Photo: UncleFedor (Shutterstock)
Years into being a gym rat, I have curated quite the collection of straps, wraps, sleeves, belts, and other items I can attach to my body when I’m lifting weights. Does every gym-goer need all these things? No way; I probably don’t even need all of mine. But each one has a purpose, so I’m here to demystify what they all do, and how to know whether you need them.
If your knees ever feel achy or creaky when you squat, you’ll probably enjoy wearing a pair of 7-millimeter neoprene knee sleeves. Sleeves don’t prevent injury and they don’t allow you to add more weight to the bar—they just make your knees feel good while you’re squatting.
One theory is that they do this by keeping your knees warm; another holds that the way the sleeve bunches up behind your knee relieves some pressure on the knee when you’re in a deep squat. Whatever the reason, they just feel good. They are never necessary but often appreciated.
Full disclosure: I don’t own a pair of these. But knee wraps often get confused with knee sleeves, so let’s sort out the differences. Knee wraps are used in competition, mainly equipped (and raw-with-wraps) powerlifting. They provide so much compression that they actually help you to straighten your knee as you’re standing up from a squat.
Unlike sleeves, wraps do let you lift more weight than you would lift with naked knees. They’re also uncomfortable to the point of being painful, and usually need to be applied right before your lift and removed afterward. If you choose to use these in competition, find a friend who can teach you how to use them and who can help wrap you up before you step on the platform. They’re not necessary or even very useful for general gym use.
Wrist wraps may look like a smaller version of knee wraps, but they’re much less hardcore and are commonly used for casual gym lifts. A typical pair of wrist wraps has a thumb loop and a velcro patch so that you can take a few seconds to wrap up your wrists before doing a heavy bench press or overhead press.
What they do is stabilize your wrists a bit when you’re pressing a weight. (You use them for pushing exercises, but they do nothing for pulling exercises.) If your wrists sometimes feel a bit weak or achy after heavy presses, you may find wraps help a little if you put them on just for your heaviest sets.
Take note: These are not “wrist straps” even though they go around your wrist. There are wrist wraps, as previously described, and then there are these: “lifting straps” or “deadlift straps” or just “straps.”
The point of straps is to assist your grip in pulling exercises. If you’ve ever had a deadlift bar slip out of your hands, you know what I mean. There are several types of straps: Lasso straps are the cheapest and most common, and they’re great. Olympic weightlifting straps are similar, but allow for a quicker release if you want to drop the bar. And figure-8 straps lock you in super securely, great for extra-heavy lifts in strongman training.
The best way to use deadlift straps is to do as much of your deadlift workout as you can without them, then bring them out when your grip begins to fail. This way, your grip strength doesn’t limit your ability to train your back and legs. You can still train your grip in other ways.
A thick, solid weightlifting belt helps you to brace your torso when you’re lifting heavy weight. It doesn’t prevent injury—that’s on you and your technique—but it does allow you to lift more weight on a squat or deadlift than you would be able to do beltless.
If you don’t know what to buy, a 4″ wide, 10mm thick leather belt will fit almost everybody’s needs. Some people like a slightly narrower one for deadlifts. I own a 3″ 10mm Pioneer Cut leather belt with a single-prong buckle, and a 4″ 2Pood velcro belt. Some people like levers instead of buckles on their leather belts. The only thing to be sure to avoid is the double-prong buckles: They’re harder to use for no good reason.
Continuing with the pairings of confusingly similar items, a dip belt exists so that you can hang weights off your body when doing weighted pullups or dips. These fit loosely, which is fine, because the weight pulls the ends of the belt closer together. As long as it doesn’t fall off you, it fits properly.
Normally you don’t need your own dip belt unless you have a home gym; gyms will usually have one hanging around.
Olympic weightlifting shoes, sometimes called “squat shoes” by people who use them for squats but who don’t snatch or clean and jerk, feature a rigid base and an elevated heel. They provide stability, and the heel can help you to get better body positioning on your squats. If you can’t squat as deeply as you would like, you’ll probably benefit from squat shoes.
Why not wear squat shoes for everything? You actually can wear them for presses and for a variety of gym lifts, but you’ll want to take them off for deadlifts. That elevated heel works against you here, making you bend over more than you would if you were barefoot or in flat shoes.
So you may want to stash a pair of very flat, thin-soled deadlift shoes in your bag. Wrestling shoes fit the bill, but so do plenty of “normal” shoes like Chucks and Vans.
Ha! Bet you never thought I’d recommend these! While booty bands are a poor substitute for properly loading an exercise—better to put weight on the bar than a band around your knees—they’re great for warmups. Forward and sideways walks with a band around the knees are excellent for getting your hips ready for a lower body workout.
Another disclaimer here: I don’t use lifting gloves, and I don’t generally recommend them. That said, if you already own a pair of gloves and you’re happy with them, I won’t take your gloves away from you.
Gloves can provide a little bit of extra friction to help you grip the bar better, and some people find they prevent calluses. But you’ll get better grip from chalk and/or straps, and you can get all the protection of calluses without the roughness if you do some basic hand care. You may also find that the extra fabric between your hand and the bar makes it harder to get a good grip. So my preference will always be for barehanded lifting.