When Do You Need to Start Using Supportive Equipment?

So many lifters struggle with the idea of supportive equipment: if to use it, when to use it, and what kind to use. I totally understand their frustration! Gear like belts, wraps, and and even knee sleeves have played a complicated role in powerlifting’s history, and, as a result, many lifters don’t quite understand how to work it into their routine.

First, it’s important to understand the difference between “raw” and “equipped” lifting. Equipped lifting refers to the use of bench shirts and squat and deadlift suits – thick, stiff supportive wear that dramatically increases the amount of weight an athlete can lift, and is very difficult to use from a technical standpoint. Raw lifting still allows the use of some equipment, but not those particular things. The definition of raw varies from federation to federation, but generally, raw divisions allow the use of a belt, wrist wraps, and either knee sleeves or knee wraps. This article is only going to address raw supportive equipment.

Now, I’m going to break down all the different choices, step by step, but first, a rule of thumb: if a piece of equipment allows you to lift more weight than you otherwise could, you should use that equipment sparingly. Instead, strengthen the muscles that rely on that equipment. However, if your equipment does not allow you to lift more weight, you should always use it, because it will likely offer you some sort of protection from injury.

Belts
Belts are probably the most ubiquitous piece of supportive equipment, and potentially the most confusing. If you browse Instagram for a while, you’re sure to find plenty of advanced lifters training beltless – but you’ve also probably heard that wearing a belt will prevent your abs from getting the work they need to get stronger. Here’s my take on the subject:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMNmHLaFyn8

The big takeaway from that video is this: you still need to use your abs when wearing a belt, so they’re not going to get – or stay – weak because of that. However, if your abs are a lagging muscle group, it may be beneficial to incorporate some beltless work on an occasional basis. Otherwise, I recommend that you follow this incremental protocol for using a belt during a training session:

  • Start your warmups beltless, until you work up to about 50% of your top working weight for that day.
  • Around the 50% mark, put your belt on, but leave it loose. You can either set it on a wider hole, or, if you use a lever, leave it open.
  • As you work up in weight, tighten the belt. This will be easier with a buckle belt, but regardless, by the time you reach your last warmup, your belt should be on the tightest setting.

    This incremental approach will allow you to gradually get used to the feeling of bracing with a belt, while still getting a solid amount of work for the abs.

    Wrist Wraps
    You should always wear wrist wraps when pressing heavy weights. They won’t let you use any extra poundage, but they will help you to keep your wrists straight while you’re pressing, regardless of how much is on the bar. Keeping your wrists straight not only transfers force to the bar more effectively, but also helps to keep stress off of the elbow, which is a smaller joint and can frequently become irritated from overuse. And, obviously, wrist wraps support the wrist joint itself. These are strictly protective, and there is no good reason not to use them.

    Now, you have a few different choices when it comes to knee wraps, and really, this comes down to personal preference. However, I do have a few recommendations:

    • Let’s say you’re a casual lifter who’s had a wrist injury in the past, but it doesn’t hurt any more. You’re not lifting crazy amounts of weights; you just want to get bigger and stronger. The All-Purpose Wraps are probably your best choice.
    • If you’re a serious bodybuilder, you want the Rhinos. These are stretchy, comfortable wraps that you can leave on for multiple sets, just like the All-Purpose Wraps. However, they provide more support, and they’ll keep your joints healthy and strong even when you’re throwing around 150-pound dumbbells.
    • If you’re a powerlifter, you have a few options. Some guys (and many ladies, as well) prefer stretchier wrist wraps, and they’ll be best off with the Rhinos. These are probably the wraps to go for if you bench or squat with a slight bend in your wrist. For most powerlifters, though, I recommend the Outlaws. These will provide maximum support for maximum lifts — which is exactly what you need.

      Knee Wraps
      Like belts, knee wraps are another potentially controversial topic, because they can add quite a bit of weight to your squat, and because some powerlifting divisions allow their use, while others do not.

      In my opinion, knee wrap use should be as minimal as possible while still giving you enough practice to feel comfortable when it’s time to compete or test your limits. That second part is really important! On the one hand, the heavier weights you can squat with wraps will probably leave you feeling a lot more exhausted than a set of squats in sleeves would. Furthermore, the strength you build while squatting without wraps will carry over directly when you do put the wraps on, so you’re not losing anything with minimal use.

      But knee wraps can be uncomfortable, and getting the most out of them might require some minor adjustments to your technique. (You should not be making major changes here!) For that reason, you can’t just throw your wraps on when it’s meet day. In fact, if you’re new to using wraps, you should probably be squatting with them quite frequently until you get used to the feeling. If you’re a more advanced lifter, and have used wraps for a while, you’ll need less of an adjustment time ahead of a competition, and so you might only incorporate wraps into your training in the last 6-8 weeks of prep. There’s no one right answer here, but if you follow the rule of thumb at the beginning of this article, you’ll be pretty close to the right amount.

      What about for protection? Well, that’s a little unclear. Because of the increased weight used with wraps, any protection for the knee joint is often offset by the increased strain placed on other joints or on the rest of the body. Studies have not untangled this connection in a way that would make me feel confident stating that wraps protect from injury, and – in my experience – I would actually tend to argue the opposite view. The bottom line: while they might help a bit, don’t count on wraps to protect your knees!

      What knee wraps to go for? Again, it really comes down to personal preference. But, I recommend:

      • Bodybuilders want the Rhinos. The Outlaws just offer too much support; they’ll do a lot of the work for you out of the hole, meaning that your quad development might end up being a bit top-heavy if you use them too often.
      • Powerlifters, again, have a choice — although I strongly recommend the Outlaws for most. They offer insane rebound and still provide plenty of support, which is the perfect combination for the raw squatter. However, if you’re not a seasoned lifter, and you’re just trying to get the feel for wraps, the Outlaws might be too aggressive. You might want to go with the Rhinos for your first meet or two.

        Wrapping Up
        Power gear is important, and using it properly is even more important. Follow the tips in this article, and you can use your gear to get bigger, stronger, and closer to your goals — but misuse your equipment, and you might be looking at a bad time!

        In part 2, we’ll talk about knee sleeves, elbow sleeves, and wrist straps. Until then, if you have questions, or other suggestions for when to use certain equipment, be sure to post them in the comments below.