Tools or Crutches?
What's the deal with weight belts, lifting straps, and Olympic lifting shoes? Are they good tools or are they doing more harm than good? Many "functional training" coaches will tell you not to use them. But many strength coaches will tell you they're a necessity. So which is it? Unfortunately, the answer is not so cut and dried.
1 – Lifting Straps
Wrist straps (not wraps) have become associated with a weak grip among some hardcore lifters. Avoiding straps during heavy staples like deadlifts, rows, and pulldowns can be good for building forearm and hand strength, but there are also strategic uses where straps are ideal.
Straps should be mainly used where grip is the limiting factor, or in the execution of exercises to create a stronger mind-muscle connection in specific muscles. Here's when you should start strapping up and when you should just go raw.
When To Use Them
To progress in the gym, you'll need constant long-term overload. But once you're close to your physical potential, more glaring weak links will eventually come to the forefront of training. And that'll make it harder to keep pushing the load in the big lifts.
Using straps strategically during supra-maximal loaded training can be advantageous. It'll keep you from being limited by your grip strength and allow other muscles of the body to be overloaded.
The hand, wrist, and forearm musculature is slow-twitch dominant, which means it's designed to withstand extended periods of tension. Your grip is built for endurance, but there are times in advanced training where the total time under tension (TUT) can be limited by your grip.
In more advanced bodybuilding programming that involves high relative intensity, like extended drop sets, partial reps, and isometric holds, your grip shouldn't be your limiting factor if you're wanting to reap the benefits of extending a set and chasing a pump.
For pulling movements, where intensity techniques are implemented, straps are actually a preferred setup in order to maximize the challenge of each set. You can also use straps in more isolation-based movements to emphasize muscular actions at the back, shoulders, or even the lower body.
Using the lat pulldown as an example, the primary muscular mover should be the lats. But many times the forearms and biceps can take tension away from the lats, making it extremely hard to elicit strong, high-quality contractions.
By using straps, the grip can relax while the biceps are also de-emphasized, which shifts the load more directly to the lats. This same principle can apply to higher-rep deadlifts with a back emphasis, direct shoulder work such as lateral raises, and even during lower-body movements like lunges with heavy dumbbells held at the sides.
When NOT To Use Them
If you're new to the strength game, ditch the straps. You're improving motor skills and learning to tap into full body tension. Going strapless for the first one or two years will help strengthen your joints and prevent unnecessary shoulder, elbow, and spinal pain.
Lift with your bare hands to improve the irradiation effect, which transfers force from the hands up into the kinetic chain. Sure, it'll place a ceiling on the weights you're able to handle, but this is a good thing when movement patterns are first being developed.
What about the more advanced lifter? While you've earned the right to train heavy, there's a slippery slope for strap work. You still need to be judicious with it.
Sure, strapping up will allow for heavier weight to be moved, especially if your weakest link is at your fingertips. But even for the advanced, straps should be used sparingly, and only sprinkled into top-end sets. All warm-up and ramp-up sets should be done raw, and a vast majority of accessory pulling should also be taking place without straps.
Finally, if grip or bicep strength are your weak link, use heavy, raw grip work to bring these up. Then, as the grip and forearms become more emphasized in raw training, your 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 during pulling-based exercises can be a challenge. Use straps wisely if that happens.
2 – Belts
This accessory is the most abused and misused. As polarizing as the topics of core strength and lower back pain are, this tool sits right at the heart of a hotly debated question:
"Will the constant use of a lifting belt weaken the core?"
The true answer is almost always somewhere in the middle of the polarizing viewpoints. And in this case, it's highly dependent on the individual lifter and his or her unique challenges.
When To Use Them
Everyone wants a specific number when it comes to using the belt on the big lifts. Should you start using it once you hit a 400 pound deadlift? Or should you use it every time you plan to lift 90% of your max?
But since every lifter has individual body types, goals, and a unique history of training experience and injury, there are no strict rules on the use of belts for the squat and deadlift. The best indicator is a combination of training age on the big lifts and the ability to create a hard and stable brace through the pillar unit (your shoulders, hips and core).
Serious strength training – consisting of periodized barbell lifts for two-plus years – is the training age at which a lifter can potentially have success implementing the belt. If that seems like a long time to you, you haven't been lifting long enough. Proper bracing technique during compound movements takes years, if not decades, to master. It's an ongoing process. But this leads to the next predictive criteria of belted training success: the brace.
Bracing is 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. It needs to be a prerequisite to adding a belt into the training equation.
Force or tension leaks that occur with lifters who haven't mastered pillar bracing can actually be exacerbated by the addition of a belt. Just as we don't add weight to a faulty foundational movement pattern, we should also not be adding an external brace (a belt) to our own faulty bracing mechanism.
Once you've mastered the ability to brace, and you've decided to strategically implement the belt, the next question is when to use it for maximal benefit.
A vast majority of barbell sport athletes and seasoned recreational lifters will have success using a belt for working sets (not warm-up sets) of squat and hip hinge variations. So if you're working at a top-end load or relative intensity in these two movement patterns, use the belt to enhance your performance and maximize your brace.
When NOT To Use Them
Most lifters who use the belt have no clue what it's there for or how to use it. It's just another trend among morons who strap up their midsections right before they injure their lower backs.
If you're a novice, or have a lower back problem, make sure you know how to properly brace, stabilize, and maintain tension through the midsection. Your lack of basic stability requirements throughout the core may be the exact reason why you're always messing up your back, 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. It's not a fashion accessory.
It should not be put on in the locker room before a workout 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 injuries. A 6mm piece of leather can't hold together poor movement execution, nor was it designed to.
Even for advanced lifters there are times where lifting 100% raw is still the preferred method. If an exercise is targeting core strength, like a loaded carry, skip the belt and go raw. For upper body 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 it) if you're doing cardio or training arms, lose the belt.
Decreasing the dependency on a belt will enable you to create more authentic and functional full-body tension in all of your exercises, and give you a new appreciation for what it means to generate internal tension through the musculature, fascia, and soft-tissue connections of your body that you have control over.
And as we say with our geared powerlifters, the stronger you are raw, the stronger you'll be when you put the equipment back on.
3 – Olympic Lifting Shoes
These shoes were originally developed for the sport of Olympic weightlifting. By building up the heel of the shoe in conjunction with creating a stiff and flat sole, these shoes have the ability to maximize ground reaction force while helping the ankles, knees, hips, and spine to explosively move weight off the ground.
But over the years they've become a common crutch for general lifters with no goals of ever competing on the platform. Here's who should be using them and who should be avoiding them.
When To Use Them
Use them when you're on an Olympic lifting platform doing Olympic lifts. There are sport-specific advantages of lifting shoes. But it would be shortsighted 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's always a give and take for each training variable that's implemented into programming and competition. And if your 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 to achieve that goal – the cost to benefit ratio is in alignment.
But there are also anatomical outliers who have limitations in joint mobility and arthrokinematics (the slight movements in the joint space) which allow intricate joint movements to take place, such as components of dorsiflexion.
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 structure doesn't allow certain movements to take place. These are the types of issues that will never be improved with soft tissue work like stretching and foam rolling. It can actually be counterproductive to hammer self-maintenance work. It's a mismatch with the true problems, which are the joints themselves.
Many lifters go down the conservative rabbit hole with 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 you tons of time, and worlds of frustration. If and when body blocks at the hips, ankles, or any other joint are diagnosed, adaptive tools which alter the foot's relationship with the ground like an Olympic lifting shoe will help you continue to train while minimizing pain and complication with your movement patterns.
The key to having success with any type of lifting tool or accessory is diving on potential functional pitfalls first, bringing them up to as high of a level as possible, and THEN adding the tool to enhance training. Stay strategic with your tools and you'll reap all the benefits.
When NOT To Use Them
Many times people will diagnose themselves with mechanical movement problems, when in reality they just have neurological patterning issues which hinder their coordination and ability to move without pain. So they get lifting shoes. Then as this external crutch is used, the motor control never improves, which is the origin of the problem. The pain usually gets worse.
Unless you're planning to step on the platform and compete in a barbell sport, avoid adaptive lifting shoes and use a pair that will allow you to move as naturally as possible.
When using a more minimalist shoe, consider the motor control in your functional weak links, like ankle dorsiflexion and hip flexion and rotation. This is a common occurrence for those chronically using their shoes as a crutch for their big lifts.
Even if you're an Olympic lifter, powerlifter, or CrossFitter, use minimalist shoes for all non-power or sport-specific barbell lifts in order to reap the benefits of ground contact and the function of the ankle and foot complex.
As a general rule of thumb, use adaptive equipment like Olympic lifting shoes at a minimal effective dose in order to get the most benefit while also allowing the body to move as naturally as possible.