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When you have a peek around your local gym’s weights section, the one thing you can’t miss is the overload of weightlifting accessories. Everyone seems to be wearing special lifting shoes, belts, and wraps around their knees and wrists. You might feel like you’re missing out.
But is there really any benefit to wearing all that armor while you deadlift?
We asked experts to break down the benefits of the most common weightlifting accessories, when to use (or not use) them, and what to keep in mind before forking over the dough.
We’ll also let know you about any International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) safety recommendations when they apply.
Weightlifting belts are made from neoprene or nylon (or sometimes leather). They fasten across your abdomen with Velcro, a buckle, or a quick-release lever.
Why wear a weightlifting belt?
“The purpose of the belt is to create abdominal pressure to support and protect the spine when you’re squatting or deadlifting heavy weights,” says Melody Schoenfeld, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Flawless Fitness in Pasadena, California. “But you don’t need to wear a belt for every weight you lift.”
So when *should* you belt up?
According to USA Powerlifting coach Kyra Williams, “Anytime you are moving over 85 to 90 percent of your 1-rep max or are trying to hit a personal best, using a belt can provide stability.”
If you’ve never found your 1-rep max before, this guide can help.
But here’s the thing: You shouldn’t be maxing out every time you lift.
“While a lot of recreational lifters think they should be maxing out every single time, you really shouldn’t aim for a personal record more than once every few months,” Williams says.
Of course, if you’re brand-new to lifting, you’ll be PR-ing left and right. But once you get rolling, it’s best not to wear a belt for most of the time you spend squatting and deadlifting.
What happens if you wear a belt more often that you need?
You might be limiting the core strength benefits of your session. Using a belt too often is like keeping the training wheels on when it’s time to graduate to your big-kid bike.
“At best, you’re denying your body the opportunity to build a strong, resilient core. At worst, you’re weakening your existing core strength,” says Menachem Brodie, certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Human Vortex Training.
Early studies suggest that a weightlifting belt can increase the amount you can lift by around 15 percent — but further research on the topic is necessary, as barely any has taken place since the ’90s.
However, some people use it as a crutch, resulting in strength loss, says Chelsea Axe, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of the BurstFIT interval training program. “If someone’s always using a belt, they aren’t learning how to engage their core without support.”
Still determined to strap one on?
Axe says it’s safe to lift with a belt only if you meet the following two conditions:
- You already know how to squat with good form.
- You plan to squat more than 85 to 90 percent of your 1-rep max.
Even then, Axe recommends that athletes also discover their unbelted squat or deadlift PR.
Wrist wraps are a set of two strips of fabric (or sometimes a stretchy cotton, elastic, and polyester blend) that are about 12 inches long. You wrap the fabric around your wrist as many times as possible and secure it.
What’s the purpose of wrist wraps?
In short: stability, stability, stability. Aside from looking rad, wrist wraps restrict your wrist from moving too far backward or forward without totally immobilizing the wrist joint.
According to Rachel Straub, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-author of Weight Training Without Injury, “Wrist wraps provide pressure to the bones of the forearm and wrist, offering support and rigidity to the joint. This can reduce stress on the wrist joint to minimize pain and even fatigue.”
When to wrap up
Axe recommends wearing wraps when you’re completing a high volume of overhead movements at a moderate weight or lower rep counts of heavier weights.
For instance, if you’re doing an overhead movement like a push press or snatch at a weight greater than 85 percent of your 1-rep max, the wraps can help you stabilize and achieve that heavier weight.
CrossFitters may also want the wraps for workouts like Grace, Isabel, or DT. These require you to push a moderate weight overhead over and over again. (For those not familiar with CrossFit, that’s 30+ reps at anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of your 1-rep max.)
“Lifting even a moderate weight can increase the strain on your wrists over time,” says Cary Williams, Olympic-level coach and co-creator of Boxing & Barbells.
Axe also suggests using wraps if your fitness routine includes handstand push-ups or walking on your hands. These movements put a lot of pressure on your wrists and forearms, and wraps can relieve some of it.
When to go bare
It might be a good idea to ditch the wraps if you’re using light weights (less than 80 percent of your 1-rep max) or doing movements that don’t involve putting weight overhead, like pull-ups, push-ups, or squats.
“You don’t need the wraps for every upper-body strengthening movement, and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you always wear them,” says Axe.
“There is always a concern that relying too much on outside support for any weakness is a Band-Aid for an unaddressed problem like arthritis, tendinitis, or poor wrist mobility,” Straub says. “If you constantly wear the wrist wraps, you could possibly stunt the development of the musculatures in your forearms and grip.”
Straub advises that overusing wrist wraps in the long term may increase your risk of injury.
You might find yourself in a position where you simply cannot weight train without wrist wraps. Sound like you? Straub suggests visiting a personal trainer and rethinking your routine. It may be wise to include wrist strengthening and mobility movements like wrist circles or squeezing a tennis ball.
And if you secretly rely on wraps to mop up your arm sweat (no judgment), invest in a pair of sweatbands. These are widely available online at prices that (ironically) won’t have you sweating.
“Knee sleeves compress and stabilize the knees. This can help keep the patella in place during movements that increase pressure on the knees,” Schoenfeld says.
They’re made from neoprene, just like some lifting belts.
Who can knee sleeves help during weight training?
According to Straub, knee sleeves are truly most helpful for people with knee problems who are reluctant to lose momentum in their workout routine.
A 2011 study found that folks with osteoarthritis who used knee sleeves in everyday life felt less pain than before and had more support during therapeutic exercise.
But Straub warns that if the brace is too tight, it can end up cutting off circulation to the joint. This could cause discomfort — so go easy on the wrapping.
Are knee sleeves useful for folks *without* knee problems?
Unlike weight belts, which may allow an athlete to lift more, knee sleeves aren’t likely to improve your performance if you have healthy knee joints.
Researchers in a 2012 study didn’t note any strength differences between football players who used the sleeves and those who did not.
“The research is pretty clear. There may be a benefit for folks who already have arthritis, but there’s no real benefit to knee sleeves for a healthy individual,” Axe says.
Keep your hopes for your knees realistic
“People mistakenly assume that wearing knee sleeves will automatically improve their technique and make them a better, stronger squatter,” Brodie says. “That’s incorrect.” Oh?
“Sleeves won’t improve bar mechanics, prevent injury from poor form, or treat an injury,” Brodie continues. “Only a combination of good coaching, prehab, rehab, and smart strength training can do that.”
The moral of the story? Good gear is no replacement for a focused training mindset and thorough prep when it comes to performance.
Above all, let your body be the guide. “Some people will find that knee sleeves may cause problems or throw off their form. So if your knees bother you when you wear sleeves, don’t wear them,” Schoenfeld says.
Weightlifting shoes are sturdy-as-hell sneakers with a slight heel lift (usually made from wood).
Why do people wear lifting shoes?
“This heel lift helps the lifter keep their weight in their heels, which is the correct form for most barbell movements, including the squat, front squat, and clean,” says Kyra Williams.
So do you *need* lifting shoes?
Sure, different workouts can require different kicks — but is specialized footwear truly essential for weightlifting? They’re not necessary, but they can be beneficial.
Due to limited ankle mobility and decreased flexibility in their calves, many people cannot keep their weight in regular sneakers or when barefoot. The consequence? “They rock their weight into their toes and aren’t able to keep their chest fully upright,” Brodie says.
“Research has shown that a heel lift allows for proper form and more quadricep recruitment. This can lead to a heavier squat,” Brodie continues. “And because it reinforces good form, it can actually help prevent injury from sh*tty form. For most people, these are big wins.”
“If you start wearing weightlifting shoes and stop learning how to squat the right way, you’re taking a shortcut,” Brodie says. This might have a negative longer-term impact on your ankle mobility.
Both Brodie and Schoenfeld recommend working on your ankle mobility, whether you invest in a pair of weightlifting shoes or not. It’s a great way to prevent injuries further down the line.
So, do you really need gear to support your lifting regimen? As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to each type of weightlifting accessory.
“I don’t believe there is a universal right or wrong for each of these pieces of gear,” Axe says. “Whether or not they’re beneficial will depend on your body and fitness goals.”
If you’re still wondering whether investing in that fancy weightlifting belt is for you, chat with a trainer or physical therapist. But above all, don’t feel like you need to buy gear just to fit in at the gym. You’re already killing it just by showing up.
Gabrielle Kassel is an athleisure-wearing, adaptogen-taking, left-swiping, CrossFitting, New York-based writer with a knack for thinking about wellness-as-lifestyle. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.