This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; personal trainer and fitness writer – Adam Willis.
There comes a point in most people’s fitness journey when they suddenly start wondering if they need some additional lifting gear to help them see more progress.
They start getting curious about such items as lifting belts, weightlifting shoes, knee sleeves and lifting straps.
However, more often than not, the sudden curiosity about them comes down to 4 reasons…
- they believe they’ll see faster progress if they use them
- they believe they’ve hit a plateau and these items are the solution
- they believe that these items will “prevent injury”, especially in the case of the lifting belt
- somebody they know or follow on social media uses them or told them they should use them
…all of which are not good reasons to jump online and buy them.
So, why, and when should you use lifting belts, weightlifting shoes, lifting straps and knee sleeves?
I’m glad you asked.
But before I break down the pros and cons of each one, and give you all the information you need on when you might consider using each in your training, I’d like to start with this…
None of these 4 items are essential for you to see a lifetime of great progress in the gym.
Many people have achieved incredible things in the gym without ever using them, and you don’t need to either.
Sure, each item does come with an upside or two that can make buying them alluring, but none are truly essential, unless you’re someone who competes in such sports as Weightlifting, Powerlifting or Strongman/Strongwoman.
These items are not magical answers to training problems or progress.
They’re no substitute for great technique and appropriate programming.
…and unfortunately, none have the ability to prevent injury.
But there are benefits to using each item, a “best time to use” each item and there are also certain lifts that can benefit from these items being used as well.
So, let’s dive into each one in more detail.
|PROS||The belt helps you increase intra-abdominal pressure, increasing your core stability. This usually results in you being able to lift heavier weights than if you were not wearing a belt|
The belt provides proprioceptive feedback allowing you to better feel how hard you’re bracing your core
|CONS||People may ignore their technique issues as they believe the belt protects them from injury. While isolated studies suggest belts may improve lifting safety, the literature remains controversial with no consistent support for the ability of weight belts to reduce injury|
People become reliant on the belt for feedback on their core bracing
Can be expensive to buy
Not suitable for those with high blood pressure or hernias and may contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction
|WHEN SHOULD I USE A BELT?||When you have perfect technique and are already “strong” in the lift [ex: I don’t recommend a belt until you can squat or deadlift 1.5x your bodyweight]|
Once at the above strength stage, a belt can be considered for any training being performed above 80% of your 1 rep max [i.e. at maximal or near maximal lifts]
|WHAT LIFTS SHOULD I USE A BELT FOR?||Barbell squat variations|
Barbell deadlift variations
Barbell overhead pressing variations
|summary:||A belt can be a very effective (but non-essential) tool to use, but you want to get to a good level of strength (and trunk stability) first before considering using one. It should then only be used for sets above 80% of your 1 rep maximum. Once you’re at this level of strength you want to also factor in belt-less training into your training phases and training year as well to avoid being solely dependent on your belt|
|PROS||Shoes with an elevated heel assist with a level of ankle mobility required for such lifts as squats and full clean and snatch variations. This in turn allows for a greater positive shin angle, allowing for more hip and knee flexion to be achieved. This results in a greater range of motion to be achieved [more depth] and helps to keep the body upright|
Weightlifting shoes are incredibly sturdy and supportive, creating a very stable foot “platform” to lift from
|CONS||Can be expensive to buy|
Can mask underlying mobility issues
Due to their “sturdiness” they’re not appropriate for many other training activities like plyometrics, running, rowing, cycling, circuits and the raised heel can put you in poor positions for other lifts. This means you’ll likely need to have a second pair of trainers with you to use during your workout as well.
|WHEN SHOULD I USE WEIGHTLIFTING SHOES?||If you’re performing cleans and snatches|
If you have limited ankle range of motion that affects your squatting, snatches, cleans or single leg quad-focused training
|WHAT LIFTS SHOULD I USE WEIGHTLIFTING SHOES FOR?||Squat variations|
Overhead pressing variations
|summary:||Weightlifting shoes can be a great investment and typically improve most people’s squat position instantly. If you’re performing snatches and cleans you should definitely consider buying a pair. The only downside to them is that 1: they’re expensive and 2: you will need to have a second pair of trainers with you for all of your training that the weightlifting shoes aren’t suitable for|
|PROS||The sole purpose of lifting straps is to allow you to lift more weight, or do more reps, than your grip would otherwise allow|
They can allow you to overload specific lifts that would otherwise be compromised by your grip strength. A great example of this is a Romanian Deadlift. You can really overload your glutes and hamstrings in this movement if you take grip out of the equation
Very cheap to buy
|CONS||Grip strength, and improving grip strength, is important for a number of reasons. Too frequent use of straps can potentially impact grip negatively and all too often people just use straps to hide their grip weakness|
People put them on too soon, like during their warm-up sets, and too often
|WHEN SHOULD I USE LIFTING STRAPS?||If you’re trying to overload a movement, like a barbell Romanian Deadlift, and don’t want your grip being the limiting factor. However, I will caveat this with what I do with my clients, most of which are female, so grip strength is often a factor – I allow them to use straps to get more out of their RDL when they can RDL their bodyweight. Until then they need more grip strength work so holding the barbell and working on their grip is of more importance|
Only put them on for your working sets, let your grip do the work during your warm-up sets
|WHAT LIFTS SHOULD I USE LIFTING STRAPS FOR?||I typically only advise straps for things like Romanian Deadlifts once at a certain strength with them. You may also want to consider them for certain row or pulldown variations, but again, only once you’re “pretty strong” in those movements already. If grip is a limiting factor for certain lifts, perhaps consider adding in some additional grip training work, like Farmer Walks or Dead Hangs from a bar, at the end of each training session for 4-12 weeks to bring the weakness up|
|summary:||Lifting straps can be useful for someone who wishes to overload a certain movement without their grip being a limiting factor. However, I’m a firm believer in grip strength being very important so they should never be used too often or too early in a person’s training simply to mask a grip weakness|
|PROS||They keep your knees warm which increases blood flow and to the joint. This can aid with recovery both during and after training sessions|
They usually make your knees feel pretty good during movements like squats, snatches and cleans
|CONS||They can be very expensive|
You must buy a pair that fits well. Too loose and they’ll slip down or bunch behind your knee. Too tight and they can act as a tourniquet which can be very dangerous
In the warm weather, or if not washed frequently, they will end up smelling truly terrible
|WHEN SHOULD I USE KNEE SLEEVES?||If you’re performing Snatch and Clean variations regularly|
If you’re squatting multiple times per week and/or doing high volume squats
|WHAT LIFTS SHOULD I USE KNEE SLEEVES FOR?||Squat variations|
Single leg quad-focused movements
|summary:||Like all of the above items, knee sleeves are no substitute for good technique and sensible programming. Like a belt, they don’t prevent injury, but can help keep your knees warm, increasing blood flow to the area helping your knees “feel good” when lifting. The only real downsides are that they can be expensive, you must buy a pair that fits well and if not washed frequently they will end up smelling awful|
So, as my spoiler alert suggested at the beginning of this article, none of the 4 items are “must haves” for you to see a lifetime of success in the gym.
Sure, they can at times help you with certain lifts, or when you’ve achieved a certain level of strength, they can be a useful tool to use for when a training phase calls for work over 80% of your 1 rep max, but they’re certainly not essential.
However, with all that being said, if you still wish to buy these items, by all means do so. Just ensure that you’re buying them for the right reasons and clearly understand what they will and won’t do for you in return for your financial investment.
P.S: If you’re unsure of what belt, shoes, straps or sleeves to buy then please don’t be afraid to reach out and we will do our best to direct you.