Ditch Your Dependency on Lifting Equipment
The fluffy functional training gurus will tell you not to use them. Die-hard strength sport athletes and ego driven meatheads have made them a mandatory part of everyday training. But when it comes to using accessory lifting equipment like weight belts, straps, sleeves, wraps and Olympic lifting shoes, we must ask ourselves the cold hard question; are these tools causing more harm than good to our performance and training longevity?
It’s time to set the record straight regarding the proper application of supportive lifting equipment, and debunk some of the most heinous myths that are leaving lifters downright confused when it comes to implementing these tools wisely. Is your use of accessory lifting equipment helping you create a bigger, stronger more resilient body, or are they just another lifting crutch that is creating learned dependency? Here’s the truth behind the smart implementation belts, straps and shoes, who needs to be using these tools, and who should be avoiding them like the plague.
#5 Lifting Straps
Lifting straps have become notoriously associated with weak grip and even weaker choices among the hardcore in our industry. Though directly training your grip at maximal capacity during heavy staple movements like deadlifts, rows and pulldowns can be advantageous to building forearm and hand strength and resilience, there are also strategic times and places where straps are the preferred setup for staple lifts.
Straps can be used in a myriad of ways in the gym, but mainly where grip is the limiting factor of execution along with creating stronger mind-muscle connections in key targeted musculature. Here’s where you should start strapping up, and when you should go raw to challenge your grip.
When NOT To Use Them
If you are a novice lifter or are new to the foundational strength game, your training priority must be centered on raw authentic movement patterns in order to improve motor skill acquisition, firing patterns and learning to tap into full body tension. Going strapless for the first 1-2 years of one’s training career will help bulletproof shoulder, elbow and spinal pain from having improved use of the irradiation effect which transfers force from the hands up into the kinetic chain. It will also place a glass ceiling on external loads that you’re able to handle, which is a good thing when foundational movement patterns are first being developed.
For more advanced lifters who have earned the right to train heavy and move serious loads in the big pulling foundational movement patterns like the deadlift and row, there is a very slippery slope for strap work. As any savvy lifter can quickly figure out, strapping up and lifting will allow for heavier weight to be moved, especially if your weakest link is between your fingertips. But even for advanced lifters, straps should be used sparingly in training, and only sprinkled into top end sets. That means that all warm up and ramp up sets to your big lifts should be executed raw, and a vast majority of accessory pulling should also be taking place without straps supporting the weights.
Finally, if grip and/or biceps strength and function tend to be your functional linchpin of dysfunction, heavy raw grip work should be implemented to bring up these weak links. As the grip and forearms become more emphasized in raw training, the biceps will also be recruited at a higher rate due again to the law or irradiation. While this is a great thing to bring up these problem areas for more advanced lifters, having your grip and biceps take over pulling based movement patterns can also present as a potential challenge as well.
When To Use Them
To progress in the strength, hypertrophy and performance games over time, constant long-term overload must be implemented. But as lifters continue to peak closer to their physical potentials, more glaring weak links will eventually come to the forefront of training that makes it extremely challenging to keep pushing loads up in the big lifts over time. The strategic implementation of straps during supra-maximal loaded training can be highly advantageous for allowing other muscular regions of the body to be overloaded without being limited by even the best grip strength.
Though the hand, wrist and forearm musculature is anatomically and biomechanically designed to withstand extended periods of tension with it’s slow twitch dominant fiber makeup best served for endurance rather than dynamic power, there are times in advanced training where exponential total time under tension (TUT) can be limited by ones grip. In more advanced bodybuilding type programming that introduces extremely high relative intensity into training such as extended drop sets, partial reps and isometric holds to build targeted musculature, the grip should never be the limiting factor to reap the massive benefits of extending a set to chase a metabolically stress induced pump or fiber fatigue. For pull-based movements where intensity techniques are implemented, straps are a preferred setup in order to maximize each challenge set to the fullest extent.
On the opposite side of activation and eliciting a strong mind-muscle connection, straps can also be utilized in more isolative-based movements to emphasize muscular actions at the back, shoulders or even the lower body. Using the lat pulldown to build the lats as an example, the primary muscular mover should be indeed the lats. But many times the forearms and biceps can take muscular targeting emphasis away from the lats, making it extremely hard to elicit strong high quality contractions at these tissues. By implementing straps, the grip can relax while the biceps are also de-emphasized, which shifts the loads more directly to the targeted tissue which are the lats in this case. This same principle can apply to higher rep deadlifts with a back emphasis, direct shoulder work such as lateral raise variations, and even during lower body movements which utilize heavy dumbbells held to down at the sides.
#4 Weightlifting Belts
While lifting belts are nothing new in the world of strength training, this accessory above all others is the most blatantly abused and misused. And as polarizing as the topics of core strength and lower back pain are, this tool sits right in the middle of a constantly debated questions centered around the functionality of the spinal column and core unit.
But as any wise lifter knows, the true answer is always found somewhere in the middle of the polarizing viewpoints, and is highly dependent on the individual lifter and their unique presentations at hand. There are no hard and fast rules regarding the implementation of belts during your lifts, but here are some global rules to lift by to get the most out of this training tool.
When NOT To Use Them
Lets face it, a vast majority of lifters who are using the belt in training have no clue how to properly utilize this training tool to enhance the big lifts. Instead, the use of belts has become bastardized with morons strapping up their mid sections just hoping and praying they won’t flare up their lower backs.
But here’s a reality check, if you are a novice in the strength game, or have a previous or current lower back problem, do yourself a favor and learn how to properly brace, stabilize and maintain tension through the mid section. Your lack of basic stability requirements at the core is most likely the reason why you’re chronically flaring yourself up, even with the belt on.
The lifting belt is an advanced training tool for advanced athletes who have earned the right to apply it to their training in order to enhance the feel and stability of a big lift via a fine tuned bracing mechanism. It is not a fashion accessory. It should not be put on in the locker room before a training session, and only taken off after hitting the showers. And it for damn sure shouldn’t give you the confidence or false security that it will protect you from potential injurious endeavors in the gym. A 6mm piece of leather cannot hold together piss poor movement execution, nor was it designed to.
Even for advanced lifters who indeed implement the use of a lifting belt for their big lifts, there are times where lifting 100% raw is the preferred method. If an exercise is targeting core strength like a loaded carry as an example, skip the belt and go raw. For upper body emphasized work like presses and pulls, along with unilateral lower body work like lunges, split squats and single leg hinges, go beltless. And this should go without saying but hell, I’ve seen this as well… if you are doing cardio, or training the biceps, triceps or forearms directly, do yourself a favor and go raw.
Decreasing the dependency on the lifting belt will enable you to create more authentic and functional full body tension in all of your movement patterns and exercises, and give you a new appreciation for what it is to generate internal tension through the musculature, fascia and soft-tissue connections of your body that you have volitional control over. And as we say with our geared powerlifters, the stronger you are raw, the stronger you will be when you put the equipment back on.
When To Use Them
Everyone wants a magic number when it comes to intelligently implementing the lifting belt into training the big movements. But as every lifter has individualistic presentations, body types, goals, past injury histories and training experiences, it is very hard to place a strict absolute or relative strength metric on the use of belts for the squat and deadlift specifically.
The best indicator of success using the lifting belt in training to enhance the big lifts, not just adding a training crutch into the equation is a combination of training age on the big lifts and the ability to create a hard and stable brace through the pillar unit consisting of the shoulders, hips and core integrating together as a functional unit. More times than not, serious strength training consisting of periodized barbell lifts for 2+ years is the training age in which a lifter can potentially have success implementing the belt. If two years seems like a long time to you, you haven’t been lifting long enough. Proper bracing technique during compound movement patterns like the squat and deadlift takes years if not decades to master, and is an ongoing process. But this leads me to the next predictive criteria of belted training success, the brace.
The ability to create maximal torque around the ball and socket based hip and shoulder joints in conjunction with 360 degree active expansion through the torso, core and thoracic cage needs to be a pre-requisite to adding a belt into the training equation. Force or tension leaks that take place in lifters who have not mastered the pillar bracing skill can actually be exacerbated by the addition of a belt. Just as we do not add load to a faulty foundational movement patterns, we should also not be adding an external brace aka the belt to a faulty bracing mechanism.
Once the brace is mastered and the belt is strategically implemented into training, the question of when to utilize the belt for maximal benefit while not “detraining the core” (just kidding) comes into play. A vast majority of barbell sport athletes and more seasoned recreational lifters alike will have a great deal of success using a belt for working sets of squat and hip hinge variations. Making this as simple as possible, if you are working at a top end load or relative intensity in these two strength and power indicator based movement patterns, use the belt to enhance your performance and maximize your brace. Just be sure that you are warming up, ramping up and completing your accessory work without it.
#3 Knee Wraps
Knee wraps have been widely used across strength and power sports for decades due to their innate ability to quickly boost strength and power numbers in big compound movements such as the squat. Due to their highly elastic properties, placing this assistive equipment on the knees (or even wrists or elbows) can not only add stability to simple hinge based joints, but also increase the rebound effect out of the bottom aspects of movements to help power through tough ranges of motion in some of the major lifts. Simply put, the addition of wraps give you the ability to lift heavier than without them. This may be a great thing, or it could be a sure fire way to pain and injuries.
As seen in the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding, properly administered wraps at the knees (and sometimes even the elbows) can make all the difference in terms of the amount of weight that can be used on a key indicator lift, bringing up the loading potential extremely quick. But also seen in the sport of powerlifting, bodybuilding and across commercial gyms worldwide, wraps have also been misused and abused when it comes to dependency on these training tools. Here’s where knee wraps can fit into an intelligent training plan, and where they should be avoided for long-term health and injury prevention.
When NOT To Use Them
Anyone who argues against the ability of wraps to create a more stable environment for the joint in which it covers cannot be trusted, nor should they be listened to. Want proof? Just look at some of the strongest wrapped and geared power lifters in the world walk up, rather WADDLE up, to the squatting platform in comp. Knee wraps are wrapped so tight that they literally couldn’t bend their knees if they tried, or at least until they got under a few hundred pounds of load that forces the knees into flexion. That’s the truest sign of stability I can think of.
So how can more stability be a bad thing? Well, in terms of knee joint and patella-femoral biomechanics, more is not always better, especially if the goal is to train pain-free and unlock longevity through self-mastery and resilience. When we think about knee stability, we of course have ligamentous restraints like the ACL and PCL that restrict unwanted motion in the sagittal plane, but also the MCL and LCL that help stabilize the knee medially and laterally. But honestly, these non-contractile structures are not the focus of knee stability, rather the muscles that originate and attach locally are.
The three major muscle groups that play pivotal roles in knee stability are the quadriceps group (all coming to the same local insertion onto the quadriceps tendon, knee cap and patellar ligament), the hamstring complex, and the calves also known as the medial and lateral gastrocnemius muscles. These are some of the biggest muscle groups of the lower body which cross the knee joint and not only move the knee dynamically through flexion and extension, but have key actions to help stabilize the knee working in unison with the ankles, hips, torso and the rest of the body from a kinetic chain standpoint.
As wraps are placed around the knee joint, usually a few inches above the superior patellar line and a few inches below the inferior patellar line, they not only compress the knee cap against the femur, but also restrict some movement from the quads, hamstrings and calves attaching locally as well. For athletes and lifters who have sound ligamentous structure at the knees, the addition of wraps can be great, even if they do restrict the major muscle groups from truly stabilizing to their greatest extent authentically. Shortening the point of pull from a muscle, tendon or regional muscular group can be an intriguing performance enhancement, but usually only in the top levels of strength sports due to a lack of reliability and repeatability of wrapping the same way set to set.
Where lifters get into trouble is trying to cover up a red flag weak link that may be an ACL tear or other ligamentous injury to the knee. At this point, a non-stable knee that depends on the stabilizing musculature for stability and control moving through ranges of motion loses it’s ability to work ideally, which could cause a slippery slope for chronic or acute knee injuries or pain. So if your goal with knee wraps is to cover up an injury, you are far better off skipping the wrap and instead, working on bringing up functional weak links, or truly letting your injuries heal up.
When To Use Them
The times for a non-competitive lifters to use knee wraps or elbow wraps are few and far between due to the cost to benefit ratio not adding up. While there is no doubt that more loads can be lifted using wraps, the compressive and unnatural kinematics of these hinge joints being combined with extremely heavy loading doesn’t bode well for long term physical well being.
More specifically, I have never programmed upper body emphasized strength or power work for any athlete EVER with the use of elbow wraps. I’m sure there will come a time and place where I will, but after 12+ years coaching athletes having never used it once should speak volumes about its pain-free applicability.
Where I do see loads of benefit for the use of wraps for my advanced strength athletes is in the squat and bench press. Working in supra maximal loading on the squat with the addition of knee wraps can be advantageous if the total volume under wraps is monitored closely to avoid chronic wear and tear at the knee cap and local tendons in general. Also, as the bench press gets heavier and heavier with a competition emphasis, the use of wrist wraps can provide that extra support through compression around the wrists that is needed in order to support more training volume and intensity, while also preparing for a meet which would allow the use of this assistive equipment.
Even for my competitive powerlifters who use wraps on the platform, we recommend that they do NOT use wraps at the wrist or knees in their off seasons as they lift more raw or work on strength or hypertrophy schemes to bring up lagging weak links. Even in competition prep or in-season training, I do not have my athletes warm up or ramp up in wraps on either the squat or the bench press. As the weights ramp up to top end “working sets” that is the place and time to put the wraps on and get the most out of them as a performance enhancement tool.
It should be reiterated again that the use of wraps is an advanced training tool for advanced athletes with competitive goals and aspirations. Sure, the cost benefit ratio works out better for these advanced athletes, but also, the application of wraps is a fine art and science. Each lifter will have a specific way they want to be wrapped, whether it’s the wrists or the knees. And many times, it becomes very difficult to wrap yourself, meaning you must have a coach or training partner do it for you. To get it right, it takes practice and reps.
Those lifters who attempt to use wraps but never master their application not only leave their performance results to chance, but also their health, as a bad wrap job is worse than no wrap job at all. This is a main reason why I do not recommend that recreational lifters use wraps, even if they are pain-free and able to attempt to boost performance with them. Just as in the execution of reps, a shitty setup can leave you predisposed to injury, which goes for the power lifts and wraps alike.
#2 Olympic Lifting Shoes
As the name implies, Olympic lifting shoes were originally developed to be implemented into the sport of Olympic weight lifting. By building up the heel of the shoe in conjunction with creating a stiff and flat sole, Olympic lifting shoes have the ability to maximize ground reaction force while helping aid the body, namely the ankles, knees, hips and spine) to more automatically move into advantageous positions to explosively move weight off the ground in the sport’s lift variations.
But over the years, Olympic lifting shoes have become a common crutch for general fitness consumers and average lifters with no goals of ever competing on the platform. Here’s who should be utilizing these adaptive lifting shoes, and what types of lifters and athletes should be avoiding them.
When NOT To Use Them
A vast majority of people have been born with average god given genetics and body anthropometrics and structure. This means that true biomechanical problems that limit lifter’s abilities to move through foundational movement patterns without heavy compensation patterns are few and far between.
Of course there are outliers on any spectrum and bony and soft-tissue anatomical changes that can occur over time due to injury cycles or repeated movements or positions, but chances are even if you are struggling with your ankle mobility, your hip flexibility or your loaded movement patterns, you probably have all the tools you need to be successful but are just lacking the execution of the movements themselves.
Not every pain point or functional movement problem is a mobility problem. On the opposite end of the mobility spectrum is something called dynamic stability or motor control. Simply think of flexibility or mobility as the ability for joints and soft-tissues to articulate together to mechanically move through a range of motion, while motor control is the neurological control and system which allows one to display the mobility that they already have in a sequenced and coordinated manner.
Why is this important as it pertains to Olympic lifting shoes? Many times people will self-diagnose themselves with mechanical movement problems when indeed they really present with neurological patterning issues which place functional parking break on coordination and the ability to move without pain. The shoes go on, the external crutches are introduced to the body and the motor control never gets improved, which is the origin of the problem, and instead usually gets worse.
Unless you are planning to step on the platform and competing in competitive barbell sport, you should veer away from the use of adaptive lifting shoes and instead strategically choose a pair that will allow you to move authentically as possible. But, when moving into a more minimalist shoe in the gym, there must also be an emphasis placed on improving your motor control in your functional weak links. These are usually found in ankle dorsiflexion and hip flexion and rotation for those chronically seeking our shoes to crutch their big lifts.
Even for Olympic lifters, powerlifters and CrossFitters, minimalist shoes should be utilized for all non-power or sport specific barbell lifts in order to reap the benefits of greater ground contact and the function of the ankle and foot complex which is comprised of an impressive group of superficial and intrinsic set of muscles. As a general rule of thumb, use adaptive equipment like Olympic lifting shoes for the minimal effective dose or order to reap the benefit of training with the tool, while also allowing the body to move in as authentic of a way as possible.
When To Use Them
It doesn’t take a savant to figure out that there are clearly sport specific advantages in the utilization of lifting shoes designed for lifting sport. But it would be short sighted to think that improved performance on the platform is directly correlated with long term orthopedic health and function of the human body. At high levels of competitive sport, there are always gives and takes for each training variable that is implemented into programming and competition. And if one’s goal is to step on the platform and move a maximal amount of weight off the ground into an overhead position and an increased plantar flexion, knee flexion and torso angle helps in the achievement of that goal, the cost to benefit ratio is in alignment.
But there are also anatomical outliers who truly present with limitations in joint mobility and arthrokinematics, which are the slight movements in the joint space, which allow intricate joint movements to take, place, such as components of dorsiflexion as an example.
We’ve all heard the term “bone on bone” before, and even though it sounds like a wimpy excuse not to squat deep or go heavy, there are legitimate orthopedic presentations where joint anthropometry and structure do not allow certain movements to take place. These are the types of individualized presentations that will never be improved with soft tissue work like stretching and foam rolling, and can actually be counter productive to hammer self-maintenance work as it’s a mismatch with the true problems at hand which are the joints themselves.
Many lifters go down the conservative rabbit hole with his targeted soft tissue work, stretching, or maybe even a little joint mobilization work in areas like the ankles and hips. But after a few sessions of doing the theoretically “right” measures and seeing no results and maybe even flaring up the problem worse, an orthopedic evaluation to properly diagnose the problem should be next on your to-do list. Differentiating bony block from soft tissue dysfunction will save your tons of time, and worlds of frustration. And if and when body blocks at the hips, ankles or any other joint for that matter are diagnosed, adaptive tools which alter the foot’s relationship with the ground like an Olympic lifting shoe, or any elevated drop heeled shoe for that matter will be a tool that will help you continue to train while minimizing pain and complication with your movement patterns.
Again, the key to having success with any type of lifting tool or accessory including the Olympic shoe is deep diving on potential functional pitfalls first, bringing them up to as high of a level as possible, and THEN going ahead and implementing in the tool of choice to enhance training, instead of deterring away from it’s powerful effects. Stay strategic with your tools and you’ll reap all the benefits that these pieces are truly capable of.
#1 Elbow & Knee Sleeves
With the rise of the box based fitness model across the industry (and world at this point), we’ve also seen a rise in the use of “supportive” sleeves worn predominantly around the knees, but at times around the elbows as well.
While the knee sleeve is a mainstay in competitive barbell sports, mainly Olympic weightlifting, and to some degree powerlifting, the question remains, do these neoprene sleeves actually hold value for the recreational lifter or non-competitive strength athlete who simply has goals to build muscle, develop strength and improve general health and wellness?
As we’ve seen with the supportive lifting equipment covered above, the answer is almost always “it depends” but without coming off like a condescending know it all, we must define what it actually depends on. Here’s what knee and elbow sleeves can be used for successfully, and when to stay clear of them in order to avoid developing a true dependency on external equipment use in the gym.
When NOT To Use Them
If at the very first sign of pain or discomfort in your knees or elbows you are rushing to pull on sleeves over every hinge joint in your body in order to “support” yourself just enough to continue a training session, I can almost guarantee that you will not receive the long term benefits that you are after with this type of equipment.
As with belts and wraps (as covered above), sleeves should not be worn to hold you together like a duct taped Gumby man, but rather as a way to strategically improve your performance during a specific lift or activity. Not only is the neoprene material, which many of these sleeves are made out of, not strong enough to truly alter the biomechanics or stability patterns of the knee or elbow joints, they shouldn’t be asked to perform such a tall task in the first hand.
Though there are some proprioceptive advantages to having tactile feedback on a region of the body via skin contact in the form of sleeves or even K-tape for that matter, slight neuromuscular feedback enhancement is far from biomechanical support. Don’t confuse the two, and if you’re going to depend on one or the other, you must also have a plan in play to bring up the glaring weak link that left you with pain, injuries or performance plateaus in the first place if you have any chance of hard wiring resilience into your movement system specific to the lift or movement pattern that is giving you continued problems.
Even for those lifters who are otherwise pain-free and have sound movement patterns, I see an alarming trend of sleeves becoming a mandatory part of the athlete’s wardrobe for EVERY workout, every day. Sleeves, and many other supportive pieces of equipment for lifting for that matter, provide instant stimulus and feedback into the system, which creates a “feel good” effect that can become highly addicting. Before this gets out of control, we must define where sleeves can provide benefits below, but more importantly what NOT to do.
If you find yourself pulling sleeves over your knees every time you tie your shoes, you’re probably overdoing it. Contrary to popular belief and action, not every movement in a training day necessitates the use of equipment. If the sleeves go on before every workout, and get taken off after every workout, again, you need to step back and realize that more is not better, especially when it comes to mastering your own body without the use of continuous crutches.
When To Use Them
What is your WHY behind using knee and elbow sleeves? If you can definitively answer this question, you’ll be able to utilize these tools correctly to get the most out of them without creating a dependency on an external crutch.
For those lifters who are training a lower body, or even more specifically, a knee dominant movement pattern, there are clear performance enhancement and injury prevention advantages around warming up local musculature, lubricating local joint spaces with synovial fluid and STAYING prepared to perform throughout the duration of an exercise or workout. While the use of knee sleeves cannot create a dynamic environment for warming up on their own, they can be a nice tool to put on AFTER properly warming up using a 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence in order to do a few key things.
First, sleeves that surround an area of the body provide a layering effect that can warm the tissues underneath them. This concept is anything but novel, seen in pro sports like baseball and football routinely. The players all go out and warm up without cold weather gear on, but as soon as they are done the athletic training staff covers them with full length jackets and compression layers in order to maintain the local heat that the body has generated internally. Simply put, they keep you warmer, longer.
With the crazy incidence of knee injuries that continue to rise in the sport and fitness industries, there is a huge amount of data on the use of knee braces and it’s effects on injury prevention. Though some of the studies are a bit outdated, many concluded that a main advantage to ANY type of knee bracing, including neoprene knee sleeves was the proprioceptive enhancement of the region, and the “confidence boost” that wearing ANYTHING on the body can provide to reduce apprehensiveness during training and movement. While we know this to be an effective use of the sleeve, we must again ensure that equipment use does not create a slippery slope to dependency.
The general recommendation for recreational lifters and strength athletes is to use knee and elbow sleeves as a performance enhancement tool, not a pain-modulation tool, with a MVD (minimal viable dose) mindset. For squats, these can be a great tool, but running, jumping, conditioning, foam rolling and stretching with these pieces of equipment on is a bit of an overkill. As for elbow sleeves, lifters can have a great amount of success with elbow sleeves during pushing and pulling, but more so with more isolated and strenuous direct arm training.
If you don’t need them, ditch them. And if you do, use them for only the lifts you absolutely see a notable and objective performance enhancement with, no more, no less. While every tool can be useful for someone, not every tool is going to be useful for everyone. Experiment on yourself, and determine what best suits your body and your individual needs.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.