When it comes to squatting, I’m sure you’ve noticed a range of grips when holding the bar to your back. Some wide, some narrow, some appear to loosely hold the bar, others very tightly. A common variation is a thumbless grip, where the thumb does not wrap under the bar.
What is the thumbless grip? A thumbless grip squat allows the lifter to hold the bar to their back without wrapping their thumb underneath. Instead, all fingers sit on top of the bar, pulling it against the lifter’s back for stability. If the lifter prefers, this is a valid, safe grip that can be used while squatting.
The big question is this: does the thumbless grip actually benefit you and should you make an effort to adopt it in your squat?
If you’re looking to learn about other hand and grip positions for the squat, check out my full guide on Squat Hand Position: 4 Rules To Follow.
Overview: Thumbless Grip Squat
The thumbless grip squat simply allows a lifter to keep their thumbs on top of the bar along with their other digits, rather than wrapping your thumb under the bar and gripping it like you would a bench press.
This preference will mostly be driven by the lifter’s mobility in their shoulders and elbows.
It won’t drastically change your force output into the bar, and it certainly won’t add 50lbs to your squat overnight, but it can absolutely be the first domino to fall in a cascade of improvements that CAN improve your overall squat.
Shoulders hurting you while squatting? Check out my article on How To Fix Shoulder Pain While Squatting (9 Solutions).
Why Squat With the Thumbless Grip? (5 Reasons)
So if it’s just a matter of preference, why would you make a change?
As we said, a simple change in your grip might just open up some areas that can majorly impact your squat performance.
The 5 reasons you should consider a thumbless squat grip are:
- Get tighter on your back
- Get lower on your back
- Reduce elbow pain
- Reduce wrist pain
- Personal preference
1. Get Tighter on Your Back
Adjusting your grip on the squat can allow you to get into a tighter position.
Many beginning lifters don’t think much about their upper back during a squat. After all, it looks like it’s a leg exercise.
When you squat often enough, you realize the importance of the upper back muscles.
A telltale sign of a novice squatter is one who doesn’t tighten up their upper back enough. They exert all the force from their legs and hips, but it gets eaten up in a slack upper back and doesn’t pass the force into the bar to move it upward.
Think of a train sitting idle on a track. If you start pushing it from the back, the first thing that happens is all of the slack in between the cars closes up. The front of the train won’t move until there’s no space left between all the cars as they press together from the force at the back.
The same thing happens with your body during a lift. If you are not tight in every muscle, every joint from bottom to top, then the force you exert from your feet will first go into closing up those gaps, long before it ever reaches the bar on top of your back.
Therefore, if you have your back tight and engaged from the start, it’s like pushing on a train that’s already stacked tightly together – the car at the front moves as soon as you put force on the back.
Even at the intermediate and advanced levels of lifters, a slight improvement in your tightness or position of your upper back can be the difference between white lights and red lights.
Try the thumbless grip squat with a few warm-up weights, and eventually on your top sets. See if it allows you to pull that bar tighter against your back so no force is lost between your body and the bar.
The change in grip just might be the adjustment that lets you get the ideal upper back position.
In my Squat Cues article, I explain the “pull the barbell down” cue, which you should do prior to squatting down.
2. Get Lower on Your Back
The lower you can get the bar on your back, the better your leverage will be to squat it back up.
In my article on Where Should You Put The Bar On Your Back While Squatting, I explain it’s advantageous to get the bar lower on your back.
However, the most common limitation of that is your shoulder, wrist, and elbow mobility. Not everyone can securely hold onto the bar very far down their back.
By leaving the thumb on top of the bar, your forearms are less pronated. The thumb hooked under the bar forces your arms to pronate, or twist inward. This can cause discomfort in your wrists and elbows, depending on your mobility.
If that’s the case, try leaving the thumb on top and seeing how it affects your ability to place the bar lower on your back.
As a word of caution, always try these adjustments with an empty bar and warm-up weights before attempting them with working weight.
Need a squat warm-up routine? You can find my science-backed squat warm-up here.
3. Reduce Elbow Pain
A simple adjustment of your grip can reduce elbow pain.
As we described above, your pronated forearms holding the bar on your back add torque onto your elbows during a squat with a standard grip.
By using the thumbless grip squat, you reduce that pronation, and therefore reduce the torque on your elbows.
If you are squatting with elbow pain (or any pain), there will always be a diminished force output as your body tries to protect that pain. If you can fix your elbow pain, you can focus more attention and energy into the squat, instead of being distracted by the pain.
A thumbless grip squat may be the answer to your elbow pain, and if so, you should absolutely make the switch.
Elbows hurting you while squatting? Check out my article on How To Fix Elbow Pain While Squat (8 Solutions).
4. Reduce Wrist Pain
Your current grip may be causing you wrist pain, and a slight adjustment could fix it.
For a long time, my squat form put a lot of strain on my wrists. It felt like I was carrying the full weight of the squat bar on my wrists at times, and it left them aching after each set.
As with the elbow pain, the thumbless grip squat can reduce the strain put on your wrists by simply changing the angle of your forearms as you hold the bar against your back.
If you can’t make that adjustment, or the thumbless grip squat doesn’t do anything to change your wrist pain, I’d definitely recommend squatting with wrist wraps, no matter your grip. Check out our breakdown of the best wrist wraps for powerlifting.
5. Personal Preference
Ultimately, this decision will all come down to what is comfortable for you as a lifter.
Maybe you can’t define why it’s better for you, maybe you just like it better – that’s great! We lift better when we are comfortable.
You don’t have to have a medical, physiological, or scientific reason to squat with your thumbs out from under the bar. If it makes you more comfortable and allows you squat big and squat often, then that’s the most important factor of all.
How To Do The Thumbless Grip Squat
1. Place your hands on the bar as it sits on the rack in front of you
2. Leave your thumbs on top of the bar
3. Step under the bar, leaving your hands in place
4. Place the bar in the desired position on your back (somewhere between your traps and your rear delt, depending on preference and mobility).
5. Pull the bar firmly against your back and tighten your upper back
6. Stand up under the bar and walk it back from the rack.
A few notes:
Let the bar sit on the meaty bar of the palms of your hands, right at the base. Your wrists shouldn’t be all the way bent back to where they are straining, but just enough to make that meaty part of your hand hold the bar.
Continue to pull the bar against your body as you squat. The tighter you can keep the bar to your body, the more effective the transfer of force will be into the bar to move it upward.
Can You Do A Thumbless Squat Grip In A Powerlifting Competition?
The two main powerlifting federations (USAPL and USPA) are all ok with the thumbless squat grip.
“The lifter shall face the front of the platform. The bar shall be held horizontally across the shoulders, hands and fingers gripping the bar. [Clarification: For the purpose of this rule, the thumbs are not considered fingers and a “thumbless” grip is allowed in the squat] The hands may be positioned anywhere on the bar inside and or in contact with the inner collars.”
“The bar shall be held horizontally across the shoulders with the hands and fingers gripping the bar and the feet flat on the platform with the knees locked.”
I wrote an entire article on all of the squat rules for competition if you’re interested to know the other technical aspects.
Should You Use The Thumbless Grip In Competition?
So knowing that it’s legal from a technical standpoint, the question is then SHOULD you do it in competition?
Our only recommendation is this:
Don’t change your grip on meet day. There will be plenty of unexpected factors that are out of your control on meet day. Don’t be the one to introduce more complexity or change to your form or routine on the platform.
If you want to try the thumbless grip squat, train a whole block with it before incorporating it into your competition plans.
If you’re new to competing, check out our entire section on Starting Powerlifting.
Thumbless Grip Squat vs Regular Grip Squat: Which Is Better?
The best squat grip is the one that allows you to safely squat the most weight without risking injury.
If you find that you are distracted by your elbow, wrist, or shoulder pain while you squat, I guarantee that distraction is taking away from the force you could be exerting into the bar.
If you are unable to get the bar lower down your back because of the way you are gripping the bar, you are likely missing out on a more advantageous position of the bar on your back.
If using the thumbless grip squat allows you to remove that pain, if it allows you to get the bar into a better position, if it allows you to get your upper back tighter under the bar, then the thumbless grip squat is the better alternative for you.
On the other hand, if you start using the thumbless grip squat and find that it’s uncomfortable, don’t do it.
If you try the thumbless grip, but you feel like the bar is not as snug in your hands or against your back and it’s distracting you, then don’t do it. That same distraction will pull your focus and force output the same way another lifter’s pain will distract them.
If everything is going great with your standard grip squat, don’t change anything. The standard grip is working for you.
Whatever your decision, base it off the actual experience you have while squatting. Measure the differences and decide which one will translate to helping you hit your goals.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.