His name was Master Chai, a multi-degree black belt who came to the United States from the mountains of Korea. Thinking back, I don’t recall the year, day, or date, but I remember watching the event unfold right in front of me when I was a teenager, just like it was yesterday. Master Chai had all of his Tae Kwon Do students, myself included, in the parking lot after one of the students broke his hand trying to break a brick.

I remember watching Master Chai slowly and deliberately tighten up his fist and then lay on the pavement, his fist tight and his arm laying straight on the ground. I then remember watching as one of the other black belts got in his Jeep and drove over Master Chai’s closed fist. He slowly drove the Jeep up, on, over, and then off of Chai’s closed fist. We all watched in total shock as we tried to figure out why Master Chai not only wanted to purposely crush his own hand under the weight of the Jeep, but also why he wanted us to witness this. Once Master Chai got up from the pavement, he proceeded to brush the grit from the tire and the pavement off of his fist. And slowly, little by little, he unfurled his hand, eventually displaying a perfectly functional hand, little finger and all. It is a memory that has stuck with me to this day.

Now on to your question—what does this have to do with powerlifting? Well, for the sake of this article, only everything when it comes to the hook grip. Almost a decade ago I was prepping for the WPC World’s, and during an all too routine 605-pound final warm-up, I tore my right bicep. Nearly a total detachment. Following a successful surgery, the surgeon told me that there was this little eight percent of the tendon keeping the other 92 percent from rolling up, window shade style. Therefore, pulling with that arm supinated was a no-go. I will spare the details of the rehab and such for another article (as they might be helpful for someone else who has had this injury recently), but I will tell you that I was concerned about my deadlift because as a good deadlifter. (I was, and still am, a horrid bencher on the other hand). I talked to Ernie Frantz as I sat there with ice on my bicep, and he suggested swapping the pronated hand for a supinated hand and vice versa. Since I am not indestructible like Ernie, I started talking to other guys who had blown their biceps and then swapped grip. However, nearly 75 percent of them had eventually blown the other bicep. Ernie has ropes for biceps tendons, I don’t, and I wanted no part of another rupture. Enter, the hook grip...

If you are not familiar with the hook grip, it is a way to grip the bar that is best known in the Olympic lifting community. The easiest way to describe the hook grip (versus the traditional overhand and underhand grip) is to say that you are basically using your own thumb and fingers to create a wrist-strap around the bar.
With a hook grip, both hands are in the pronated position, meaning your palms are facing in when you are holding the deadlift bar. Here are the steps:

1. Open your hands as wide as possible and try to push the barbell deep into the pocket of your palms.

2. Wrap your thumbs around the bar as far as you can, as if you were going to completely encircle the bar with your thumb.

3. Grip the barbell with your pinky and ring finger while your index finger and your “hey, you just cut me off in traffic!” finger are wrapped around your thumb as tightly as you can. (Remember, the thumb is wrapped around the bar, and it is kind of pointed toward your own pinky finger). To be clear, the index and middle finger are gripping so tightly and squeezing the thumb into the barbell that the thumb is essentially trapped by those two fingers.

*Try this on something thinner than a barbell, such as the handle of a wooden spoon or something of that likeness, so you can see what it is like to engulf that implement into your hand and use this hook grip.

The key to the hook grip is the lesson of Master Chai. The reason his hand did not break is because he tightened his fist so much that there was no room for the carpels in his hand to move. Thus, there were no moving parts to break, just one big non-breakable mass. The hook grip is like that. If there is no space between your thumb and the bar, you can pull tremendous weight and not really feel the hook grip much.

The hook will “feel” fine for lighter weight that you can still hold with a double pronated grip, even if you are doing it incorrectly and not gripping it as tightly as you should. However, when the weight is greater than what your double pronated grip can hold, you have to grip that bar as if someone is trying to steal your paycheck in order for the hook to work properly. And with a tight—and I mean TIGHT—hook grip, you are smashing your own thumb to the deadlift bar. If you grab the bar with less than your tightest grip, the bar will smash your thumb as the bar is lifted, so now you have gravity, the barbell, and 700 pounds smashing your thumb. The tighter the grip of your hook, the less pain to your thumbs. Now, when I say “less” pain to the thumb, that is a relative term. The hook grip is not a pleasant grip. When I say that, I don’t mean a "going to the dentist" kind of unpleasant. I mean it is significantly unpleasant. You are going to have to mentally commit to this grip in order to do it. It is not like lifting sumo for a training cycle and then doing another training cycle with a conventional stance. This is like getting tattooed—you kind of just get through it.

In my experience, here are some pros to the hook grip:

  • Your body won’t twist or windmill as it can with a pronated and supinated grip.
  • Your supinated bicep is not actively engaged, so it is not exposed to rupture.
  • You have symmetry between your left and right hands.
  • The distance is a little less to pull (every bit counts).
  • You won’t drop the bar because you really can’t drop the bar if you are doing the hook correctly. You will run out of air pulling before you would lose your grip with the hook.
  • You are far less likely to have a chunk of your hand rip away, which can happen when gnarled bar meets lose callouses.

That said, here are some cons I have found with the grip:

  • Hook grip is a big hands grip. If you have one of the elitefts™ deadlift bars and you have smaller hands, you should be okay since they are something like 27-28mm. But the hook can be a challenge for smaller hands.
  • Reps are tough. You have to re-grip with each rep, so this might mean using straps on your lighter sets.
  • If you have shorter arms, your fingers can get caught on your suit bottom. Powder it up.
  • The hook takes months to get used to. There is a callous to build up, and it just plain old takes some practice.
  • You can’t half-ass a hook grip deadlift like you can with a traditional grip. You have to commit 100 percent. Even if you don’t have to pull hard to get the weight up, you will have to grip hard to make it tolerable.
  • Plain old unpleasant.

The hook grip is merely one tool in your powerlifting tool box, but it is a specialty tool and well worth experimenting with, regardless if you pull sumo or conventional. Ultimately, the hook grip is a love-hate relationship. You will love the pulling power you get with it; however, you will hate how unpleasant it is at the same time.

*Photos by Bent Nail Photography.  LIKE Bent Nail photography on Facebook.