“Whadda ya mean No Chalk? What kind of b***s*** gym is this anyway!!?” It was about the fifth time I’d fielded this question (complete with attitude) in the last hour. The powers that be at our college weight room had enough. They were tired of hearing other instructors, faculty members, and custodial workers complain about the migration of lifting chalk throughout the entire facility. Not only did it add an almost comical layer of white powder to the gym floor, but it was also being tracked half-way down the hall and seemed to be everywhere it shouldn’t. The hard-core responsible users knew that they were being punished for the amateurs who practically threw chalk up in the air and ran around under it to chalk up. But the end result was the same, lifting chalk would no longer be allowed in the Chico State weight room.
This created bit of a problem. It was constantly over 95 degrees outside and the gym was on the second floor with no AC. Sweeting was as natural as breathing when you train in this type of environment. Anything you did could compromise your grip, regardless of strength. If you were deadlifting heavy, good luck holding on to the bar without chalk. And since this gym had a number of competitive powerlifters, including the 1983 World Games heavyweight champion Scott Palmer, no one was ready to accept such a poorly considered rule.
The policy quickly morphed into the “no chewing gum at school” category. If no one sees it, it’s not a problem. Soon, rock size blocks of chalk would quickly appear and disappear due to some impressive slight of hand by the most hardcore lifters. Being a member of the gym staff however, while I could look the other way at the “now you see it, now you don’t” magic show, I could not knowing break the rules during my own training. It was no chalk at all for me. I was on rep three of a set of five with 315 on deadlifts when I felt the bar slipping from my desperate fingertips that I knew I needed a different option. This simply was not going to work!
A week later while visiting home I walked excitedly into Gold’s Gym in San Jose, CA. Having only the 2nd Gold’s Gym in the world open up only 15 minutes from my house was a blessing I will never stop being thankful for. It was like walking onto another planet! Cats were doing incline presses with weights I couldn’t even squat yet. There were a number of national level and pro bodybuilding competitors training hard at any given time. Mr. International Scott Wilson was working the front desk, smiling and eating, and wearing a pair of shorts to make sure that everyone knew what Gold’s Gym legs were supposed to look like! I had graduated over time from being an almost invisible newcomer into someone who was at least considered series about training, if not too physically impressive. It was back day and as I made my way over to the chin-up bar I saw Jerry McCall, the gym manager and 3rd place Mr. America competitor securing himself to a bar before doing a heavy set of pulldowns. I noticed two pieces of rectangular material dangling from his wrist as he caught his breath between sets. “Jerry, what are those all about?” I ignorantly asked. “You mean these straps?” he replied. A smile quickly came to my face as future Gold’s Gym owner and my future boss introduced me to lifting straps and how to use them.
A few days later as I walked into my college gym with a new pair of blue Gold’s Gym straps dangling from my wrist, my buddies were immediately curious. “What’s up with those?” they asked. “Don’t worry about it,” I would reply with a wink. I was going to keep my newfound advantage for at least a couple of days. I had discovered that there was definitely a different feel while using straps. Without having to strangle the bar or worry at all about a slipping grip I could actually focus better on the muscles I was working and the effort I was putting out. I could even modify my grip position a bit for better leverage and feel. It seemed like the resistance was more connected to the muscles and instead of focusing on the weight I was much more locked-in to how it all felt.
Straps soon became a training staple with any movement that involved grip like pull-ups and pulldowns, barbell, dumbbell, and cable rows, barbell and dumbbell shrugs, upright rows, high pulls, etc. Yes, I still worked on grip and hand strength, but when training to effect a muscle group or body part, my focus was on building my body not my grip, and the straps help me do just that. I don’t think is was coincidental that within the next year I got a lot of comments and questions like “What are you doing to build your back so wide?” or “How did you get those traps?”
If you’re a powerlifter, olympic lifter, or competitive lifting athlete who needs to perform certain movements in a technical way that would eschew the use of straps, by all means do so. You have to practice the way you’ll play and work on your craft to maximize your abilities. But if your focus is on physique improvement and you want to find a way to target a muscle group more effectively, even if your grip has never seemed to be an issue, you might want to give straps a try. They may become an important, inexpensive tool to help you get better workouts and a better physique.
Photo: Terry Goodlad Model: Lexi Berriman