In any gym setting, it is common to find a wide variety of accessory or supportive equipment designed for many different uses. Many of these pieces of equipment are constructed for safety purposes, while others provide advantageous benefits for accomplishing a task in the gym. As with any piece of equipment or accessory, there’s always a good time and place to use them, as long as the utility is understood. This article will dive deeply into some of these accessories and when, where, and why to use or not use them.
Lifting straps have been the subject of many disputes in the gym community. From tough guys stating that “if you can’t hold the weight, you shouldn’t lift it,” to coaches like myself who understand the benefits of using straps and implement them often, lifting straps has been debated by many athletes and professionals throughout the fitness industry. These straps simply attach the athlete to the bar and help mitigate any grip limitations during a barbell or dumbbell exercise. This can dramatically help the lifter accomplish tasks like deadlifts, rows, and even carries as they can focus on the task of the exercise instead of feeling their grip start to fail. The debate centers around the idea that if one cannot hold the weight with their hands, they cannot (or should not) be using that weight for a specific exercise. While there is some logic to this, the flaw lies in the fact that the muscles of the forearm are significantly smaller than the muscles of the upper back, lats, and trunk of any individual. If deadlifts are the exercise and the intent is to train that motor pattern as well as the muscles of the posterior chain, why would one limit the weight they can load on those big muscles by their own grip strength? Grip strength comes with time, and for beginner lifters looking to dial in technique and get their bodies accustomed to external loads, straps can be an effective tool to support them in focusing on the task at hand.
Weightlifting belts have been around for as long as people have been exercising. These belts come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and materials—and are designed for different actions. Primarily, belts are used as a safety device for athletes lifting large amounts of weight in mostly compound movements like squats, deadlifts, cleans, etc. While originally created for safety, belts also can support intra-abdominal pressure and help the athlete feel more secure and comfortable with heavy loads. Hence, athletes can become dependent upon them. Belts are a helpful tool, but belts should be earned. Athletes should have a foundation of about one year of resistance training before considering adding this piece of equipment. Such experience gives them an understanding of how to create stiffness by using the muscles of the trunk; then, once they’ve built up a base allowing them to start expressing more maximal contractions, a belt becomes a powerful and beneficial tool. Furthermore, intermediate and advanced athletes should still do a lot of their primary lifting without a belt, and only add it for more maximal loads to avoid becoming dependent upon it for heavy lifting.
The footwear of an athlete can play an important role in one’s fitness journey— functioning as both a fashion statement and a tool for optimal performance. Gym footwear definitely can be overcomplicated, since different footwear is designed for different sports: running, cross training, or lifting weights. For the most part, an athlete can get away with doing most things in the gym with a simple, flat shoe. This gets them closer to the ground and a flat surface helps maintain balance and stability. Specific weightlifting shoes can be a worthy investment, though. These shoes are very sturdy and stable; also, they have an elevated heel that allows for more knee flexion without the limitation of the ankle joint. In layman's terms, these shoes allow an athlete to achieve better positions, specifically in a squat, with less effort and with fewer physiological limitations. This can allow an athlete to continue training with stronger positions and performance rather than doing extra work to get the body into the desired position. The shoes can be costly, but as they’re only worn in the gym for certain periods of time, they last a long time and are well worth the investment. Aside from weightlifting shoes, most flat, low-profile shoes like Chuck Taylors, Nike MetCons, or even Vans can provide an athlete with a stable, flat surface to maintain their balance and stability without much interference.
Just use it.
Navigating gym accessories doesn’t have to be as difficult as it is made out to be. There are no written rules of when or where to use a piece of equipment, but understanding the why and how can definitely help drive better performance for a given task in the gym. For more information about how you can optimize your training, nutrition, or lifestyle in regard to your goals, schedule a FREE strategy session with a Professional Coach and better align your life with the results you want to achieve.