by Robert Maxwell
I’m not a fan of relying too much on fancy equipment. The guy with the nicest camera in the room won’t necessarily take the best pictures. That said, I believe it’s important to always be properly equipped for the task before you. As every seasoned woodsman knows, you probably won’t cut many trees if you bring only your chainsaw and no replacement chain or tools. Serious lifters need proper equipment too, and while it’s easy to become too dependent on training accessories, here are 6 items I believe should be in every dedicated trainee’s gym bag.
If you’re serious about getting stronger and better with a barbell but don’t own a pair of proper lifting shoes, get some. They’ll make a huge difference, particularly to your squat. Well designed powerlifting shoes have hard, flat soles that get thicker towards the heel. This wedge-shaped sole tilts the lifter forward slightly, making it easier to stay balanced and achieve correct bar path during the squat, and ultimately making the whole lift work better. If you’ve been squatting in running shoes, you’ll notice right away the difference proper lifting footwear makes. Just don’t get a pair with a sole too thick at the heel. More than an inch or so of sole thickness and you’ll do well in squats but not so well in deadlift, power cleans, or other ground pulling movements. Not all lifting shoes are created equal, so make sure you read plenty of reviews before hitting add to cart.
The legitimacy of lifting with a belt always has been and probably always will be heavily debated by powerlifters everywhere. Some use belts for every set of every exercise, including warmup, while others think any use of a belt is cheating, even on very heavy lifts. I have found that when a particular topic has strongly opinionated people on both sides, the truth often lies somewhere in the middle. I believe this is the case with lifting belts. Unlike squat suits, heavy-duty knee wraps or bench press shirts, belts don’t do anything to lighten the load or increase the power of the muscles. What they do is allow harder bracing of the abdominal muscles by giving them something solid to push against. This is a help with the main compound lifts, since they all rely heavily of core strength. I don’t think a belt should be used for every workout, but when you’re going heavy on squats and deadlifts, they’re helpful. Used properly, they allow more weight to be lifted without cheating.
Barbell squats have an undeserved reputation for being hard on the knees. This is true if you’re squatting badly, but if proper technique is observed, squats are one of the best things you can do for your knees. That said, it’s important to do all you can to protect your joints when lifting heavy, and that’s where knee sleeves can help. Unlike wraps, knee sleeves do nothing to make squats easier. Their only purpose is to keep the joints warm, so the tendons stay as limber as possible, and are less likely to be injured if your technique isn’t 100 percent on point.
If you just started deadlifting, don’t use straps. If a weak grip is holding you back, make it stronger. There’s no reason for a novice deadlifter to strap up, unless they’re freakishly strong and able to pull 400 pounds in their first week. If you’re not a novice, and have no trouble lifting 315 for 10 reps but find your grip is slipping towards the end of the set, think about getting straps. No matter how much you’re pulling, a strong grip is vital. Straps should only be used as a last resort, after you’ve exhausted your hand strength. If you’ve been lifting a long time, there will come a point in your deadlift workout where you know you have the strength for another set, but you also know your grip isn’t up to it. This is a situation where strapping up is legitimate.
Everyone strong enough to bench press over 250 pounds for reps and overhead press over 135 knows there’s a lot of pressure on the wrists with these fairly serious weights. Held properly, the barbell should not be bending your wrist back unnaturally. It should be comfortably balanced in your palm, directly over the end of your wrist bone. That said, serious weights held in the hands still place a lot of pressure on the wrist joint, and that’s why having some support is helpful. Like belts and knee sleeves, wrist wraps do nothing to increase your lifting power. They’re simply a preventative measure to minimize risk of injury, and give you a small mental boost now that you need not worry about wrist health during the lift.
Like knee sleeves, elbow sleeves have only one purpose – to keep the elbows warm and loose, making injury less likely. If you’ve been bench pressing a long time, and are used to hitting 2 or 3 rep maxes without elbow sleeves, you’ve probably noticed soreness in your elbows afterwards. This is to be expected when pushing very heavy weights, and doesn’t mean you’re injured, but it does mean your elbows have been stressed. Sleeves can help lessen this stress, though they’ll never remove it entirely. Again, if you’re a novice lifter and not yet very strong in the bench press, get stronger before investing a pair of elbow sleeves.