Big Back Grips interviews Dr. Warren Willey on the Bio-Mechanics of Weightlifting Straps

Big Back Grips interviews Dr. Warren Willey on the Bio-Mechanics of Weightlifting Straps.

Dr. Warren Willey is a Board Certified Osteopathic Physician with more than 25 years’ experience in exercise and nutrition. Dr. Willey did his postgraduate training at The Mayo Clinic and is the medical director of a medical weight loss center and primary care office. As a D.O. (doctor of osteopathy), Dr. Willey received the same rigorous and lengthy training as an MD. But osteopaths are trained to evaluate the entire patient holistically, especially the connection between the musculoskeletal system and health. In fact, a D.O. may receive up to 500 hours of additional training, much of that time focused on the musculoskeletal system.

Dr. Willey is a nationally competitive bodybuilder and holds patents on exercise and medical devices. His books include What Does Your Doctor Look Like Naked?, Better Than Steroids, and The Z Diet which focuses on diet and bodybuilding. His articles on diet, exercise and health are found in numerous print and online publications.

Given his background, we were eager to have Dr. Willey try Big Back Lifting Grips, especially since he was a long time user of lifting straps. He told us he liked his straps, but as a man of science he was up for an experiment and we sent him a pair. Well, he was sold on Big Backs after one workout, but we wanted him to really give Big Back Grips a longer term trial.

We checked in with him a few times over the following months and he was still using them and loving our little Big Back Grips. So we asked him if he would explain the mechanics of straps and grips, and some of the joint and tissue damage that can occur – or be prevented – while working out.

BBG: First, tell us how long you had been using lifting straps and why you switched to Big Back Grips?

WW: I have been using straps for almost 30 years.  My mother made me my first pair in my early teens. I liked the idea behind Big Back Grips, so I tried them out.  Very comfortable and an eye opener at the same time – I had no grip strength! Big Back Grips show true strength and allow complete development, forearms included! I also really like them as pads for bar work such as presses or smith machine.  It allows you to hold on to the bar without chalk or gloves so once again, you can focus on the lift.


BBG: What about grip strength? A number of lifters tell us their main issue with using straps is they become a “crutch”, and that relying on straps to keep the weight in their hand as opposed to using their own strength keeps their grip strength from developing as it should. Can you talk about that? How do you find Big Back Grips differ from weight lifting straps in that direction?

WW: I can pull a lot off the floor with a dead lift, do pull-ups until the cows come home, but I realized I was only doing a part of the work.  I was hanging from my straps, not holding myself up.  I enjoy the whole picture now, and I am amazed how quickly my grip strength is coming back now that I am actually holding on to things.


BBG: Is it correct to say that weight lifting straps function in much the same way as a noose? A heavy weight is hung from the strap and causes the loop to squeeze down on the wrist joint in much the same way a noose might squeeze down on a human neck? It’s not a pleasant analogy but is it fairly accurate?

WW: Thank goodness the majority of us do not breathe through our fingers, so yes – the analogy is appropriate. Positioning of the straps can cause some damage to the articular surface of the carpal bones (wrist bones).  The ligaments between the radius and ulna and the carpal bones are also at risk for injury, particularly the Palmar Ulnocarpal Ligaments, Radial Collateral Ligament, and the Palmar Radiocarpal Ligaments. Ligament damage in-and-of itself is a very hard thing to deal with in medicine as the blood supply to ligaments is relatively sparse.  I discuss with patients who have ligament injuries how they would have been better off breaking a bone, as they heal quicker.

BBG: How much pressure is being applied to the joint? Is there a way to measure it?

WW: The easiest application is how much weight is strapped in. If you are doing a 400 lbs dead lift, you essentially have 400 lbs hanging from a place the Good Lord never intended weight to be hung from.

BBG: Does the pressure inhibit blood flow during the set? What specifically are the consequences of that?

WW: The hand has excellent collateral circulation; however any of us users of straps have had the experience of numbness and tingling in the hand, with a red, swollen look that we had to shake out.  Long term consequences to the vasculature have never been looked at to my knowledge, but it is never a good idea to cut blood flow off to a body part!

BBG: Please forgive our going back to the noose analogy, but doesn’t the weight of a hanging body pull at the connections that hold the head to the body, let’s say, in a way not intended by nature? And with lifting straps, doesn’t the weight hanging from the wrist similarly pull at the wrist joint in an unnatural way, especially if the muscles and tendons are not fully engaged in support? Was the wrist joint meant to support that kind of weight that way, just hanging from the wrist and hand bones without the muscles working? What are the potential consequences? What about the bones of the hand? Are they in any way at risk?

WW: Anatomically, the wrist was not designed to support weight without the hand (grip) being used as well.  The muscle action of the forearm ‘protects’ the bones, joints, and connective tissue in the wrist.  Without muscle contraction, the wrist does not stand a chance.


BBG: We’d like to ask about the bruising. One well-known IFBB pro who uses Big Back Grips told us he does back twice a week and goes heavy. The bruising on his wrists was almost constant. Can you tell us:

BBG: What exactly does it mean to “be bruised”?

WW: Bruising or ecchymosis is the result of blood in the skin/tissues, usually from trauma.  It can be painful as it is space utilizing and therefore a disruption of natural anatomical planes and potentially function.

BBG: What’s the mechanism of action behind the bruising that lifting straps can cause?

WW: Direct trauma to the tissues such as micro and macro tears of vessels and the subcutaneous structures.

BBG: Is there long-term damage than can occur when the wrist joint, or any joint, is being bruised continually? What symptoms would you want to look out for?

WW: You bet. Longer term or repetitive damage, particularly to articular surfaces of the joints, is a prime cause of arthritis.  Upper extremity overuse/injury is a very common thing we see in athletes, often related to equipment problems.


BBG: Now, pain is always a sign of something “not quite right” to one degree or another, correct? Enduring pain might be considered a sign of strength by some, but what is it really a sign of? Does frequent pain suggest accumulating damage?

WW: Pain is a warning sign – God’s way of saying “hey – cut that out!”  Frequent pain is an indication of “Hey – get that checked out!”


BBG: We met a lifter, a man who was in his 50s, who told us his hands were falling asleep at night. He was not able to tell us how the straps were causing this, but he did say it had almost entirely eased after he stopped using straps. Can you speculate on what might have been causing this symptom?

Likely an impingement syndrome such as carpal tunnel syndrome.


BBG: Through the growing years, young bones are not as fully hardened as they will be later in life, is that correct? At what age do bones fully harden? And before they do, are they at risk at all from the pressure straps might exert?

Bone maturity usually occurs around the time of sexual maturity.  In medicine, we call it Tanner Staging, with Tanner Stage V being fully mature. This occurs at different ages for all involved.  One simple, and most certainly not exact, way to tell if you are there is hair distribution on the body.


We do want to ask you about chalk. We meet a lot of lifters –chalk users– whose hands are dried, cracked, torn, bloody, etc. There’s a lot macho talk about “I love my calluses”, but is there a downside to working out with raw cracked skin?

If the skin is raw and cracked, it’s a good way to get an infection.  Health Clubs are cesspools of disease.  I most certainly do not want any exposed or vulnerable wound available for infection…