If you’ve ever wandered into your gym’s weight section—congrats! You’re well on your way to building strong bones, boosting your metabolism, and staving off disease. Regardless of how long you’ve been lifting, the one thing you can’t miss among the machines and barbells and weight plates (oh my) is the overload of weight-lifting gear.
But is there really any benefit to wearing all that armor while you deadlift? We asked a handful of experts to break down the benefits of the most common weight-lifting accessories, when to use (or not use) them, plus what to keep in mind before forking over the dough.
Weight-lifting belts are basically corsets for meatheads. These five-inch-thick harnesses are made of neoprene or nylon (and sometimes leather) and fasten across the abdomen with either velcro, a buckle, or a quick-release lever—kind of erotic, huh?
“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, CSCS, founder of Flawless Fitness in Pasadena, CA. “But you don’t need to wear a belt for every weight,” she says.
So when should you belt up?
According to USA Powerlifting coach Kyra Williams, “Anytime you are moving over 85 to 90 percent of your one-rep max or are trying to hit a personal best, strapping a belt can add beneficial stability.” If you’ve never found your one-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 be going for a PR more than once every few months,” Williams says. Of course, if you’re brand new to lifting, you’ll be PR’ing like crazy. But once you get rolling, most of your time spent squatting and deadlifting should be beltless.
What happens if you wear a belt more than that?
It’s kind of 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, and at worst you’re weakening your existing core strength,” says Menachem Brodie, NSCA-CSCS, owner of Human Vortex Training.
So while a belt can allow the athlete to lift more weight—up to 15 percent more, according to research—some people use it as a crutch, resulting in a loss in strength, says Chelsea Axe, CSCS and fitness expert at DrAxe.com. “If someone’s always using a belt, they aren’t learning how to properly engage their core on their own.”
Determined to strap one on?
Axe says it’s only safe to lift with a belt when the following two conditions are being met: First, you already know how to squat with good form. And second, you’re going to be squatting more than 85 to 90 percent of your one-rep max. “And even then, I would recommend that athletes also learn what their unbelted squat or deadlift personal best is,” she says.
Basically, wrist wraps look like the less emo cousin of those sweatbands you probably purchased at Hot Topic circa 2006 (just me?). They’re 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.
Looks pretty cool, but what’s their purpose?
To restrict your wrist from moving too far backward or forward without totally immobilizing the wrist joint. According to Rachel Straub, CSCS, co-author of Weight Training Without Injury, “Wrist wraps provide pressure to the bones of the forearm and wrist and offer support and rigidity to the joint, which can lessen the stress on the joint to minimize pain and even fatigue.” Translation: stability, stability, stability.
When to wrap them up:
Axe recommends wearing the wraps when you’re doing very heavy overhead movements at a low weight or a moderate weight at a high volume. For instance, if you’re doing an overhead movement like a push-press, or snatch at a weight that is greater than your 85 percent one-rep max, the wraps can help you stabilize and achieve that heavier weight.
If you’re a CrossFit athlete, you may also want the wraps for workouts like Grace, Isabel, or DT, which require you to push a moderate weight overhead over and over again. (If you haven’t tasted the CrossFit Kool-Aid, that’s 30-plus reps at anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of your one-rep max.)
“Even a moderate weight can put strain on your wrists over time,” says Cary Williams, Olympic-level coach and co-creator of Boxing & Barbells. And Axe suggests using wraps if your fitness routine includes handstand push-ups or walking on your hands, as those movements put a lot of strain on your wrists and forearms.
When to go bare:
Ditch the wraps if you’re using light weight (less than 80 percent of your one-rep max) or doing movements like pull-ups, push-ups, or squats, which don’t involve putting weight overhead. “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, tendonitis, 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.” Long term, she says that you may increase your risk of injury.
If you find yourself in a position where you simply cannot weight train without wrist wraps, Straub suggests seeing a PT and rethinking your routine 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 those aforementioned sweatbands. You can get some really inexpensive pairs on Amazon, like this multicolored pair from Bememo or this pink pair from Suddoro.
Knee sleeves—which are typically made of neoprene—are basically an über-tight tube-top for your knees. “They compress and stabilize the knees, which research has shown keeps the patella in place during movements that create high pressure on the knees,” Schoenfeld says.
Straub adds that while the compression from knee sleeves is in fact beneficial for support, it’s truly most helpful for people with bad knees, as the brace increases joint contact in the knee (reducing pain).In fact, a 2011 study found that when folks with osteoarthritis used knee sleeves, they had reduced pain. Careful, though—Straub says that if the brace is too tight, it can end up cutting off circulation to the joint.
But what about for folks without arthritis?
Unlike weight belts, which may allow an athlete to lift more, knee sleeves will not. One study didn’t note any strength differences between football players who utilized 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 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. Sleeves won’t improve bar mechanics, prevent injury from poor form, or treat an injury.” Only a combination of good coaching, prehab, rehab, and smart strength training can do that. Touché.
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.
When you take a Spin class, you clip on snazzy cycling shoes. When you go for a run, you lace up lightweight, supportive sneaks. So, you already know that different workouts require different footwear. But are lifting shoes really necessary?
The answer is mixed: They’re not necessary, but they can be beneficial.
Weight-lifting shoes are sturdy-as-hell sneakers with a slight heel lift (which is usually made of wood). “This heel lift is there to help the lifter keep their weight in their heels, which is proper form for most barbell movements, including the squat, front squat, and clean,” says [Kyra] Williams.
Due to limited ankle mobility and decreased flexibility in their calves, many people are not able to keep their weight in regular sneakers or when barefoot. The consequence? “They rock their weight into their toes and aren’t able to properly keep their chest upright,” Brodie says.
“Research has shown that a heel lift allows for proper form and more quadriceps recruitment—which can lead to a heavier squat. And because it reinforces good form, it can actually help prevent injury from sh*tty form. For most people, these are big wins.” (And by “big wins” he means, worth the $200 that most lifting shoes cost.)
But there’s a caveat:
“If you start wearing weight-lifting shoes and stop learning how to squat properly, you’re taking a shortcut,” Brodie says. In the short term, that’s NBD. But if you can’t squat when you’re 30, you’re not going to be able to sit down in a chair (read: squat) without injury when you’re 80. He and Schoenfeld both recommend working on your ankle mobility whether you invest in a pair of weight-lifting shoes or not.
The Bottom Line
Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to consider (unless we’re talking about cookies—only pros there). “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 should be decided on a case by case basis.”
So if you’re still wondering if investing in that fancy weight-lifting 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 as you are.
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.