This installment is dedicated to some of the practical supportive gear a lifter may wish to use at some point. Most gear can be extremely helpful in keeping a person training while nursing a minor injury and add an extra layer of safety for the otherwise healthy lifter. As we get older and rack up more miles, the decision of whether or not to use a particular piece of gear could very well mean the difference between years of productive training or a slow retreat into Tia Chi.
What exactly am I referring to when I speak of supportive gear? It includes, but isn’t limited to: knee sleeves, knee wraps, belts, wrist wraps, straps, and elbow sleeves. I’ll cover each of these items and discuss what to look for when making a purchase. At the end of every section there will be a link to each of these items for you to shop around.
Arguably one of the most useful pieces of gear a lifter can own. First, what exactly does a belt do? Belts function by giving the abdominals something to push against. The resistance provided by the belt increases pressure within the entire trunk and aids in securing the spine. All of the trunk muscles can actually contract more forcefully with a belt than without one. We’ve all heard that using a belt will make your abs weaker. This is a myth. Yes, a person will be able to lift more weight with a belt than without one, but this isn’t because a belt made you weaker. It’s because the belt aided in improving spinal rigidity and allowed the trunk muscles to contract harder than they would be capable of without it. This improved force transfer up the spine and into the bar. I think this myth persists in part because some people lack the confidence to lift without one. This could be a result of overusing a belt. A general recommendation is to do as much work as you can handle without the aid of a belt. This usually means going beltless for all but your last warm-up set and your working sets (the heaviest sets). Sometimes minor aches and pains may mean dawning the belt a little earlier in the warm-up process.
Choosing a belt should not be taken lightly. There are many poorly designed belts on the market that are meant to catch your eye and your wallet, rather than improve your safety and performance. There are however, a few simple specs to follow when looking for a quality belt that will last for years.
The best belts are always made of leather. It’s a durable material that will last for decades as long as it isn’t abused. There are some good nylon belts that are easy on the pockets. They aren’t going to be as secure as a leather belt simply because of the material.
I recommend at least a 6.5mm thickness for a belt to be effective, and most lifters prefer a 10mm thickness. They can be as thick as 13mm, but those become much too stiff, and seem to get in the way more than they help. Some will even have a plastic core between 2 layers of leather. Stay away from these. They take forever to break-in, if at all, and are just unnecessary for the majority of lifters.
Width should be 3 or 4 inches with 4-inch belts being the most common. A 3-inch belt tends to be more desirable for shorter lifters of lifters with short torsos. The width should be the same for the entire length of the belt for it to do its job properly. The “bodybuilding” belts with the large backs that taper towards the ends are not nearly as effective. I would stay away from the 5" belts as they tend to be too large and will dig into your ribs and pelvis. Powerlifting doesn't allow a 5" belt anyway, so if you plan on competing don't even bother. Just get the 3-4" belt and be done with it.
Single or double prong buckles; it doesn’t really matter in my opinion.
Lever belts are a bit of a different animal. They’re really easy to put on and take off. All you do is flip the lever and the belt is released. This is desirable for when you are training with minimal rest periods but can’t leave the belt on for the duration of the workout. The cons of this style of buckle are they aren’t easily adjustable. A plate with 2 screws on the inner side secures the buckle, and can take several minutes to adjust the lever for a proper fit. This makes it difficult to share with someone who has a different size waist than yours. Your waist size isn’t a constant either. Some days your abdomen may be a little larger or smaller due to hydration or the Indian buffet you had for lunch. This will make your belt fit tighter or looser than usual. A traditional prong buckle is just more easily adjustable for these situations.
There is a hybrid version of a lever and prong buckle called the quick release prong belt, but I’ve never used one nor have I seen anyone else use one, so that’s about all the information I have.
Nylon belts will have a Velcro strap that will wrap around the buckle. These are useful for Olympic lifts, which require the bar to pass the navel. A bulky buckle can get in the way, but the Velcro strap sits closer to the body.
Knee Sleeves/Wraps & Elbow Sleeves
Knee and elbow sleeves insulate the area to provide warmth and additional circulation. Sleeves also add just a little compression to the joint for increased stability and proprioception. This is especially beneficial for older lifters or lifters who have had knees and elbow issues. Minor discomfort from arthritis and tendinitis can be quickly relieved with the use of a quality sleeve. I recommend using them even if you’re young with perfectly healthy joints.
Almost all quality sleeves are made of neoprene with a cloth outer shell. Most of the sleeves available for purchase at your local pharmacy just aren’t that good.
Sleeves will usually be 3-7mm in thickness. Your choice of thickness will depend on what level of support you desire.
Most sleeves will be between 9” and ~11 ¾”. The length you purchase will mostly be based on how long your limbs are, and whether or not you are a competitive lifter.
To ensure an accurate fit you’ll need to measure around your knee/elbow. If you have calves larger than your knee or Popeye forearms you may need to use that measurement. Online venders will have a sizing chart.
Knee wraps are a quite different. They come in a variety of lengths, widths, and elasticity. They will be made from a combination of cotton, polyester and elastic. The key difference is the ability to adjust how tight they are worn. Many weightlifters will apply them loosely and wear them for the duration of the workout. Powerlifters will usually put them on just before a heavy set (with the aid of a friend) and immediately remove them after its completion. Wraps can be applied so tight that they act as a cast and occlude circulation. For general purposes a knee wrap should fit well enough to be left on for the entire workout.
Length & Width
Most wraps will come in about a 6’ length to ensure proper coverage.
About 3” wide is standard.
These serve as a sort of brace for the wrist. They’ll aid in preventing the wrist from over extending while under a heavy load. If you’ve had a serious wrist or hand injury that has never quite healed 100%, you may find wrist wraps helpful. I like them for my heaviest sets of bench press and over-head press because they seem to function like a belt. It gives something for the contracting forearm muscles to press against and I feel like I have a stronger grip on the bar. That’s just been my observation.
Length & Width
The length you choose will be determined on how many times you want the wrap to go around your wrist, the thickness of your wrist/lower forearm, and how much support you’re looking to get out of the wrap. The most common lengths are 12”, 18”, 24” and 36”. For general purposes I recommend a wrap that’s about 18” in length. This will provide most people with 2 - 2 ½ revolutions, and this should provide ample support.
Just like the knee wraps; about 3” wide is standard.
Straps can be very useful for training past the point of your natural grip strength. This usually occurs with rack pulls, or block pulls where the better leverages allows the lifter to use more weight than they could lift off of the floor and the limiting factor at that point would be grip strength.
An injury that has compromised grip strength could possibly be trained around with the aid of a strap. The strap would allow for productive training to continue while the injury heals.
Just like the belts, straps are often used to the point of being a crutch. They can be used enough that they prevent adequate grip strength from developing. Only use straps when it’s necessary, which isn’t very often for most of the population.
They are worn over the top of the hand, NOT CINCHED AROUND THE WRIST.
Length & Width
About 2’ in length and 1 ½” wide will provide the best results.
This just scratches the surface on the subject of supportive gear, but the items covered here are the most common and the most practical for your weekend warrior to your competitive lifter. Before you make the choice to use any piece of gear you must ask yourself why you’re using it.
About the Author:
Scott Acosta is a USA Powerlifting Coach, Westside Barbell Strength Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer, 3-time attendee of the Starting Strength Seminar, and competitive raw powerlifter.
Scott’s best competition lifts are a 518 lb. squat, 385 lb. bench press, and 606 lb. deadlift in the 231 lb. men’s open weight class.
You can follow Scott on Instagram @essential_barbell