Many figure that a better performance always allows for more improvement. Sometimes this holds true but often it proves false. For example, assuming that more weight on an exercise leads to better results is a poor assumption. If you fail to work the muscle at its ideal length for tension, which occurs at about the halfway point on a good exercise, you will reduce your results. Many will squat with partial reps. They use more weight yet stimulate less growth. They feel stronger only due to better leverage and less range of motion.
Compound exercises work best in part because they address many muscles. Every link in the chain of muscles used gets addressed. By using medium stances, grips, and positions, the workload distributes across all the working muscles and joints, maximizing compression over shearing forces. This allows you to lift heavily and safely.
With the wrong exercises or poor form, a link can grow weak or vulnerable. This can result in injury and incomplete development. This can also come about if you create a crutch by using support gear.
Also known as lifting aids or equipment, support gear may have started with good intentions. A lifting belt should protect the lower back on a heavy squat. Wraps should reduce the strain on the wrists for the bench press. In reality though, they may enhance performance on the surface but detract from results and long-term safety.
Not only will powerlifters use them to improve their weights in competition, ordinary trainees will use them to handle weights beyond what they can use for exercises like heavy deadlifts or rows. For general strength training, this can only lead to problems.
Gear allows you to lift much more weight beyond your natural capabilities. This creates a dependency. More stress gets placed on the joints that are unsupported. The increase in weight possible also may just match the strength offered by the gear, offsetting any advantage for the active joints as well. Connective tissue strength and size will grow from lifting heavy weights, although more slowly than muscle. You remove a great deal of this stimulus with support gear. You also risk imbalances, as these aids will bolster certain muscles and joints. The equipment may fail as well, allowing a possible catastrophe.
Support gear seems most justified when using weights at a lifter’s one rep max. Beyond the gear making one’s max beyond what you could normally handle, you should avoid single reps anyway, since you can achieve the same results more safely with submaximal weights. You only need to train close to failure and not for too long. Too long allows lactic acid buildup. Motor unit recruitment assures us that the powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers will get involved if you work hard enough. You might as well stay sensible and choose the safe path.
The reasons mentioned summarize the case against support gear. We can also delve into specifics for each category.
Belts provide an object for the core to press against to increase the intra-abdominal pressure instead of relying on holding your breath correctly and using the muscles to create the effect of the belt itself. Stronger abdominals will develop without belts. This also transfers to more safety in ordinary activities.
Belts also can increase your blood pressure and heart rate beyond the already high levels when performing the lift raw.
Straps and hooks tie allow you to pull weight you otherwise could not hold. This underdevelops the gripping muscles. It also destroys the neural-boosting effect of using a tight grip. Without a tight grip, you limit the whole body’s involvement. Make fist as tight as you can, right now. Notice how many muscles tense up. Muscles work harder when other muscles activate along with them.
Chalk is an excellent substitute and will not create a crutch. It still allows you to still train your hands and forearms. Also make sure to use bars with good knurling. Chalk can be used not only for the hands but in other locations. You can place it on the shoulders or upper back to allow the bar to remain more secure for the squat, or apply it to the bench pad where your upper back would rest for the bench press. Always use chalks for any pulling movement such as the row or pull-up as well.
Even support gear that may look benign like gloves can harm results.
They disrupt the mind-muscle connection. It seems a bare skin in contact with the bar allows the nervous system to activate more fully, taking full advantage of the receptors in the hand.
They also reduce performance by making the bar diameter feel greater. This prevents the tight grip. This is one reason why thick bar lifting works poorly.
Wrist, elbow, and knee wraps appear at first glance to have the noblest purposes. They just allow more weight though. You are using far too heavy of a weight if you feel you need them. Make sure to grip the bar properly before resorting to these.
The pressure they apply can also limit circulation and range of motion.
Suits or Briefs
Squat and deadlift suits, briefs or singlets along with shirts for bench pressing serve as tight, elastic outfits that bare much of the load. They serve no purpose outside of competition.
You may come to rely on the elasticity during the negative or lowering phase. This is the most productive phase of the lift for building strength and size. It also represents the most dangerous phase due to the high tension involved. The elastic suits or shirts may teach you to drop the weight instead of resisting it. If you then apply this form back to a raw lift, you are asking for a muscle tear and at least a lesser performance.
Many also feel their triceps work harder with a bench suit since the stretch reduces the chest contribution. All the involved muscles should work evenly instead.
Shoes usually designed for Olympic lifting with high heels allow you to achieve a deeper range of motion than necessary on the squat. This will work the calves less due to less plantarflexion. They also place too much stress on the knees. The knees bend more and may surpass the toes too much, increasing anterior knee stress due to the shear. This also limits hip extensor involvement.
Avoid Support Gear during Training
It makes sense to gain every edge you can get during a powerlifting competition. You otherwise should train to stimulate growth in the best way possible, which also so happens to be the safest.
Lifting aids require you to learn a new set of skills, complicating lifting.
The differences in performance between equipped vs. raw are massive and no comparisons possible, just like the difference between natural and drugged trainees. Gear may develop a false confidence.
Support for gear also comes from reasons unrelated to training. Powerlifting as a sport may benefit from having companies invest money into their gear. Lifters also want to surpass limits. Political reasons exist as well.
Possible exceptions may seem reasonable if only to protect the joints and not to lift heavier weights. For example, wrist wraps may help you reach the ideal low bar position for squats without hurting these joints. The low bar position can create a lot of wrist extension. This otherwise would not seem to change how much weight you could lift and just ease the burden on the joints. This is your judgment call in these cases. I would suggest you try to adopt form that prevents these issues from occurring in the first place if possible.
Anyone that lifts heavy weights in any capacity earns my respect. Equipped lifters at the top levels of powerlifting are far stronger and more dedicated than the average trainee. The equipment they use does inflate these weights tremendously though.
This is not a condemnation of support gear in sport. I have no doubt though that gear harms general training. Someone training for powerlifting should use these only near a meet. Learn the skills needed to use them but avoid them when building strength.
Support gear aids performance, not results. Ignore support gear. Train raw.