The squat requires us to create full body tension in order to lift the most weight possible, and this starts by positioning the hands correctly. But what is the best hand position for squats, and what general rules should we follow?
Where should your hands be when squatting? Our hands should be in a grip width that allows us to create the most tension in the upper back as possible while squatting. This means placing the hands just outside shoulder-width with the hand and wrist stacked in a neutral position, allowing the barbell to be placed comfortably in the palm of the hand.
While our grip on the barbell can be individualized based on personal preference, there are some key rules that need to be followed to ensure an optimal position and limit strain on the joints. In this article, we’ll discuss the 4 rules for optimal hand placement, different grip options, and when to change your grip width.
Struggling to hold onto the bar while squatting? Check out these 7 Tips To Hold Onto The Bar When Low Bar Squatting
The Most Optimal Squat Hand Positions
The 4 rules every lifter must follow when setting up their hand position in the squat are:
1. Choose The Grip That Feels The Most Comfortable
2. Use A Grip Width That Creates Upper Body Tension
3. Keep The Bar Stacked Over The Wrist
4. Keep The Hand In-Line With The Wrist (Limit Radial Deviation)
Rule #1: Choose The Grip That Feels The Most Comfortable
There are 3 ways you can position your hands on the barbell while squatting: regular grip, thumbless grip, and talon grip.
For different lifters, each of these hand positions will feel slightly different, and some more comfortable than others. You should select the one that feels the best for you no matter what others are doing.
A regular grip is characterized by having four fingers wrapped around the barbell with the thumb tucked underneath the bar to achieve a full grip.
This grip is most commonly used for beginners as it is generally the most comfortable for lifters who do not have upper body mobility issues.
Some lifters choose to perform their squats without their thumb wrapped around the bar, and instead have all five fingers on top of the bar – this is known as a thumbless grip.
The thumbless grip is typically used by lifters who struggle with upper body mobility and/or need it to get the bar lower on their back (for better leverage) in a low bar squat.
The talon grip is a grip that is similar to the thumbless grip, but goes a step further to decrease the requirements of the shoulders by dropping the pinky finger underneath the barbell. In doing so, we can alleviate the strain on the lats for those who are limited by tightness in the lats.
The talon grip is used by lifters who struggle with upper body mobility and therefore have issues getting the hands in a position where they are able to create tightness in the upper back. It is also more likely to be used by lifters who compete with the low bar style squat, as it allows the lifter to get the bar further down the back.
Important point: It is important to note that the talon grip is not permitted in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) as the pinky finger must be around the bar. Therefore, if we plan to compete in this federation, we should avoid this grip. There is no point in practicing a grip that we cannot compete with.
To learn more about the rules of competition for the squat, check out our article for Powerlifting Squat Technique Rules
Want to improve your squat technique?
Rule #2: Use A Grip Width That Allows For Upper Body Tension
A lifter’s grip width is determined by their ability to keep the upper back tight by driving the elbows under the bar and towards the midline. If our grip needs adjustment we will struggle to maintain tightness in the upper back during the squat.
A telltale sign of a lifter who is unable to create upper body tension is a rounding of the upper back as the weight gets heavier in the squat, as well as elbows flaring out behind them (rather than driving them under the bar).
If we are having trouble getting tight through in the start position, we can experiment with our grip to find the grip width that allows us to create tension through the upper back by driving the elbows in the direction of the midline (under the bar and towards the body) without creating pain in the wrist, elbow, or shoulder.
Experiencing pain in the shoulders while squatting? Check out these 9 Solutions For Fixing Shoulder Pain While Squatting
Rule #3: Keep The Bar Stacked Over The Wrist
In order to protect the wrist and limit wrist pain, we should position the bar in the palm of our hand where it can rest on the meaty part, this allows for the bar to remain stacked over the wrist joint.
This position allows for the wrist to bend back (in slight extension) while keeping the load of the bar stacked over the joints. In order to maintain this position under load and avoid bending the wrist back too far (which can cause pain in the wrist), we should actively engage the hands by squeezing the bar.
Squeezing the bar is one of the cues I mentioned in my article on 9 Squat Cues To Improve Your Technique.
Rule #4: Keep The Hand In-Line With The Wrist (Limit Radial Deviation)
Radial deviation (wrists bent sideways towards the thumb) is a motion that can put pressure on the wrists when we grip the barbell in the squat. Instead we want our hands and wrists to be stacked in a neutral position that continues with the forearm rather than cocked inwards towards the body.
This can reduce wrist pain that often occurs with radial deviation due to the pressure created at the wrist joint (carpal bones) when supporting the barbell.
To alleviate and prevent symptoms of pain, we can engage the musculature of the hands by applying pressure into the bar to maintain a neutral position. However, in cases where we cannot maintain a neutral position despite our efforts, it may be best to adjust our grip width to accommodate a more stacked position of the hands and wrist.
By the way, I wrote another article on the best deadlift grip width. There’s a lot more that can go wrong when selecting your deadlift grip width so make sure to check out that article!
How To Know When You Need A Wider Grip
We may need a wider grip if we have mobility restrictions with the upper body and/or we feel that a wider grip is more comfortable and we can still create tension in the upper body.
If we have any mobility restrictions in the upper body, that means that there is a tightness in one or more muscle groups that prevents us from getting into the proper positions to create upper body tightness in the squat.
In order to get tight, we need to get the hands as close to our shoulders as our mobility allows for, but if we are limited by tightness or pain we will need to take a wider grip. How wide we go will be determined by the width at which we are able to create the most tension in the upper back and hands without restrictions.
One way to combat mobility restrictions is to ensure you have a proper warm-up. Check out my article on How To Warm Up For Squats where I give you some specific mobility drills to work on.
If a wider grip is more comfortable and feels more secure, we should go with the wider grip. This is often the case for larger individuals or individuals with bigger upper body mass.
The reason for this is that if we try to go narrower and we are experiencing discomfort, our performance is likely to be impacted because we will be overly focused on the discomfort we are experiencing rather than having the mental capacity to focus on other cues and technique aspects of the squat.
We should choose the grip that provides the most comfort and instills confidence, but that we are still able to get tight with by squeezing the hands into the bar and driving the elbows under the bar.
Struggling with elbow pain when squatting? Try these 8 Solutions To Fix Elbow Pain While Squatting
How To Know When You Need A Narrower Grip
We may need a more narrow grip if we are not able to create upper body tension with our current grip, we cannot keep our hands and wrists in-line, we have no mobility restrictions or pain in the upper body with a narrower grip.
A narrow grip may cause wrist pain. Check out my article How To Fix Wrist Pain While Squatting for more details.
Inability To Create Upper Body Tension
If we are struggling to create upper body tension, we should consider taking a more narrow grip. The reason for this is that with a narrower grip we are able to create more tension in the upper back by packing the lats, squeezing the hands and driving the elbows under the bar.
If we are struggling to create this level of tightness with a wider grip, we are likely to experience a folding over in the squat due to upper-back rounding or the weight may feel heavier during the unrack – both of which can mentally and physically throw off the lift.
Also, with a lack of upper back tightness you may experience falling forward in the squat (especially under heavy weight). If that’s you I encourage you to check out my other article on How To Fix Leaning Too Far Forward In The Squat.
Unable To Keep The Hands In-Line With The Wrists
If our grip is too wide, we may not be able to prevent radial deviation of the wrist when gripping the bar and maintain the hands in-line with the wrists despite actively engaging the musculature of the hands. This can cause immediate pain and discomfort in the wrist or elbows or could develop over time.
In this situation, it is better to take a more narrow grip with which we are able to maintain a neutral position of the wrist. This will alleviate pain and reduce distractions during the squat – allowing us to focus on our performance.
Mobility Restrictions Are Not An Issue
If we do not have restrictions in our upper body mobility, this means that we should be able to grip the bar closer to the shoulders, allowing us to pack the upper body tightly and create upper body tension.
This is an ideal situation because it will allow us to create enough tightness to prevent upper back rounding and can make the weight feel lighter out of the rack. For these reasons, if we do not have mobility restrictions and we feel stronger in this packed position, we should adapt a narrower grip.
If you find that you lean to one side during the squat it could be because you haven't got the right hand placement. If that's you, check out my article on How To Fix Leaning To One Side While Squatting.
Regular Grip Or Thumbless Grip On The Bar?
The regular grip and thumbless grip are the two most popular grip styles for squats. Some lifters prefer the thumbless grip because they are limited in their ability to create tension in the upper body.
The reason for this is that they are unable to squeeze the bar into their back because of mobility restrictions, which can also cause shoulder, elbow, or wrist pain. For these individuals, the thumbless grip is the better option as it relieves pain and allows them to get tighter and it is likely to feel more comfortable.
For those who do not experience pain with the regular grip around the bar, and are able to create sufficient upper back tightness, it may not be worth switching to a thumbless grip. The reason for this is that sometimes it is best to adapt the attitude of “if it's not broken, then don’t fix it”.
It comes down to personal preference, as each lifter will feel more comfortable with a different grip; but for those who experience discomfort in the shoulders, elbows, or wrists because of the pronation (twisting of the forearm inwards) component of the regular grip, it is worth trying the thumbless grip.
Low Bar VS High Bar Hand Placement: Is There A Difference?
The difference between low bar and high bar is the position of the bar on the back, with the low bar style sitting lower on the back and high bar style resting more on top of the traps.
The hand position varies slightly between the two because with the high bar squat we are not having to exert force against the bar to hold it in place, even though we are driving the elbows towards the midline for tension.
This is why some people can place their hands narrower in a high bar squat.
In contrast, with the low bar squat we are having to exert force against the bar through the hands to maintain the bar’s position on the back by pulling the bar down and into the back. This may result in increased wrist extension while driving the elbows towards the midline.
This is why some people should be placing their hands slightly wider in a low bar squat.
However, the same rules apply for optimal hand positions for both squat variations because for both styles we want to keep the bar stacked over the wrist joint to better distribute the force from the barbell, as well as maintain a neutral position by actively engaging the hands into the bar to prevent radial deviation.
Although the wrist is more likely to experience additional forces toward wrist extension (bending back of the wrist) in a low bar position, we should still actively try to minimize the amount it is bent backwards. This is often accomplished using the assistance of wrist wraps – which can help us manage the load on the wrist by assisting in joint stability.
Wondering whether low bar or high bar is better for you? Check our article on Where You Should Put The Bar When Squatting
While personal preference plays a role in many aspects of the hand positions for the squat, there are key rules we need to follow to prevent pain, create tightness, and ensure success in the squat. Following these rules will help us to lift the most weight possible, without the distractions that can occur from pain and tightness when our hand positions are not optimal.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.