part of the barbell.
You’ll want to grab the barbell on the knurling as much as possible in order to maximize your grip strength.
For smaller individuals, you might find that as you naturally hang your arms down that your hands gravitate more toward the center of the barbell where there is no knurling. While this isn’t a bad thing, it increases the risk that the barbell slips out of your hand under maximal loads.
As such, this is a case where you might want to consider taking your hands out laterally to at least get one or two fingers on the knurling. It’s not mandatory, but something to think about if you find your grip failing at lock-out.
If you have lockout issues, you should read my 10 tips on how to improve your deadlift lock-out.
Main Error When Setting Up Grip Width For Deadlifts
The main error I see when setting up the grip width for deadlift actually relates to the lifter’s stance.
If your stance is too wide, then naturally your grip will be too wide.
Take a look at one of my athletes when he was first starting to powerlift:
His deadlift stance is far too wide for a conventional deadlift. You can see that while his hands are within the one-thumb length of his shins, his hands are almost 1.5X the distance of his shoulders.
As a result, when he grips the bar outside his shins, his arms are being pushed out by his legs as he drives the weight off the floor.
Not only will this make it hard to keep the upper back muscles tight, but he’s also forced to bend his arms throughout the lift, which will cause a lot of strain on the biceps. There’s also the disadvantage of having the range of motion increased with a wide grip.
For my athlete, he needed to take a stance that was slightly narrower than shoulder-width distance, so that when he bent over to grab the bar his hands were around shoulder-width.
Here’s a progress picture after working on his stance and grip width:
Here you can see that his stance is much more in line with his shoulders, and as a result, his arms hang more naturally in front of his shoulders. You can also see that he’s still within the one-thumb length of his shins.
By gripping the bar in this way, he was able to maximize his upper back tightness, as well as reduce the overall range of motion.
Grip Width For Sumo Deadlifting
When you deadlift sumo, you will place your hands inside of your shins because of your wider stance width.
Many of the same principles will still apply for people who pull using sumo deadlifts.
You still want to pick a grip width that allows you to engage your lats effectively, reduce the range of motion as much as possible, and maintain a strong grip on the barbell. For many, this will still mean picking a shoulder-width grip.
However, there’s one other factor for sumo pullers to make when considering grip width.
As you lock the weight out, depending on where your grip is on the bar, your hands will travel over the quad to more or less of an extent.
As you pull the bar into your lock-out position, your hands will trace over your quads and create friction. Some people like to lock out with their hands inside the quads, sometimes right on top of the quads, and others, outside the quads.
The argument for having your hands narrower on the bar is to reduce the range of motion more. However, this means you’ll be locking the deadlift out with your hands inside or on top of the quads. This can have some negative consequences.
To understand this further, I asked JP Cauchi, former world deadlift record holder and medalist in the 66kg class, what he thought about grip width for pulling sumo.
JP says he prefers a wider grip on the barbell because a narrower grip, where the hands are either inside or on top of the quads at lock-out, will make it harder to get the shoulders back (a mandatory position for a competitive powerlifter).
Placing the grip wider is my preference so that the hands are outside of the quads at lockout. A narrow grip will cause the hands to get stuck on the quads making the lockout harder— it also means the lifter often holds the smooth part of the bar. Instead, we want all of the fingers to be in contact with the knurling for maximum grip. Lastly, a narrow grip makes it hard to pull the shoulders back at lockout and causes the lifter to look “rounded”.JP Cauchi
To exemplify this, JP showed me Jonnie Canditos’ deadlift attempts from the 2015 IPF World Championships. Watch the difference between Jonnie’s first and second attempts.
On Jonnie’s first attempt, you can see him use a narrow grip and grab the smooth part of the barbell. As he locks the weight out, he fails the lift because he’s unable to get his shoulders back into the proper position.
On his second attempt, you can see him take a much wider grip where he’s placing all of his fingers on the knurling. In this position, he’s able to get his shoulders back and lock the weight out effectively. While he may be pulling the bar slightly more range of motion in the wider grip, the benefit of less range of motion by using a narrower grip is void if you can’t assume the lockout position correctly.
Even though I’m using the term ‘narrow’ and ‘wide’, you’ll notice the wide grip is still about shoulder-width distance.
Here’s an example of JP Cauchi’s grip where you can see his hands outside of his quads in the lock-out position:
The key takeaway for sumo pullers is to ensure your grip allows you to have your shoulders in an erect position at lockout, and try to make every effort to have your fingers on the knurling so that you can maximize your grip potential.
For most people, the hands will grip the bar naturally below the shoulders. If you’re just starting to optimize your grip width for deadlifts, then the shoulder-width grip will be a good place to start. With a proper grip width, you can engage your lats much more efficiently, as well as reduce the range of motion of the entire movement.