As a trainer and bodybuilder I run across a lot of application for training aids that support both my own training
and that of my clients. In this fitFLEX article of the week, I want to list, rate and explain the best uses for wrist
straps, knee wraps, elbow wraps, belts and gloves. In addition I want to discuss specialized training equipment such
as arm-blasters, pullup gloves, weighted belts and abdominal hangers. I will try to define the what, when, why and how
to use these items so that you can decide whether any of them would be helpful in your own workouts.
I don't know many weight trainers who don't own at least one of these accessories. If they don't own any of them now, they may have to use wraps in the future because weights are hard on the joints overtime. This doesn't have to be the case, however, with anyone's workouts or longevity in lifting weights. In fact, utilizing training aids is one reason why many people remain free of injury and pain. Lifting weights shouldn't have to be about nursing previous injuries, but neither should it be about cultivating new ones.
Using training aids is the smart way to train for the long haul. These tools can help you accomplish your goals better, faster and with less discomfort while protecting your body from harm. I recommend using only those accessories which suit your training needs, and learning what they each accomplish prior to purchasing them.
In almost any gym you can see people using most of the training supports that I will mention here. Watch how they use them, and try to determine for yourself how they might best fit into your training regimen. Think about the exercises you do, and ask yourself whether these aids are necessary for you. For instance, do you need wrist wraps? Would they help to stabilize your wrists any better than your own support tendons while lifting a heavy dumbbell or barbell?
Many people who don't use any sort of training aid believe that they can destroy your body's own ability to strengthen tendons, ligaments and supporting muscles. Often this is true because people tend to rely upon them too much when they could lift without them. Learning to move weights on your own, provided they are not too heavy, is a good way to strengthen all areas surrounding each bodypart.
The phrase "isolating a muscle" can be misconstrued. Isolating a muscle while training through a full range of motion is one thing, but isolating the muscle from its tendons and support ligaments is a dangerous business. By immobilizing some of the ligaments surrounding the muscle groups being worked, you are isolating too much and depriving them of the ability to support more weight in the future. This very practice opens people up to injuries. However, avoiding support apparatus altogether isn't necessary. There are some very useful items which promote the lifting of heavier weight and prevent injury during difficult exercises.
Most basic of all training aids and likely a necessity for regular weight training, the belt is a good piece of equipment for anyone to have. It is used to support the lower back, and sometimes even the abdominal wall, in exercises which either are heavy (and would put excessive strain on the lower back) or present a balance problem (putting the low back at risk). Belts are often won for squats, deadlifts, T-bar rows and heavy biceps curls. They are a stabilizing force which helps the mind to isolate the muscle by taking the physical strain off the low back.
In squatting exercises the belt focuses most of the weight on legs and hips. In a smaller way it also helps you to concentrate on good posture in the upper back and shoulders. That stiff feeling in the torso that a belt provides reminds people to keep their shoulders back and their head up while squatting. When you're bent over, doing T-bar rows or deadlifts, the belt helps keep the low back from buckling under pressure while in a disadvantaged position. This support is crucial to avoiding injuries, and is helpful in isolating only the upper back and spinal erectors, though a portion of the erectors is held tight below the belt. While you're doing biceps exercises, the belt helps to stabilize the lower back and keep your own bodyweight underneath you, rather than allowing it to fall back and jerk the weight up. Placing the weight on your hips, the belt allows you to lift a barbell from start to finish without involving your low back.
Various types of belts are available. Some are much wider, thicker and heavier than others. Generally the wider, thicker belts are for power lifting, or for the person lifting extremely heavy weight. This safeguard is important for anyone who doesn't want to dump 500-plus pounds over his neck while squatting, or for the person who lifts moderate to heavy weights without a spotter or training partner. The thicker type of belt covers a larger area, coming down just over the top of the hips as well as supporting above the waist. It is designed to immobilize the torso, spine and hips, allowing the wearer to lift more weight. The standard belt is a bit thinner and narrower, and is designed for the average, all-purpose lifting that most of us do. Most top bodybuilders prefer this kind of belt because their waists are much smaller and the heavier belt doesn't fit as well, Try to avoid those flimsy belts which are more for fashion than function. They are made of a durable plastic, but cannot support the back unless they are pulled so tightly that they hinder breathing.
Wrist straps are good for all pulling exercises - pulldowns, one-arm rows, T-bar rows, seated rows and pullups. Straps are generally used only for back exercises, although exceptions include shrugs for the trapezius and heavy biceps work, such as one-arm preacher curls.
Straps are essential for heavy pulling exercises because they connect the bar or handle of the apparatus to the hand. Used as an extension of the muscles in the hand, which often tire quickly during heavy pulling, straps afford a person the opportunity to work the muscles to exhaustion, rather than discontinuing a set because of hand and wrist fatigue. Often, in heavy rowing motions or pulldowns, the muscles and tendons in the hand cannot support enough weight to make a set worthwhile for an advanced lifter. Straps connect to the bar to help isolate the muscles and dissociate the hands from the exercise.
My suggestion for using straps, while still allowing the ligaments, tendons and muscles of the hands to become stronger, is to reserve them for those last sets where exhaustion is great both in the muscle group being worked and in the hands and wrists. This is a great application for wrist straps that can lead to more growth.
You may wonder at first how to put a wrist strap on or which side of the loop to put your hand through. Put your hand through the strap from what appears to be the outside. Or look for which way the end of the strap points, and put your hand through the opposite side. This method allows you to wrap over or under the bar without risk of your hand slipping out of the strap in the middle of a heavy pulling exercise. Try it both ways and you will see what I mean. Wraps are of three varieties - knee wraps, wrist wraps and elbow wraps. They all have a specific application and are not created equal. For instance, knee wraps are made for supporting the knees while lifting heavy weights during leg exercises. The wrist and elbow straps are designed primarily to avoid exacerbating a previous injury or to support sore joints. No other use is advisable for wrist and elbow straps; otherwise, you invite weakening of the surrounding joints and ligaments.
The knee wrap is used to prevent injury and help the legs lift more weight. In my mind they are optional and should be used only when you're going up from a heavy weight to a heavier weight. No novice lifter should use knee wraps for those beginning lifts because a base of ligament and tendon strength has not yet been built within the knee joint and surrounding areas. You can open yourself up to injury by using knee wraps unnecessarily or before you actually need them to accomplish a lift. A woman should be able to lift 135 pounds on the squat before using wraps, and a man should be able to lift at least 185 pounds on the squat prior to using them. Of course, if you have a previous injury, definitely wear them for any squatting at all. But try not to use knee wraps as a crutch for lifting weights that perhaps - if approached more gradually - would be accessible in time.
Wrist wraps can be a safeguard against injury if you're lifting heavy dumbbells for biceps and shoulder work while seated. Often in the seated position you have a disadvantage in the way your wrists are turned. In general they should only be used if you work on a computer a great deal and have slight tendonitis that you are trying to heal while still working out. Elbow wraps provide extra support for a pre-existing injury while you're benching heavy or pulling heavy weights as in back exercises.
This next group of specialized training aids are wholly unnecessary, but are often used for variety or as helpers in doing a variation of a familiar exercise. In this group I list arm-blasters, weighted belts, arm hangers and special pullup gloves. These items certainly have a market, and a great many people use them; however, they are not designed for safety, so they're just convenient extras.
Arm-blasters help to stabilize the shoulders and elbows so that a different angle is put on the curling of a barbell for biceps work. This apparatus is hung over the shoulders and locks the elbows into place so that total isolation of the biceps becomes possible. Most gyms have these on hand, so you don't need to buy one. Even if you never use an arm-blaster in your whole life, your arm development won't be hindered one bit, provided that you have learned how to isolate your biceps without the use of equipment that forces you to do so.
The weighted belt may help your training and strengthen your back muscles, but it isn't necessary if you are diligent and consistent in doing pullups. Learn first how to support your bodyweight in a pullup. When pulling up your own weight is no longer enough to force blood into the muscles of the upper back, a weighted belt may be the answer.
Unlike traditional lifting belts, this one does not have a buckle. It has a long chain on one end which can be threaded through the center of a weight plate and then clipped onto the other end. The weight is suspended from the belt, adding to bodyweight during pullups. This belt rides your hips (because of the weight hanging from it) much more than your waist. Since pullups are essential for a good back, this can be a useful training aid. You may also want to try the gloves with plastic grips, which can substitute for wrist straps.
Arm hangers are used for doing abdominal exercises suspended from a bar by the elbows. They are especially good if you have a shoulder injury that prevents you from lifting your arms overhead. The elbows are cradled in long looped straps that are suspended from a high bar, allowing you to crunch both your upper and lower body at the same time - a movement that you could not do while gripping a bar overhead. The exercise can be a substitute for Roman-chair knee-ups to work the lower abdominals. Arm hangers can be useful in reducing the swinging associated with knee-up hanging abdominal exercises, but they are certainly not mandatory training apparatus. Good old crunches on the ground or on a machine seem to be equally effective.
Most training aids are designed to help you get more out of your workouts, and most are effective if they are used correctly. Try all of these accessories before buying them. So many different materials are used in their manufacture that you need to find which is most comfortable for you. You may discover that a simple weight-training belt is all you need, or that a piece of specialized apparatus mentioned here does more for you than standard equipment. Either way, use them wisely. Be honest with yourself as to whether you are using them to make workouts easier, using them as cheats in your workouts, or worse, using them as a crutch to keep you from developing those supporting ligaments and tendons.