Training Gear: Clothes, Shoes, Lifting Belts, and MoreSome gear can help your technique stay consistent, some will make training a little more efficient, and some will add confidence and comfort, especially for those who deal with aches, pains, and creaky joints. The best way to learn about lifting gear is to lift long enough and consistently enough that you find what works best and is most comfortable for you.
Training Gear: Clothes, Shoes, Lifting Belts, and More
Beyond the barbell, plates, bench, and rack, there isn’t much personal gear required for strength training. That’s not to say you can’t always find something to spend your money on, but unlike other sports or hobbies that require the latest technology for you to keep up with the best players—the arms race that tends to happen—barbell training is old school. No specialized gear is going to make you stronger. You still have to do all the heavy lifting. As always, the best outcomes in strength training rely on consistency and dedication. Equipment will never substitute for this.
That said, some gear can help your technique stay consistent, some will make training a little more efficient, and some will add confidence and comfort, especially for those who deal with aches, pains, and creaky joints. It’s important to note that the following recommendations are a starting point. The best way to learn about lifting gear is to lift long enough and consistently enough that you find what works best and is most comfortable for you.
Clothing should allow you to move through the full range of lifts and should consider your lifting habitat. Just like while hiking, layers help with this. You can’t go wrong with a hoodie-and-shirt or sweatpants-and-shorts combination. For the lower body, shorts or pants must not impede your movement. Baggy pants and shorts that fall below the knees will tend to grab your knees when you squat, making depth more difficult and possibly disrupting your form. Stick to stretchy fabrics and shorts that are well above the knee.
Other considerations for clothing come in where the bar meets your body. Your back interfaces with a bar in the squat and with a bench in the bench press. In both situations, friction is your friend to keep things in place and secure. The best lifting shirts have a relatively high friction coefficient. They need to not be very stretchy, must absorb sweat to some degree, and should cover all the skin of your shoulders. A tank top (or no shirt at all) is fun and perhaps more comfortable in hot climates, but sweaty skin in direct contact with steel is not a recipe for a secure bar in the squat. The best, latest high-tech material for this is by far… cotton. Basically, the cheapest middleweight cotton t-shirts you can find work the best.
A7 BarGrip shirts have come into widespread use lately. They have a grippy rubberized material on the upper back. Some lifters absolutely love these, but make sure they aren’t a handicap for you. If you struggle to maintain a secure back position in the squat, you should work on your technique before you look to a shirt to fix the problem.
Often overlooked but worth considering are sock preferences. Generally, a bar doesn’t feel great against bare shins, and if you train in a public gym, it’s bad etiquette to leave blood and skin on bars no matter your preference. You don’t have to wear knee-highs if you don’t like them, but at least crew length is nice to cover the shin for those first few inches of the deadlift. For people with sensitive shins, you can find special deadlifting socks with a little extra padding on the shins.
Lifting shoes are the first specialized equipment we will discuss, and they exist for a reason. Regular tennis shoes and casual shoes are designed for comfort during walking. Most have a blown EVA foam mid- and outsole, which is nice and squishy and comfortable to walk around in. During lifting, we need stability—a firm, unchanging interface with the ground that doesn’t compress or deform under heavy weight. The soles of lifting shoes are made of TPU plastic, compressed rubber, leather, or wood for exactly this reason. They aren’t very comfortable for anything else but are wonderful for lifting.
The next feature of most lifting shoes is the elevated heel. Almost everyone will benefit from having some elevation under the heel. It makes ankle flexion more manageable and helps the knees travel forward enough to fully involve the quads. The argument could be made that it’s not natural to have your heel elevated, which is probably true, but then again, barbells aren’t natural either. We are creating a specialized, controlled environment to train our bodies in, and shoes make us safer and more effective at achieving our goals.
The final critical feature of good lifting shoes is a metatarsal strap (or two). Your foot itself will deform slightly under a heavy load, and this strap helps keep the foot compressed and in place when loaded with weight. Think of lifting shoes as little belts for your feet.
More about Lifting Shoes:
Contrary to what some would argue (both for and against), a properly fitted belt does not itself substantially contribute to spinal stability. If you look at an eviscerated human model, you’ll see that the lumbar section of the spinal column is a massive structure encased in a large number of overlapping muscle groups and ligaments. The spine is buried in muscle. It’s almost as if the human body was designed to be able to carry large compressive loads. All of this structure will do a good job of withstanding posterior deformation (flexion) when loaded.
But now, look at the anterior side of the spine, inside the abdomen. Almost the entire spine is exposed with no muscle covering a large section of it. This is a real danger, one that must be managed carefully if you want to prevent injury. How can this anterior surface be protected? With hydraulic compression, an effective means of preventing deformation. This can be achieved with a big held breath (providing pneumatic pressure downwards on the abdominal contents) and contracted abdominal muscles creating pressure against the abdominal contents. This is so necessary that a person doesn’t even have to be taught to do it. The impulse is so strong that it takes a conscious effort to push something heavy (like a car out of gas) without performing a Valsalva maneuver.
The real purpose of a belt is proprioceptive feedback. Two-thirds of your sensory-motor cortex is devoted to your face (lips, tongue, larynx) and your hands. That final third is responsible for everything else, and your feet take up a large part of it. It is difficult for most people to really know what is going on around their midsection. A belt offers immediate, pronounced feedback when you are bracing properly.
Lifting belts also give your abdominal muscles something to contract against. Just as pushing against the air is a difficult way to produce maximal force with your triceps, having a rigid surface for your trunk muscles to contract against allows them to contract more forcefully, or at least feel like they do. And that feedback makes a big difference for how reliably and consistently you can stabilize your body.
Since the real usefulness of a belt happens on the front of the body, you need a belt that is the same width all the way around. Most lifters will use a three-inch belt, but taller lifters (or those with a long torso) can utilize a four-inch version.
A single-prong buckle is the conventional standard. There’s nothing to break, and it’s easy to quickly change holes when you are more or less bloated. A single-prong allows the belt to pivot slightly to naturally fit the body’s shape, making it a better choice for most than a double-pronged buckle.
A lever belt is also an option. Many lifters love the fast on-and-off ability of this style without having to search for the right hole. The downside is that you need tools if you ever need to change sizing—not fun in the middle of a workout if it happens.
Quality belts come in leather of varying thicknesses. A single-ply belt will be about 6-7 mm thick, providing a minimum of requisite support with a lot of flexibility (a great choice for deadlifting with a big belly). Most belts will have this single ply of sole leather sandwiched between layers of suede, totaling around 10-13 mm. Suede is easier to hold on to when you’re operating the belt, and it sticks to your shirt nicely. There are variations to this. Some manufacturers will include a backer material that stiffens the belt and doesn’t break in the way leather does. This is great for experienced lifters who appreciate stiffer belts. Some belts will have two layers of sole leather, with or without suede on the inside only. Again, just another design that some lifters appreciate. Regardless, make sure the various layers are sewn and glued together. This creates a superior piece of equipment.
Knee Sleeves and Wraps
Knees tend to get creaky even if you’ve never had a significant injury, and this becomes more apparent as you age. Mild compression and a liberal dose of heat makes a world of difference for knees, and knee sleeves provide just that. The most effective style is made from neoprene ranging from 5-7 mm thick (get the 7 mm). They should be tight enough that it takes some effort to put them on, but not so much that you need help (most brands have sizing guides on their websites). As an aside, most of these brands also produce elbow sleeves made of the same material (usually in 5 mm thickness).
We are looking to make lifting more comfortable so that the training habit is easier to maintain long-term. Our goal is not to exploit these materials to lift more weight. If competition is our goal, and a particular event allows it, knee wraps can allow a great deal of elastic energy to be stored in them, helping to spring you out of the bottom of a squat. For general training, knee wraps can serve another purpose. For some lifters, the all-over compression of knee sleeves can irritate a particular injury or condition, such as patellar arthritis. These lifters may benefit from using wraps, leaving the kneecap exposed but still getting the benefit of compression elsewhere. Wraps do not provide the same level of heat retention that neoprene sleeves can, but this is a workable compromise.
When pressing movements get heavier, it can be nice to have a little help with wrist stability. Again, the point here is not to support the wrist so much that it doesn’t have to adapt and become more durable. It’s a good practice to only wear wraps on the heaviest sets and leave them off for volume work or back-off sets. Just like knee sleeves, wrist wraps can add a level of confidence to the movement and lower the chance of injury in a long-term context. Minor wrist injuries are notoriously slow to heal.
Most wrist wraps available are fairly thin, very elastic, and soft. These may feel comfortable to wear, but they don’t satisfy our needs very effectively. To get any level of support from soft wraps, they need to be quite tight, which excessively constricts the joint and cuts off blood flow. Essentially, you create a tourniquet—that still doesn’t support the wrist much.
A better option are so-called “casting” wraps. These are much stiffer and so are able to immobilize the joint more effectively. They also have less elastic range, so putting them on tightly doesn’t cause as much constriction—allowing some modicum of blood to still circulate. They come in a variety of lengths; 24” is a good choice.
A quick note on placement: wrist wraps shouldn’t be worn on the forearm like a bracelet. They should be centered over the wrist joint as much as possible to be most effective.
Every lifter’s grip strength eventually becomes a limiting factor for deadlifts. We have discussed reasons for this and how to continue training your grip here. Even if other grips work for you, it is worth it to have a pair of straps. If you hook grip, lifting straps give you an option if your thumb skin needs a break—especially with higher volume work. If you use a mixed grip, straps allow you to symmetrically train your lats—especially on volume sets. For either strategy, straps can come to the rescue if you tear a callus.
There are many different kinds of straps available, and it’s best to try several styles to find which you prefer. Widths usually range from one to two inches, the wider ones distributing the weight more evenly across your hand, but perhaps being more unwieldy. You may prefer straps made of leather, cotton, or nylon, but skip the padding and rubber coatings. Any rubber will eventually wear off, and if you feel you must have extra padding, just get wider straps.
Chalk. If you train in a commercial gym, odds are you’ll need to bring fractional plates and chalk with you. If the gym frowns on chalk use, liquid chalk can be a compromise that doesn’t leave much residue on the bar after use. Try that out while you shop for a new gym.
Timer. Virtually every phone has a timer function, but a magnetic kitchen timer is very handy for leaving on the rack. This lets others know the rack is in use and frees up your phone for filming your lifts.
Gym Bag. It is nice to have a gym bag where all this stuff can live. Some people prefer a duffel bag, others like a backpack. Consider having enough room to include a hand towel, water bottle, and maybe a snack if that is part of your routine. A spare set of laces and a couple of hair ties might make you someone’s favorite training partner someday.
That’s about all you need. The beauty of barbell training is it benefits from the amount of effort you put into it, not the amount of money you throw at it. There are many well-made products available today that will stand the test of time and not need to be replaced very often, if ever. Buy what you need, stop shopping, and start lifting.