8 Gym equipment items you (might) need: Part 2
(Click here to see numbers 1-4 in Part 1)
This is a continuation of the list of useful (but by no means essential) things to use at the gym to help you make progress.
There are million gimmicky gym kit ‘essentials’ out there, but I’ve selected a few that I both think could help you in your training and that are often misused or misunderstood.
The List 5-8
5. Knee wraps/knee protection
After the lower back, knees are probably the next on the list of concern for most people. Rightly, because as a relatively small and fragile joint they take a lot of stress even during normal activity.
It has become fairly common to see people wearing neoprene soft knee braces when doing many sports, including in the gym when squatting any leg exercises.
This item falls again into the ‘crutch’ category in terms of how it helps you: if just using a soft knee sleeve most of the help is going to be psychological but this plays a huge part in your dependency on it.
Unless you are coming back from rehabilitation after an injury or have had a history of surgeries on a particular knee knee sleeves are again something to steer clear of if possible. If you have healthy knees it is important to develop the strength of the tendons and ligaments in line with your muscles.
The same applies to knee wraps. Knee wraps are more of a performance item, and you probably won’t see them too often in your gym unless you happen to train at a more ‘hardcore’ locale.
They are essentially just like knee sleeves in that they are meant to protect your joints, but they take it a step further by actually strongly supporting the joint.
As you can see the aim is to wrap each knees tightly with thick strips of material that will mean both a more supported joint plus some extra ‘rebound’ on the way back up out of a squat (think of how much harder it is to compress a stiffer joint).
A lot of lifters report that wearing the wraps can add 15-20 kgs to their maximum squat due to this effect as well as from the psychological boost.
As a result if you look up videos of powerlifters squatting world records 99.9% of the time they will have their knees wrapped.
Do you need them? As I said these are really a performance item.
Unless you are planning to squat 3 times your bodyweight then they are definitely going to hinder your strength development.
Because the wraps are tight and therefore physically support the knee-joint (a lot more than knee sleeves) using them will lead to your joint being weaker than it should be relative to the muscles around it.
For most people setting world records or attempting 600 lbs squats is not the goal, it is to strengthen your body so that it contributes to your health and your functional capacity in life.
Therefore you want to develop your body uniformly: you are only as strong in reality as your weakest link. This is why I would advise to be as minimalist as possible when it comes to supportive gear, and to avoid belts, wraps and straps for as long as possible.
Usefulness rating: 3/10
6. Foam roller
If you train frequently and at a high intensity then I think this is something that could be extremely beneficial.
If overcoming soreness between workouts/training sessions is not really a problem because you have enough rest in between sessions or don’t work out frequently enough then this is probably an expensive aid you don’t really need, although if your are especially inflexible then it can help.
Foam rollers are used to speed up recovery and help improve flexibility by loosening and massaging the muscle.
For example you have a tight hamstring or one that is very sore from a workout. By applying pressure along the muscle using the roller and your bodyweight you can help ‘release’ the tightness in a similar way to deep tissue massage.
If done properly it is meant to be uncomfortable (in a similar way to deep tissue massage) and there are increasing levels of ‘hardness’ available so that you can work your way up (or so you can get one suited to your particular needs).
Do you need them? If you are a frequent and pretty serious trainer then this could definitely help your recovery (even psychologically); even if you are not it could help you get more flexible if you do it often.
But they can be expensive (especially the harder ones), and you definitely don’t need it to keep progressing; stretching thoroughly and regularly will overall do more for your recovery and flexibility.
Usefulness rating: 7/10
7. Wrist wraps
Following the same vein we come to wrist wraps. They perform the same function as knee wraps for your relatively thin and fragile wrist joint.
I’m not going to come to entirely the same conclusion that they are definitely not needed, because the wrist is certainly an area that can both be easily damaged but is also worked directly in every upper body exercise you do. It takes a lot of punishment.
People also have different sized joints, and some people naturally have smaller and less robust wrists than others.
This is not something that can be overcome by training; you can’t ‘build-up’ your wrist area. This is why it is used as a measurement for your natural genetic muscle mass potential; it is a good indicator of your frame and bone size. (For the full article on how it is used in determining this click here).
In that case if bench pressing heavy or overhead pressing causes you discomfort then by all means invest in some wrist wraps. However try to keep the use to a minimum, and don’t wear them for pushing movements like press-ups.
You definitely do not want to get into the habit of wearing them all the time or for things like bicep curls or isolation movements.
If your wrists are causing you pain when doing relatively light movements like bicep curls it may be that the angle of the bar is not suitable for you; again people have different wrist flexibilities and there is no point doing an exercise that causes you real pain.
Try something like switching to an EZ curl bar or use dumbbells that will allow you to move the weight through your own natural plane of motion.
Usefulness rating: 6.5/10
8. Weightlifting shoes
Watch the weightlifting events at the Olympics and if you look closely will notice all the competitors will be wearing the same type of shoe, like the one below.
The shoe is designed to be pretty much opposite to a typical air-soled running shoe; stiff and solid, with as little compression as possible (hence the solid wooden heel).
This is because when you squat heavy weights (as Olympic lifters do to complete both of their lifts) you want as stable and solid a base as possible, to ensure efficient power transfer from the ground through your legs.
The raised heel helps to make it easier to squat deeper by increasing the range of motion of the ankle and by reducing slightly the ankle mobility required to get ‘ass-to-grass’ in the bottom position, as above. Because of this it is also easier to keep your torso upright, which in turn makes front squatting easier.
So if it’s good enough for the pro’s then I should get some!
The question is how much Olympic lifting you do. By that I mean the Clean & Jerk and the Snatch.
If you don’t know what I mean or have never heard of those exercises then you don’t need weightlifting shoes.
The pro’s use them because they allow them to lift more weight. However those pro’s obviously have great flexibility, mobility and strength even without the shoes and could still put up a good weight in regular trainers; the shoes just give them an extra boost in performance.
While features like the raised heel can help you squat deeper if you start using them too early in your lifting career then they can mask or compensate for poor mobility and flexibility.
It’s a bit like the belt: if you can only have good form when wearing the belt then it is acting as a crutch, and you need to work on developing your strength and flexibility without one first.
However squatting in normal trainers with an air cushion is not ideal either, for stability reasons and force transfer.
A good medium therefore would be to try and get some very simple, flat soled shoes with no cushioning: the lack of heel will ensure you develop your ankle mobility while not hindering you in the way a cushioned conventional running shoe would.
Getting a pair of these would also be good for your deadlift, since for that exercise you really want to be as close to the floor as possible to minimise the distance the bar has to travel. Weightlifting shoes with a heel are therefore not the best for pure deadlifting.
If you are Olympic lifting regularly however it is probably worth investing in some, while making sure you work on your mobility, since they are specifically designed to help you get into good positions for those two specific lifts and therefore reduce slightly the risk of injury while maximising your numbers.
Usefulness rating: 10/10 for weightlifting, 5/10 if not.
So there we have it, 1-8 of gym items you (might) need. As I stressed, there is not really any equipment you NEED, despite what the marketing will tell you.
But clearly a few have their uses.
Now you know what they do and how useful they are my advice would be to honestly assess yourself in terms of how much your lifting or training is being held back by you simply being weak or under-developed in a particular area before deciding to get equipment to help you.
In the main, unless you have a very specific condition (such as a curved spine) or are advanced and looking for that extra edge in performance I would suggest you stay away from using equipment as much as possible.
That way you will not only avoid relying on a ‘crutch’, you will develop mental confidence that will be more and more important as you progress to heavier weights or harder training.