Weight lifting belts, shoes, gloves, wraps, straps, etc… I’m sure you’ve seen them around the gym and for sale online. Have you ever wondered what purpose they serve? How much of a difference do they make in your workouts? Are they worth the money? Do you really need any of them? The quick answer is no, you don’t absolutely need any of them, but they can enhance your workout depending on what you’re trying to achieve in the gym.
Belt – a weight lifting belt helps to stabilize your core and relieve pressure on the intervertebral discs in your lower back when you lift. Most people don’t need a belt. It’s better to focus on proper form and to rely on your core muscles rather than a belt to protect your spine. However, if you have a minor back injury or you intend to push your limits on heavy free weight exercises like squats, deadlifts, and rows, then it’s a good idea to wear a belt as a safety precaution. Prices range from $15-$100 depending on material and clasping mechanism. For more details on belts and specific recommendations, see my other blog post on that topic.
Shoes – yes, they do make specific shoes for lifting weights! Lifting shoes serve very specific purposes and are not needed by the majority of people in commercial gyms. Most people will do perfectly fine with a regular pair of sneakers, especially if you spend most of your time on machines. However, if you do heavy free weight exercises while standing on your feet, you should wear shoes with a firm sole to add stability and strength to your lifts. Wrestling shoes or Chuck Taylor skate shoes are good affordable options. Powerlifting shoes and Olympic lifting shoes are a bit more expensive and provide very firm soles, plus they’re available with a raised heel to help improve your form and balance on deep squats, snatches, and cleans. Cross training shoes bridge the gap between sneakers and weight lifting shoes by providing enough stability for heavy lifting while being light and flexible enough for running and jumping. Prices range from $60-$200. If you’re a powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or Crossfitter, they’re worth the investment.
Gloves – gloves are possibly the most useless weight lifting accessory in terms of results enhancement. They worsen your control of the bar and prevent your skin from toughening up in response to the weights. The only reasons to consider weight lifting gloves are to avoid developing callouses for personal or job-related reasons (e.g. massage therapist), to absorb hand sweat (although chalk or a towel work better), or to avoid contact with dirty equipment. A pair of gloves ranges from $10-$50.
Lifting Straps – not to be confused with wraps, lifting straps loop around your wrists and then around the barbell to help you maintain your grip. Straps can be very helpful if you find that your grip gives out before you’ve thoroughly worked the muscles that you’re targeting, for example on back exercises like deadlifts, rows, shrugs, and lat pulldowns. You can buy a good pair of straps for $10-$20, so it’s a good investment if you want to overload your back muscles to the max. If your grip is strong enough to perform your exercises properly without straps, all the better, and in that case do not use straps. There are more expensive variations of plain straps that employ Velcro, figure 8 loops, or hooks on the ends – they all serve the same purpose, and in my experience work no better than plain straps.
Wraps – not to be confused with straps, wraps are an elastic material that’s stretched tightly around your wrists, knees, or elbows in multiple layers to provide compression which helps you lift more weight. I don’t recommend using wraps unless you’re a competitive powerlifter who plans to compete in them. For everyone else, it’s better to rely on your own muscle strength to lift the weights and avoid the high compressive forces of the wraps that can potentially damage the knees. A pair of wraps ranges from $10-30.
Sleeves – Knee sleeves and elbow sleeves are a tube shaped fabric that slides over the joint to provide warmth and light compression while you lift. Sleeves are great for alleviating pain and allowing you to exercise through minor knee and elbow injuries. They’re also helpful for keeping the knees and elbows warm while exercising in cold weather. Prices for a pair of sleeves range from $20-$120. If you have no knee/elbow injuries and your gym has proper heating, then there’s no reason to use sleeves.
Chalk – made of magnesium carbonate, chalk is applied to the hands to improve your grip on the bar. It works by soaking up the oil and sweat from your skin which otherwise act as lubricants. Since chalk is a grip aid, it’s similar in purpose to lifting straps, but there are some key differences. Straps essentially tie your wrists to the bar, providing an extremely secure grip, while chalk just provides a little assistance and consistency regardless of how sweaty your hands are. For bodybuilding, straps are preferred because they hold better and make no mess. For powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and Crossfit, chalk is preferred because it’s quicker and easier to use, and it’s legal in competition. Most commercial gyms don’t allow chalk due to the mess, so check before you use it. Chalk comes in 2 ounce blocks that cost less than $5 and typically last a few months for a single user.
Bar Pad – as the name suggests, it’s a pad that slides around the barbell to make certain exercises more comfortable. It’s used for exercises where you rest the bar behind your neck, like squats, good mornings, standing calf raises, or barbell lunges. It’s also commonly used for hip thrusts. For the behind-the-neck exercises, a bar bad isn’t necessary if you have good technique (i.e. pinch shoulder blades together, creating a shelf for the bar) and at least a little bit of muscle in your upper back. Using a pad will reduce your control of the bar, so it’s better not to use one if you can help it. For hip thrusts, a bar pad is highly recommended because there’s no muscular shelf for the bar to rest on. Prices range from $10-25.
If there are other accessories you have questions about, just ask!