Avoiding biceps tears but not callus tears

Ever since I started on this powerlifting 'comeback' in 2007, one thing that has always gnawed at the back of my mind was the risk of tearing a bicep due to using a mixed grip in the deadlift. All my life I had been a mixed grip deadlifter but a scare with a strained bicep from tire flipping in 2008 and a picture taken at the Nationals in 2010 really drove the idea home that I was risking a serious injury if I continued to deadlift with a mixed grip (one hand under, one hand over for the non-lifters out there).

The attached picture is blurry but you can clearly see my left bicep is under unusual strain. At that point all it takes is the smallest involuntary attempt at bending the arm and the tendon pops. While we all try to keep our arms as straight as possible when deadlifting, it's when the lift turns to a grind that sometimes a lifter will involuntarily bend their elbows in an attempt to help the weight past a sticking point.

Despite this fear, I still competed with a mixed grip and simply used straps to train so I could grip the bar with a double overhand grip and avoid the supinated palm and fully exposed bicep tendon. This strategy was successful as I was able to increase my geared deadlift to 622.5lbs and my raw deadlift to 606 lbs. It was at my last meet, the Toronto Invitational this past June, where I completed the 606 raw deadlift that I decided to commit to a change.

At that meet, a fellow lifter tore his bicep while completing a PR lift. This lifter was significantly younger than I and stronger as well. At that moment, I thought to myself, if a younger lifter with presumably more pliable connective tissue could injure himself, I was a fool to think I could continue to tempt fate by using the mixed grip. Luckily for me, another lifter, top Masters competitor David Pigozzo was at this meet and told me that he had switched to the overgrip (also known as the hook grip) many years ago. As I had experimented with it a few times but always stopped due to it being excruciatingly painful, I asked David how he did it.

David proceeded to tell me how he did it and what to expect--that the pain is normal and gets better and that his thumbs had not suffered any damage as a result of using the hook grip. He recommended that I use the hook grip for all pulling exercises--pulldowns, chins, rows, etc as a way to acclimate to it.

Since that conversation I took his advice and started using it for all accessory work as well as using it for warm-up sets in the deadlift. As my current gym has a prejudice against chalk, I would still use straps for heavy sets. I had gotten to a point where 405 lbs felt pretty comfortable but due to the lack of chalk hadn't pushed the hook grip any higher than that.

Today, I was able to train with fellow Toronto Rex teammate Mark Boyle at his home gym. Since chalk was available and encouraged, I used the opportunity to test the hook grip at higher poundages. I was very happy to find it very secure and remarkably comfortable at 495 lbs. The only issue that came up was completely my fault. I tore a callus off my right hand with during my third single with 495. Stupid and completely avoidable. I had noticed my calluses getting thick but hadn't done anything about it. I guess it had been so long since I tore one off that I figured it wouldn't happen. I am very glad my ignorance only resulted in tearing a callus not a bicep. On the positive side, I'm very optimistic that my hook grip will be in good enough shape for the 100% Raw Easterns in September. I'll expect it to hold between 600-622 lbs and so far it seems like it should be up to the task.

For those wondering what I should've done to avoid tearing a callus and possibly losing some training time, here's a great video from US olympic weightlifting champion Donny Shankle that explains how to take care of your hands.

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