A couple weekends ago at the East Coast Championships there were 2 separate wrist wrap companies sponsoring the event, with several other vendors selling them. Knee sleeves are appearing on competitive exercisers like they’re either being given away, or compulsory. What’s the deal with this stuff? Since I get asked a fair bit, here’s a collection of my thoughts based on experience and investigation. To be clear, this is about wrapping an otherwise healthy body part for a performance advantage, perceived or otherwise. This is not about a brace or support necessary due to an injury or other condition.
The gateway CrossFit accessory. Wrist wraps can be as simple as athletic tape, as substantial as leather and buckles, or made of technical, antimicrobial fabric in any color you can imagine. I’ve been wrapping my wrists to lift since way back in my collegiate soccer days, when, by midseason, after hitting our astroturf home field a few too many times it was otherwise difficult to press. While taping up before a session, our trainer gave me some advice in the same vein as this quote from CrossFit Founder, Greg Glassman, “Anything you wrap, strap, splint, cast, belt, or otherwise support or immobilize gets weaker” (there’s more to this quote. We’ll get back to it later).
Don’t get me wrong, I still use wraps, but limit it to heavy, dynamic, overhead lifts, either in working sets or metcons. When necessary, they improve stability and stamina, so my shoulders can do their thing because the need to overcompensate is reduced. If I’m feeling good, I skip ‘em. Basically, if you’re a wrist wrap addict, wrapping up from the moment the coach tells you to grab PVC, try cutting back. It will give your wrists a chance to get stronger, and help injury-proof them.
From the piece of support equipment I have the most experience with to the one with which I have the least. I used to think knee sleeves were just for power lifters, World’s Strongest Man competitors, or athletes with a history of knee ailments. As they’ve popped up with greater and greater frequency on exercisers in competition I’ve been giving them more and more thought. I believe in the kinesthetic benefits, and that they can keep an athlete’s knees feeling “warm”. Hey, if you feel good, you play good, right? There may be some actual performance benefit from compressive knee sleeves too, however there may also be a risk of chondromalacia patellae, a wearing down and roughening of the underside of the patella, and softening of the cartilage. Although I haven’t found a direct example of the latter, I’m looking for more info, and not going knee first into this craze yet. If you try them, and like them, use them for your max efforts, but don’t abuse them. Knee sleeves won’t make you better at handstand push-ups, no matter how cool you think you look.
The common misconception is that a weightlifting belt is worn to protect or support an athlete’s back (hence those designed with a thicker back section). This is sort of, but not entirely true. You don’t simply strap on a belt and let the magic happen. You need to know how to use it. A lifting belt aids in creating intra-abdominal pressure by giving the abs something to brace against, ultimately aiding in the maintenance of good spinal position and stabilization – i.e. you don’t get crushed.
There is some risk of injury with using a belt, and consistently relying on one impedes core strength development, bringing us back to the quote from Coach Glassman, in full, “Anything you wrap, strap, splint, cast, belt, or otherwise support or immobilize gets weaker, including your midsection when using a weightlifting belt. 1RM lifts in competition justify the use of a belt or any other supporting apparel or equipment, but not in daily training.”
I was skeptical of lifting belts at first, but now I’m definitely in favor of them. I believe occasional (efforts > 85-90%), proper use of a weightlifting belt can actually make you stronger, as you learn to engage your abdominals. I particularly like using a belt for maximal attempts in the back and front squat, especially in competition. It feels like an extra set of abs, and they offer a performance advantage. If you’re thinking about trying a belt on your next testing day, I say, go for it! Just ask a coach for guidance, as there is some technique involved here.
As we wrap this thing up (see what I did there) there’s one key point which seems pretty clear regarding wraps, sleeves, and belts: moderation. The majority of training should be done raw (without the aid of all this aforementioned equipment), but when it’s time to compete, test, or otherwise seriously throwdown, wrap it up! But make sure you know what you’re getting into first.
February 10, 2014
Strength: Push Jerk 5-5-5-5
Power Cleans (135#/95#)