Our muscles are able to grow bigger and stronger because they’re meant to grow bigger and stronger. Science has conclusively shown that our bodies are made to be worked, and that they fail quickly and spectacularly when we leave them to grow weak. Yep, us humans are supposed to be fit, flexible, and strong.
Renowned strength coach, Mark Rippetoe, famously wrote “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general”, and medical researchers agree with him. Numerous studies have found a direct link between muscular strength and the likelihood of dying for any reason (known as all-cause mortality). A recent meta-analysis* that examined data from about 2,000,000 people found that “higher levels of upper- and lower-body muscular strength are associated with a lower risk of [all-cause] mortality in the adult population, regardless of age…”.
Considering that weightlifting* is among the most effective forms of training for developing muscular strength, it stands to reason that it should be a part of any balanced exercise program. Not only that, but we should be trying to maximize its effectiveness. And, one of the best ways of doing that is through the intelligent use of various lifting accessories.
Whether you absolutely love smashing out reps of your favorite compound exercises as part of your linear periodized training program, or you’re just getting into lifting to add some muscle and build that ‘athletic look’ to your body shape, anyone can benefit from an understanding of the most common and useful weightlifting accessories.
And that’s where this article comes in.
For the next 10 minutes or so, we’ll examine different accessories and explain if, why, and how they’re useful, as well as recommend the best products currently on the market. When it’s available, we’ll turn to peer-reviewed scientific research to evaluate each accessory’s use and effectiveness. When it’s not, we’ll rely on practical experience and information gathered from the weightlifting/strength training community.
*Note: We’ll primarily be focussing on accessories for free weights (i.e., barbells and dumbbells), rather than weights machines (e.g., home gyms).
Many people do their weightlifting in soft-soled running shoes or cross-trainers. This is a mistake. Most running shoes/cross-trainers are designed to provide the comfort and support needed for running, jumping, and other repetitive medium-to-high-impact activities. Weight training requires something very different, so if you’re lifting in soft-soled shoes, especially if you’re doing heavy back squats or overhead presses, then you should definitely consider replacing them with a pair of weightlifting shoes.
Proper lifting shoes contain a solid, raised heel, which promotes correct form and posture, especially for people who have difficulty maintaining an upright position when completing back squats (i.e., their trunk leans forward an excessive amount). This is incredibly important for reducing the risk of injury considering the significant amount of shear stress force that can be placed on your back when executing heavy lifts.
And that’s not just our opinion. Recent research into the kinematic differences between weightlifting shoes and normal runners found that the raised heel in lifting shoes helps to maintain a more upright trunk during heavy back squats than runners do, and activate the quadriceps more intensely. In short, weightlifting shoes reduce the strain on your back and force your muscles to work harder, which is exactly what you want. Runners and trainers tend to be flat-soled, and do not provide this benefit.
Additionally, the harder sole in weightlifting shoes helps to maintain balance and stability and ensures that the maximum amount of force generated by your muscles is directed into lifting the weight. In comparison, when lifting weights in soft-soled shoes, much of the force you generate is absorbed into the cushioning beneath your feet. This not only reduces your ability to generate force for lifting the weight but also creates instability and increases the risk of rolling your ankle over. If you roll your ankle over at the top of a heavy back squat or overhead press, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Finally, compared to runners and trainers the upper construction of lifting shoes tends to be much more solid and durable and composed of one or two adjustable straps that pull across the midfoot. This does a couple of things:
- Protects the foot from dropped objects
- Provides lateral stability to the whole foot
As you can see, the best information we currently have clearly shows that weightlifting shoes are a very good investment. In fact, they’re arguably the best weightlifting accessory you can get. At the very least, they’re a much better option than your running shoes.
In days gone, weightlifting shoes weren’t particularly comfortable or trendy, despite their value. However, a lot has gone into the development of modern variants, and today it’s not hard to pick up a pair that feel good and look good. The Do-Win Weightlifting Shoes and Adidas Adipower 2s are two of the best lifting shoes on the market. If you want to shop around, Rogue Fitness have a solid range of lifting shoes at competitive prices, so be sure to check them out.
Gloves get a bad rap in the strength training community, with many people joking that if you’re going to buy gloves, you should at least make sure they match your purse. Misogyny aside, the argument against weightlifting gloves often centers around the fact that they add a layer of cloth between your hands and the bar. This effectively weakens your grip in two ways:
- It reduces the friction between your hand and the bar
- The extra material increases the diameter of the bar
Considering that your grip is possibly the weakest point in the chain between you and the weight you’re lifting, compromising it is not what you want to be doing.
Now, in reality, that’s only of true importance to those who do serious lifting, which is why gloves are one of the most controversial pieces of all weight training gear. If you are a serious lifter (or planning to become one), then don’t use gloves. In the long-run, they will only hinder your progress, and increase the likelihood of injuring yourself. A commonly held view, which we agree with, is that if you’re serious about lifting then you should only be using gloves if you’ve injured your hand (e.g., had a serious tear), and you can’t continue to train without them.
If you’re not a serious lifter and aren’t too concerned about developing maximum strength but do want to protect your hands from damage caused by lifting weights, then using a pair of gloves will be fine.
Rogue Fitness’ Mechanix 2.0 Gloves are the best weightlifting gloves currently available. However, they’re also among the most expensive, so if you’re looking for something cheaper, then check out the Fit Active Sports Ventilated Gloves
Wrist wraps are pieces of fabric, usually 12″ – 18″ in length, that wrap around your wrists to reduce mobility and increase stability of the joint. They do this by limiting wrist flexion and extension (back and forth movement), as well as ulnar and radial deviation (side-to-side movement) to a lesser extent.
Why would you want to reduce the mobility of your wrists, you ask? Because ligaments in your wrist are susceptible to injury, especially when lifting close to your 1RM. Injured ligaments then cause wrist pain, even when not lifting heavy loads. Wraps, therefore, may prevent injury, or manage pain in already injured wrists. They’re most effective, and most commonly worn, during pressing exercises like bench press and overhead press because these exercises tend to place the most stress on the wrists.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t yet appear to be any good research on the positive or negative effects of wearing wrist wraps during weightlifting. Therefore, we have to use theory, common sense, and anecdotal evidence from the weightlifting community to assess whether wraps are a sound investment.
Theory and common sense tells us that limiting the mobility of the wrists will reduce the likelihood of ligaments being over-stretched during lifts, and thus prevent injury. Anecdotal evidence from the weightlifting community also suggests that wraps are very effective in reducing or eliminating wrist pain. The flip side is that injury and/or pain in the wrists is often caused by improper lifting technique, and artificially limiting wrist mobility does nothing to address this issue. In fact, it can potentially exacerbate the problem by encouraging imbalances in the muscles that naturally stabilize the wrist, and subsequently increase the risk of injury down the track.
Ultimately, the recommendation on wrist wraps is similar to that for gloves: Don’t use them if you don’t need them. If you do experience significant wrist pain when lifting, first try to find out if improving your technique will fix the issue. A powerlifting/weightlifting coach is your best option here, but we know that’s not feasible for many people. As an alternative, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training is a great book for learning correct technique for the main compound exercises. If you prefer to watch something rather than read, you can find Rippetoe explaining correct form for those same exercises here.
If your technique is not the cause of your wrist pain, then wrist wraps are probably the best option for helping you continue to train while your injury heals. As mentioned above, they can have some trade-offs, but in the end, you need to do what you think is best for you and if wraps allow you to keep training hard, then go ahead and use them. If you want to mitigate the negative effect that wrist wraps can have on muscle development, a good strategy is to lift without them whenever possible. For example, you might warm up without them, do as heavier a set as possible, before putting them on for your heaviest sets (i.e., once the pain kicks in). This way, the muscles in your forearm will still get plenty of training, but you’ll also minimize pain and the risk of injuring your wrists further.
Check out our review of the 6 best wrist wraps for weightlifting if you want a detailed run down on the top options currently available. For those not interested in reading that article, our top 2 recommendations are the Rogue Wrist Wraps and the ProSource Wrist Wraps.
Lifting straps are very different from wrist wraps. Straps wrap around the upper wrist/hand and the bar you’re gripping. This is done in such a way that letting go of the bar will unwind the strap. They’re typically used as an aide during pulling exercises, especially the deadlift, and their purpose is to enhance grip strength rather than stabilize the wrist.
Much like with wrist wraps, there is a lack of scientific research into the efficacy of lifting straps. However, there’s little (if any) controversy surrounding their use, which might explain why there’s no research on them. They’re widely regarded in the weightlifting community to be effective at improving grip strength, and therefore a worthwhile addition to your lifting arsenal.
Grip strength is a limiting factor in pulling exercises: If your hands can’t physically hold the weight, your other muscles can’t lift it. Therefore, once you get into the heavy weight ranges (75%+ of your 1RM), pulling exercises like the deadlift can become hampered by an inability to maintain a secure grip on the bar. If that’s the case for you, then lifting straps may be a good option. That said, you’d be wise to use them sparingly. Pulling exercises build grip strength, and removing it from the equation with straps can be problematic. If used too often on light lifts (where they are not needed), straps can prevent the development of grip strength, which will only serve to increase your dependence on them. As such, just like with wrist wraps, it’s probably best to only use them on your heaviest lifts (i.e., warm-up and build up to heavy lifts without using straps).
There are a few different styles of lifting straps available: Flat lengths of material, looped at the ends, and ends sewn together. There are also a variety of materials used to make them. Leather, nylon webbing, and cotton are the most common. While the best style is very much a matter of preference, cotton straps should be avoided. While cotton is generally softer and more comfortable on the skin, it’s also significantly weaker and more prone to breaking than leather or nylon webbing.
IronMind is arguably the industry leader in lifting straps. Their Strong-Enough straps are among the best you can get, and regularly appear on the wrists of competitors in the World’s Strongest Man competition.
Rogue Fitness also make some very good, reasonably priced leather straps and their Ohio nylon straps are as good as any others.
Chalk is a common accessory in the serious lifter’s training arsenal. Its purpose is to enhance your grip strength by absorbing moisture, drying out your skin, and increasing friction between your hand and the weight being lifted (or, more specifically the bar being gripped). The principle is identical to that of lifting straps: Improve your grip strength and you improve your lifting performance.
While there is currently no research that has looked specifically at the use of chalk in weightlifting, there are studies that have assessed its use in another sport where grip strength is also a significant factor in overall performance: Rock climbing.
In rock climbing, the results of research into the effectiveness of chalk for improving grip strength have been inconsistent. An article published in the Journal of Sports Science found that chalk actually reduced the amount of friction between climbers’ hands and different types of rocks, suggesting that chalk reduces grip strength rather than improves it. Similarly, research examining the effectiveness of both powdered and liquid chalk found that they reduced friction and grip strength in rock climbers, but only when the hands were already dry. When applied to sweaty hands, both types of chalk effectively improved grip strength. Conversely, a study published in Sports Biomechanics found that chalk was effective at improving rock climbers’ grip, and led to better climbing performance.
Unfortunately, a limitation of applying the findings of research in rock climbing to weightlifting is that rock climbing studies tend to test a pinch grip (gripping with the fingertips), rather than a crush grip (gripping with a clenched hand), which is what you use when gripping a bar. Thankfully, there are a couple of studies that have assessed the use of chalk when using a crush grip. Research published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that research participants could do more pull-ups with chalked hands than with clean hands. Gripping a pull-up bar utilizes a crush grip, and is comparable to gripping a barbell, so these results are directly transferrable to weightlifting. Additionally, Italian researchers compared grip strength with and without chalk using a dynamometer (an instrument for measuring crush grip strength), and showed that research participants were able to generate more force with chalk on their hands than without.
So, what do we make of all this research? Well, the available evidence suggests that chalk probably improves grip strength when using a crush grip, especially if your hands are sweaty. Because it’s unclear whether chalk is beneficial for dry hands, it’s probably best to refrain from using chalk until your hands start sweating and your grip starts to weaken.
We’ve previously looked at the best chalk for weightlifting, including dry and liquid chalk. If you’re after dry chalk, then you can’t go past Rogue’s Gym Chalk. Dry chalk can be messy, so if you’re thinking that liquid chalk is a better option for you, then our top recommendation is Liquid Grip.
Lifting belts are commonly used by both competitive and recreational weightlifters to reduce injury and improve performance, especially when doing exercises that put a lot of force through the spine (e.g., squats, deadlifts). The way belts are said to do this is by substantially increasing intra-abdominal pressure (IAP).
Here’s how it works in theory:
Lifting weights naturally activates your core muscles, which compress your trunk and abdominal contents (i.e., your guts), and increase your IAP. This natural increase in IAP effectively tightens the area around your spine, increasing its stiffness and stability, thus allowing it to support your upper body in lifting and lowering weight.
Wearing a tightened lifting belt further compresses your trunk and abdominal contents, and increases IAP above and beyond what your body can naturally achieve. In turn, this substantially increases the stiffness and stability of your spine and reduces the compressive force placed on it, which makes it less susceptible to injury and better able to support heavy loads.
So, that’s the basic idea. Whether lifting belts actually reduce injury and improve lifting performance in practice is another question. The vast majority of strength coaches will say “yes, lifting belts absolutely help you lift more weight, more safely” (or something along those lines). But, what does the science say?
Currently, there’s only a small number of studies that have assessed whether lifting belts are beneficial for performance and safety in real-life settings, and these have produced mixed results. That is, some studies have found that lifting belts can improve performance and safety while others have found they have no effect on performance and safety. Interestingly, one study done with airport baggage handlers found that discontinuing use of a lifting belt after having worn one for a while can actually increase the risk of lower back injuries.
That said, a review of research on lifting belts in sports / strength and conditioning settings concluded:
The sports science and strength and conditioning literature suggest there is no strong argument against the use of the lifting belt…Sports science evidence suggests that lifting belts may be beneficial in reducing spinal compression, stabilizing the spine, increasing motor unit recruitment in prime movers, and increasing exercise velocity.
Basically, this is saying that while the research may not be clear cut, the weight of evidence supports the use of lifting belts for reducing injury and improving performance.
Moreover, lifting belts have been shown to increase activation of the core muscles. This suggests that you’re able to achieve stronger contraction of the abdominals and other core muscles when wearing a belt compared to when not wearing one. This is significant because it means that, unlike gloves, wraps, and straps, which can compromise the development of key muscles used for weightlifting (e.g., muscles in the forearms and wrists), lifting belts may produce better development of your core muscles by facilitating stronger contractions.
Clearly, this is an area that needs further scientific investigation, but the take-home message is that wearing a lifting belt certainly won’t do you any harm, and will likely do you plenty of good.
There are several different types of lifting belts made from different materials, and which is right for you will depend largely on your goals and personal preferences. If you want a top quality, leather lifting belt and cost is not an issue, then check out the Inzer Forever Belts or the Rogue Ohio Lifting Belt. Alternatively, if you want something that’s less expensive and more comfortable (albeit less effective), then consider a good nylon belt. The Rogue USA Nylon Lifting Belt and Fringe Sport Commercial Belt are the two best options in this category.
In the last decade or two, compression clothing has risen in popularity as people look for things that will give them an edge during competition and training. Within the weightlifting space, compression clothing ranges from joint sleeves and compression socks to full-body garments and squat suits.
The idea behind all compression clothing is that compressing the muscles has numerous benefits, including improving the flow of blood back to your heart, increasing the amount of oxygen that gets to your muscles, aiding the removal of waste products from your muscles, and reducing inflammation.
Broadly speaking, compression clothing is used by professional and recreational athletes of all kinds for two purposes:
- Improving immediate performance during competition or training
- Aiding recovery after competition or training
As far as improving immediate performance goes, there is very little scientific evidence to support the wearing of compression clothing during exercise. A systematic review of the literature that examined more than 20 different studies on the potential beneficial effects of lower-body compression clothing during exercise found that there is little to no evidence that they help in any way. Only a few of these 20+ studies looked at strength-based exercise, so it’s difficult to generalize the results to weightlifting. Numerous other studies, however, have looked at the efficacy of compression clothing in a weightlifting setting and found similar results. One study, for example, tested whether compression shorts improve quadriceps power output or increase maximum number of squats in 20 men and women. Simply put, the compression shorts had no effect on either variable. Similarly, another study tested whether compression sleeves had an effect on bench press performance of 15 men with experience in weight training. Again, the compression clothing had no effect.
While there is a clear need for more research to be conducted in this area, the weight of evidence very firmly suggests that compression clothing will not improve your immediate weightlifting performance. But what about your recovery after working out? Well, that’s a different story entirely.
The weight of evidence very firmly suggests that compression clothing is effective in aiding recovery after training or competing. Numerous studies have demonstrated this across different sports and exercise-types, especially weightlifting. Indeed, a 2017 meta-analysis of research on compression clothing and recovery found that the beneficial effects of compression was greatest for weight training. That is, while compression clothing should help your recovery following any kind of exercise, it’s likely to be most effective at helping you recover muscular strength and power after a weightlifting workout. This suggests that compression clothing is a good investment, and should help you get over sore muscles quicker and continue making gains.
The compression clothing market is heavily saturated, and there are tons of good brands that have good quality products. There’s also plenty of garbage. There are two main things you want to look for when choosing compression clothes:
- A stated compression rating of 20 – 30 mmHg or above. This is commercial grade compression and is what most of the research has been done with. Anything less than this is unlikely to compress your muscles enough to have any effect. If the compression rating isn’t stated, avoid the product.
- Graduated compression. This means that the piece of clothing applies the most pressure at the extremities (e.g., ankles, wrists) and gradually less and less pressure moving up the garment. This is the standard for commercial compression clothing, so if you’re looking at purchasing a product that doesn’t have graduated compression then you should rethink that decision.
Here are our top recommendations for different types of compression clothing:
- Tights / Pants / Shorts: 2XU are a top brand in the compression clothing market and their MCS line of tights and shorts are the best there is. Any of the Elite, Perform or Recovery range are a solid investment.
- Socks: Compression socks are often what’s used in compression clothing research, and they consistently show beneficial outcomes. Acel Designers, 2XU Recoveries, and Mojo Coolmaxes are all great choices.
- Shirts / Tops: Shirts are the most iffy of all compression clothing because they rarely have a compression rating above 10 – 15 mmHg. We suspect this is because companies are hesitant to make clothes that could prevent you from breathing properly, which makes sense. If you’re set on getting a compression top, then 2XU’s short and long-sleeve shirts are good quality, as are Under Armour’s HeatGear range.
Well, there you have it: a science-backed review of the best weightlifting accessories commonly used in home and commercial gyms the world over.
The lifting accessories discussed above are bought and used by both experienced and inexperienced lifters to improve performance and reduce injury. While most are used for their immediate, in-the-moment benefits, others such as weightlifting shoes and belts can actually improve your body’s long-term adaptations to lifting weights. We hope that through the detailed information we’ve provided, you’ll have a better ability to make an informed decision on whether or not to purchase and use them.
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As always, best of luck with your home workouts. Remember: When it comes to our health and fitness, we can make the effort or make excuses, but we can’t make both.
THFF (The Home Fit Freak)