Lifting equipment is hit or miss. Some gear can help you lift more weight or protect your body from the stress of heavy loads. Other gear can ruin your lifts, impede your strength gains or are appropriate only for newbies and weaklings.
To help you make sense of 8 of the most common products on the market, we talked to Rick Scarpulla, owner of Ultimate Advantage Training, to get his take on their pros and cons and, most importantly, whether athletes—not powerlifters or bodybuilders—should use each piece of equipment.
1. Lifting Straps
Straps allow you to hold more weight than you normally can with just your hands. They're typically made of leather and have a loop that goes around your wrists. You then wrap each strap around the barbell, which essentially locks the bar to your hands. Learn how to use lifting straps here.
Verdict: Avoid if possible. Holding a barbell (or dumbbells) helps to strengthen your grip, which is a critical and often overlooked aspect of strength. Gripping a weight also increases tension within your body, which can improve your form and promote strength gains from an exercise. If you have a weak grip that can't support the weight on something like a Deadlift, it's better to strengthen your grip than to hide your weakness.
However, there are a few landmine exercises, such as Single-Arm Landmine Rows and Landmine Deadlifts, where you have to hold the collar of the barbell, which is much thicker than the bar. This makes it difficult to hold, and it's OK to use straps so you can use a weight that actually challenges the muscles you're trying to work.
2. Lifting Chalk
Coating your hands in lifting chalk dries sweat and improves your grip when you hold a heavy barbell, dumbbells or a pull-up bar.
Verdict: Feel free to chalk up. Although you're making the weight slightly easier to hold, you're still gripping it and receiving its tension and grip strength benefits. You can use chalk on every set and on any exercise where grip is challenge, especially Deadlifts, Rows and Pull-Ups. Unfortunately, some big box gyms don't allow chalk because it's messy.
3. Lifting Gloves
Lifting gloves are typically fingerless gloves that have padding on the palms to make weights easier to hold and protect your hands from calluses, tears and general pain.
Verdict: Never, ever use gloves. Gloves virtually eliminate any challenge to your grip. If you find yourself pining away for a pair of gloves, you probably need to toughen up. That's why people who wear gloves in the gym are almost universally ridiculed by experienced lifters.
4. Barbell Pad
A bar pad is typically used to protect your upper back when you perform Back Squats. It's been used more recently to protect the hips during Barbell Hip Thrusts and Glute Bridges.
Verdict: Never use a bar pad for Squats. Not only will you be judged like you would for wearing gloves (as you can see in the Instagram from "The Mountain," below), but it places the bar farther away from your center of gravity, which actually makes it harder to perform a proper Squat. However, a bar pad is OK for Hip Thrusts and Glute Bridges. These exercises would be extremely painful to perform without one.
5. Weight Belt
A weight belt wraps around your torso between your rib cage and hips and helps support your lower back during heavy lifts, such as Squats and Deadlifts. The belt should be tightened so that you can slide your hand between the belt and your stomach. You must take a deep breath in and push your abs, obliques and back into the belt for it to be effective. Strength coach Tony Gentilcore demonstrates how to use a belt in this video.
Verdict: It depends. If you lift heavy weights, you probably wear a weight belt at some point in your workouts. Here's when it's appropriate:
If you're lifting over 80 percent of your max on Squat and Deadlifts, consider wearing a weight belt. It's really up to your personal preference and whether you feel like you need it.
If your lower back is gassed from an exercise earlier in your workout and you're about to perform another movement that stresses it—e.g., if you're performing Dumbbell Rows after a Deadlift.
However, don't let a weight belt serve as a crutch for a weak core. You should try to lift without one unless you absolutely need it. And of course, make sure you're regularly training your core with exercises that actually work.
6. Wrist Wraps
Wrist wraps wrap tightly around your wrists to provide extra support for your joints. They are commonly used during heavy Bench Presses and other pressing exercises. You can also use them during Back Squats to provide extra support for your wrists.
Verdict: Personal preference. Some people can bench press hundreds of pounds and don't use wraps. Others use them all the time. So it really is a personal preference. That said, you should be a fairly experienced lifter to warrant using them. You shouldn't need wraps if you're not benching much over 185 pounds.
7. Knee Sleeves
Knee sleeves are typically neoprene sleeves that slide over your knees and add some (not much) support to your joints and provide compression. This increases blood flow, reduces pain and swelling and may improve recovery.
Verdict: Personal preference. The same comments apply as for wrist wraps.
8. Knee Wraps
Knee wraps are typically worn by powerlifters and strongmen during competition. The 2- to 3-inch strips are wrapped around the knees to protects the joint when lifting ridiculously heavy weight, and they can actually help you lift more weight on lifts like Squats.
Verdict: Only if you're a powerlifter or strongman. The only people who should wear knee wraps are powerlifters and strongmen. They can boost your liftable load, but they don't help you get stronger, so there's no reason for athletes to wear them.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock