In the world of strength training, people are always looking for an edge.
That edge often falls into the category of ergogenic aids. Ergogenic is simply defined as "intended to enhance physical performance, stamina or recovery." When it comes to powerlifters and Olympic lifters, these ergogenic aids often take the form of weightlifting shoes, weight belts, lifting straps, etc. But should these same sort of aids also be used by team sport athletes? Such aids attempt to replace a weak link in the kinetic chain, so the question is do we need to strengthen the weak link, or is it OK to bypass it for athletic enhancement? Let's take a look at some of the most common equipment-based ergogenic aids and try to answer that very question.
The weight belt is designed to mimic what the core does during the Squat, Deadlift or Olympic lifting variations. The human body has a built-in "weight belt" of core musculature made up of the Transverse Abdominus and the Multifidus. While highly effective at their job, these muscles are not nearly as strong as a weight belt. Squats and Deadlifts are limited by the strength of the low back (grip also plays a major role with Deadlifts). What I mean by this is that the low back is often the weakest link in the chain, so when an individual reaches failure on Squats, it's not necessarily because their legs are not strong enough to lift the weight. It is typically because their core is not strong enough to support it.
Weight Belts play the role of the core and allow the lifter to overcome that weak link to train the legs further and heavier. In theory, this might sound like a good thing, but do team sport athletes really want to take their core out of the equation?
If you take the core stability out of the movement but continue to increase the strength of the legs, then the gap of strength between the two will only become wider. Also, if you train with weight belts frequently enough, the strength and capability of your Transverse Abdominus and Multifidus can severely suffer.
I like to use the phrase "don't fire a cannon from a canoe" when speaking on this topic. Think of your body as a ship. Your core is the actual boat, while your explosive lower limbs are the cannon. All sports transfer power from the lower body to the upper body via the core. When you train with a weight belt, you are increasing the power of your cannons, but you are also trading out your military vessel for a weaker, flimsier ship (canoe). If you were to fire a cannon from a canoe, it would sink. A canoe is not strong enough to support the power of a cannon.
The same thing occurs in your body. If you are incredibly powerful but your core cannot support that power, you are going to greatly increase your risk of injury. The reason this matters for athletes is because you cannot wear a weight belt onto the field. A powerlifter is allowed to use a weight belt in competition, a football player is not. As an athlete, there needs to be a balance between athletic enhancement and injury reduction. If you train one component but neglect the other, you will very likely be on the bench, either because you are too weak or because you are injured. When it comes to ergogenic aids for team sport athletes, a good rule of thumb is to never lift more weight than your core can support.
My Verdict: Avoid when possible
Weightlifting shoes are specifically designed for Olympic weightlifting. They can also be very useful for any other squatting movement.
Weightlifting shoes have a solid flat base that allows the athlete to have a firm platform to push off of and typically have a heel lift that mimics mobility at the ankle. The weightlifting shoe can increase the load that is able to be used, but also puts athletes in a safer upright position for the Squat. The fact that the shoe mimics ankle mobility can allow athletes with limitations in the ankle to safely perform a Squat. The only negative to these shoes is that athletes can avoid working on ankle mobility, because the heel lift can make up for a lack of it. However, adequate ankle mobility is crucial for enhancing sprint speed, agility and reducing ACL injuries. It is a joint athletes need to be able to move well and dynamically. That being said, something that can have such an immediate positive affect on an individual's ability to squat should be considered.
My Verdict: OK depending on the situation, but ankle mobility still must be trained
Workout Gloves/Lifting Straps/Chalk
All three of these aids are designed to help get a stronger grip on the bar while lifting heavy weight. Grip strength is the weak link for many movements, particularly Pull-ups/Chin-ups and Deadlift variations. Workout gloves can enhance grip strength and allow the athlete to perform more receptions of those major pulling motions. It also reduces the formation of lifting-induced callouses and blisters.
Grip strength is a little different from ankle mobility and core stability, because for many human beings in modern society, there is no need for a lot of grip strength. The important question for an athlete to ask is, "does grip strength play an important role in the sport I play?" if your sport is football, basketball, baseball, soccer (goalkeeper), wrestling, tennis, lacrosse or softball, I'd argue that grip strength can play an important role in your success. With these types of team sport athletes, grip strength is something I specifically train. You may argue that many of these athletes commonly use gloves in their sport. I think about this similarly to a wide receiver practicing with gloves. The gloves make it easier to catch the ball. Learn to catch without the gloves, and you will be better with the gloves then you would be if you'd never trained without.
Lifting straps are often used in conjunction with the alternated grip on the Deadlift to be able to lift more weight. The lifting straps give the most extreme advantage of these three grip aids. The straps wrap so tightly and so many times around the bar, that there is little grip strength needed to perform lifts. What I have found is that when grip strength is the weakest link, core stability is often not far behind, so the drastic increase to grip strength straps provide often reveals core weakness. This can be seen in athletes when deadlifting with straps. They are now able to support a significantly larger amount of weight in their hands, but their form breaks at the low back.
What is the solution? Typically, this is where a lifter will just throw on a weight belt and the low back is "safe" for that lift. So now the athlete has trained their legs far beyond what their anatomy is actually capable of supporting.
Chalk is the tamest these three ergogenic aids. During the course of a workout, most individuals will sweat. Chalk can dry out the athlete's sweaty hands so they are not slipping during the lift. This increases the individual's control over the bar. This can be crucial for safely performing a lift, especially when talking about more complex movements like Cleans or Snatches. It also does not provide nearly as significant a benefit as straps or gloves. It simply takes a weight that the athlete is strong enough to lift and gives them a bit more control with that load. That being said, athletes should not warm up with chalk or use it for work sets unless they believe it's needed. If you become dependent on an ergogenic aid, you run the risk of eventually not being able to safely lift without it.
My Verdict: Save the gloves for the hand models, leave the straps to the Olympic lifters, and use chalk when you feel it's truly need
Knee wraps, not to be confused with knee sleeves, are made of an elastic material that powerlifters wrap around their knees to increase the amount of weight that can be squatted and to reduce the amount of stress on the knee. In theory, both of these things would be positive, but knee wraps have been shown to change squat mechanics.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that knee wraps "altered Back Squat technique in a way that is likely to alter the musculature targeted by the exercise and possibly compromise the integrity of the knee joint." An individual who needs knee wraps will typically already be wearing a weight belt. This will remove the weak link of the low back from the equation, and now the knees are the next weakest link in the chain. Knee stability is obviously very important for athletes. The change in squat mechanics and the possible harmful effects on knee function make the use of knee wraps unadvisable in my opinion.
My Verdict: Do not use
Team sport athletes are not powerlifters or weightlifters. Any strength training they do is meant to complement and enhance their sports performance. Many athletes become too focused on loading up the bar by any means necessary and don't consider how certain ergogenic aids may affect the results of their training. Strengthen your weak links instead of bypassing them to become a more complete athlete. Build up the entire ship, don't just get a stronger cannon.
Photo Credit: Spanic/iStock, TheNewGuy03/iStock, cipella/iStock, Jesus Trillo Lago/iStock
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