Almost every time we post a video, questions pop up about some piece of equipment we are using, sleeves, straps, belts, ammonia, etc. Yesterday, I received an email from Sarah, asking me to outline all of the various lifting assistance gear (not squat/deadlift suits or bench shirts) and when would be a opportune time to start using them in your training. While that is direct of an article would be nearly impossible to write, given the subjectivity of each lifter and their strengths/weaknesses, I feel that I can at least outline when WE use certain pieces of assistance gear, and you can come to your own conclusions. Please leave your purist notions aside while reading this. Squatting barefoot and going strapless for all deadlifts may be your modus operandi, I am of the opinion that if it makes me stronger, I am going to put it in my training. Keep this quote in mind while reading this article, you may just end up opening yourself to using some assistance gear to help increase your gains: New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!~ Arthur C. Clarke
Let’s start by getting the obvious one out of the way first. “When do I use a belt?” Well, I like to throw my belt on during squats or deadlifts when I reach about 85% of my max, keeping the belt off for as long as possible. When I started, I would wear my belt for literally the whole workout, until I started feeling like core strength could become compromised. Matt likes to throw his belt on a little earlier, around 70% for squats and deadlifts. I always wear it when testing a 1RM, simply because I want to squeeze out every last pound that I can in competition-approved equipment. If I were a new lifter with a healthy back and decent core, I wouldn’t worry about using a belt for the first 6-8 months of your lifting, allow some time for core strength to be built up. New lifters shouldn’t be doing many 1RM tests anyway.
“What lifts should I use a belt on?” This is something that is entirely dependent upon you. Personally, I will wear a belt during squats, deadlifts, presses, farmer walks, and yoke runs. Some lifts I don’t usually wear it for are bench press (Not too much stomach to brace while lying on my back, you may find it useful, however), stone loads, log clean & press, and stone carry’s (It gets in my way). Jace rarely wears a belt for cleans and snatches, during the bar’s ascent, it may strike the belt, but he will wear it during presses and squats. Remember that Jace is just one lifter, there are Olympians that wear belts in competitions.
“What kind of belt should I get?” Again, that is entirely your preference. I use the Rehband double belt because I like its large surface area (no pinching), whereas Matt favors a thick leather Powerlifting belt. I generally discourage leather belts that are ridiculously large in the back while narrow in the front, especially for thinner athletes. Your best bet is to find out what belt standards are allowed in your respective sport and train with that.
“When do I use knee or elbow sleeves?” My thinking is that if you are asking this question, you probably don’t need to get them yet. You especially don’t need to get them simply because you see people better than you using them. I used to wear Rehband knee sleeves for EVERY set of squats I did. I was told a theory last year, and it goes something like this: Because the fabric bunches up behind your knee in the bottom of a squat, the extra fabric pushes your patella millimeters forward every set, possibly a contributor to future knee pain. Whether this theory hold water or not, I stopped wearing knee sleeves on everything but my walking events, and have not noticed the knee pain I used to experience.
Sleeves can be very useful for keeping knees and elbows nice and warm during sets, I regularly wear elbow sleeves on most press or deadlift days, simply because my elbows take a lot of abuse with Strongman training, and my brachialis needs to remain especially warm. Standard knee sleeves will not add much (if any) extra bounce to your squats or presses that is more what wraps are for, but I will not discuss those in this article. If I were new, I would not worry about knee sleeves for at least 1-2 years for squatting, and even then, I would only wear them towards the end of heavy workouts, not for the entire workout. I would wait about 3-4 months before getting elbow sleeves if I were doing a Strongman program. I would not really use them for Powerlifting or Olympic lifting, since they can obstruct Olympic lifts and aren’t allowed in Olympic competitions.
3. Ammonia (Smelling Salts)
There seem to be three different mentalities regarding ammonia and lifting: 1. What is it? 2. Oh my god, don’t use that, are you stupid? It’s too dangerous! 3. Viva La Ammonia!
Ammonia, in its simplest terms, is a chemical compound, that when insufflated, feels like you are receiving a limited edition roundhouse kick from a Brontosaurus hoof, directly to your olfactory bulbs. This causes an immediate breath to be taken, a varying level of being pissed off at your barbell, and a clearing of all thoughts besides moving the weight. While it may sound dangerous, it is really quite safe in the doses available on the market, and does not present any dangers in regards to insufflation, just don’t eat it or put it in your eye or butt. Some people complain that it has made their eyes water, but boo hoo, just don’t hold it as close to your face next time.
We have found that it is most useful on sets of 3 or less reps. It is still useful for sets of reps up to 5, but the feeling wears off rather quickly. It is not something you would want to use before a metcon or endurance event because it is short-lived, but its head-clearing effects are my favorite reason for using it, I tend to overthink lifts. If I were a new lifter, I would wait to use it until I felt I was ready, and only for heavier sets of 85% or more, or at competitions.
“When do I use straps/ aren’t straps cheating?”
Lifting straps are, without a doubt, one of the leading causes of rectal irritation currently available on the internet. I am not going to get into your perceived ideas of “straps are cheating.” That was already well established in this previous article. Instead, I will discuss when we use them, how we use them, and the reasons for doing so.
Rather than waiting until our hands are destroyed from rough-knurling bars for high rep deadlift or Olympic lifting complexes, we like to throw straps on as part of a training tool. I have literally NEVER seen an athlete’s grip suffer or decline when they added straps to their arsenal as an occasional training tool. Straps are useful for double-overhand deadlifts (never mix-grip with straps), snatch complexes (never perform cleans with straps), and snatch & clean pulls. Because these aren’t grip exercises, we don’t need to worry about our grip becoming exhausted during higher rep sets. We are focusing on other parts of the lifts for multiple reps, including high rep rack pulls, high reps Olympic pulls, upper back strength or hypertrophy work.
Straps help keep our hands fresh for the high-intensity programs we are constantly on, and because our grips are excellent, straps don’t hold us back when it comes time to compete. If I were a new lifter, I would save straps for hypertrophic/high rep sets of assistance lifts, and save using straps on competition lifts for at least 6 months, unless your programs state otherwise.
5. Weightlifting shoes
Photo credit: Hookgrip
“When do I use Weightlifting shoes?”
Weightlifting shoes are a great training for helping athletes maintain proper positions that emulate the positions of the clean and snatch, a beneficial tool for squats, and a good training tool to put more emphasis on the quads while maintaining an upright torso. When it comes to real Olympic Weightlifting competitions, it goes without saying that you will be wearing the proper shoes if you want to become the best athlete you can be. When it comes to Powerlifting and Strongman, the feelings are more mixed: Some swear by them, others swear against them. Ultimately, you need to make sure you are flexible enough first so that the shoes aren’t a crutch that work around your inadequacies, and then you can make a decision on whether or not you need them.
When I program, as a rule, I say that the athlete should wear WL shoes for an entire pure-WL workout, or for any lift that includes “snatch/clean” in the lift’s name in a non-WL workout. Matt and I wear our WL shoes on most pressing movements, and on most squats. We do not wear them on box squats, however, as we are trying to put as much emphasis on our posterior as possible. Some athletes wear WL shoes during stone load events, but I have found that it aggravates my Achilles tendons if I do that, so I stick to Nike Dunks. Never wear them when doing conventional or mix-grip deadlifts, it will just hold back your overall deadlift max. However, wear them for clean and snatch-grip deadlifts, as you are trying to emulate the starting position of those lifts.
If I were a new athlete, I would focus on figuring out if WL shoes help improve my lifting positions, or if my posture is just so terrible that I can’t do a workout properly without them, in any form. I have seen this happen when training some masters who are brand new to lifting, when they can’t seem to overhead squat without doing a good morning. I recommend that every athlete at least give them a shot to see if they work for you, and I demand that every WL hopeful athlete of ours wears them.
These are just 5 assistance tools in our training arsenal, and this is how we use them to make us stronger. Are there other tools we use that you are curious about? What are some tools you use? Let us know in the Facebook comments!