In any lift, there is going to be a weak point, and often, that weak point is the grip. If you can’t hold onto the bar, no amount of leg strength, hip drive, or speed of turnover is going to overcome that. As you progress, you’re going to find there is limit to the amount of weight you can hang onto in a standard overhand grip. If you want to break through that barrier, you need to get comfortable with the hook grip.
The hook grip is performed by pushing the webbing between your thumb and index finger as far into the bar as possible and then holding the thumb parallel to the bar, and finally wrapping the index and middle fingers over the thumb. This creates a strong hold that keeps the bar from rolling out of your hand.
To better understand how the hook grip works, let’s first look at what happens when you don’t use it.
If you have a heavy weight, you’re going to need to squeeze your fingers tightly around the bar in an overhand grip to counter the bar wanting to roll out as you pull. Take a second right now and squeeze your fists tightly. Feel that? Your wrists tighten up and there is crazy tension in your forearms. Add a heavy bar into this picture, and that tension continues on up your arms, into your shoulders, and even up into your traps.
When those muscles are under high tension like that, it distracts other related muscle groups from the task they need to perform. Also, since they are squeezing so hard, that stiffness slows you down in the critical areas where you want to be fast, like in the turnover phase of the clean or snatch.
With a good hook grip, you can relax your arms much more, and you have more confidence that the bar is not going to slip out of your hands. This lets you concentrate more on your pull, getting under the bar, the turnover, or any number of other things you should be thinking about. If you have a stable grip, everything else gets easier. Once you get past that initial pull and settle into your clean or turnover phase of the snatch, you can relax your fingers and let the thumb come unlatched if it helps with your hand positioning if you wish.
I can already hear the complaints. “It hurts my thumbs.” “My hands are too small.” “It REALLY hurts my thumbs!”
Yes, it’s going to feel awkward and somewhat painful at first. Think about how you felt when you first started cleans. I bet it took awhile to get your elbows up to parallel. It took practice. Practice is also needed to get used to the hook grip feeling and to get your fingers over that thumb. If you can only get the index finger over, work with that for now. Two fingers will come in time.
If you think your hands are too small or the bar is too thick to get a hook grip, take a look at Turkish lifting champion Halil Mutlu. At 4’11” and 123 lbs., he didn’t let his small stature get in the way of establishing several world records, and he was definitely using a hook grip to achieve a 325 lb. snatch and 385 lb. clean and jerk. If your hands are on the smaller side, you want to really push that bar into the webbing between that thumb and index finger. That will help you get your fingers around that thumb.
This video explains more of the how and why of the hook grip and some tips to deal with the discomfort.
The key to unlocking a good hook grip is to use it all the time, even for the lighter lifts. Get to the point where the hook grip is how you always pick up a bar. Some say that it can take 4-6 weeks to get over the sensation of pain and to get your fingers to stretch out to the point it begins to feel comfortable. Taping the thumb where it rubs on the bar can help too.
Whatever it takes, stick with it. Once you get past the discomfort, a whole new world of PRs will open up for you.