Gear – What Is It and Why We Use It (or actually don’t need to)
We CrossFitters have gear for every part of the body. From high socks to weightlifting belts in all shapes and sizes, the CrossFit uniform can easily start to seem like a prerequisite for making progress. But, what do these things actually do and which of them do you really need?
Let’s break down the purpose of the most popular types of gear you’ll see. We’ll cover how each thing works and discuss when it helps and when it might actually work against you.
How it works: A belt works by cueing you to breathe in a way that braces your core. It sits tightly against your abdomen and acts like a target for your breath. When you inhale, you expand your belly against the belt. Doing this forcefully creates additional tension in your trunk that translates to more stability in your lifts.
When it helps: A belt helps when the amount of weight you are lifting exceeds your ability to create enough tension in your core without one. It is not necessary for light weights up through 70-80% of your 1RM because at these weights you should be able to generate the necessary stability in your core on your own. If you can’t, you need to learn how to engage your core more fully and practice it on every single lift without assistance. This will make your core stronger and in the long-term will be much more helpful than masking the problem with a belt.
Most beginners don’t need to worry about wearing a belt until they’ve hit a few PRs in each lift. Even for experienced athletes, just wearing a belt is not good enough. It is specifically the act of breathing into the belt that helps you. You can actually think of a belt as restricting your breathing, which helps on super heavy lifts, but can work against you in a metcon when you need to breathe more freely. Wearing a belt is usually not necessary in a metcon unless the metcon includes a lift above 70% of your 1RM. If your back often hurts during metcons, it is most likely coming from something else that a belt will not fix (ex: sub-par core strength, twisting at your torso during a DB snatch, or allowing the bar to get away from your body when cycling reps from the floor).
How they work: Weightlifting shoes work by elevating your heel off the ground. This allows you to sit deeper into the squat with a more upright torso. They also have a much flatter and harder sole than traditional CrossFit shoes, which means more of the force you produce goes into moving the bar, instead of being absorbed by the shoe.
When they help: Lifting shoes allow you to squat heavier in a better, safer position and move a barbell with more force. Everyone from beginners to elite athletes can benefit from a better squat position and stronger transfer of power. Although lifting shoes aren’t necessary for a functional squat, they’re probably the most universally helpful item on this list and the first item here I’d recommend to a beginner.
Some people warn that wearing lifting shoes compensates for poor mobility. Note that wearing them will not make your mobility problems go away. If you come forward on your toes when you squat, you’re still going to come up on your toes in lifting shoes. They will simply keep your torso in a better position within your current range of motion. This allows you to squat heavier more safely while you continue to work on mobility. Use caution when wearing these shoes in a metcon, however. You want your shoes to absorb little force when lifting, but when doing lots of running and jumping you want your shoes to absorb as much force as possible to protect your joints (this is why running shoes have so much cushioning).
How they work: Knee sleeves work by providing compression to the joint. This increases blood flow and reduces stress on the joint, which allows you to undergo more trauma to the joint with less pain and risk of injury.
When they help: Knee sleeves help when lifting at extremely high volume or extremely high intensity. If you squat very heavy multiple times per week, knee sleeves can help your knees recover faster so you can lift heavy again in your next session. They are not usually necessary for beginners or experienced athletes who only squat once or twice per week during class. For most people, they are also not necessary for Olympic lifts. Even though a 90% clean or snatch might be a heavy lift, it isn’t a heavy squat for your knees, so unless you are doing an excessive amount of reps of these lifts, knee sleeves are probably not necessary. Also, if you want them to work, make sure they are TIGHT! If it’s not at least a little bit difficult to get them on, they are doing absolutely nothing.
*Note: knee sleeves are different from knee braces. For purposes of this blog, we’re talking about the typical Rehband-style knee sleeves you see in the gym.
What they do: Wrist wraps work by restricting mobility at the wrist. They prevent you from bending your wrist back very far, if at all, which helps keep your wrists neutral.
When they help: Wrist wraps help on lifts where your wrist needs to stay stacked or relatively neutral. Some clear examples include bench press, snatch and overhead squat. If your wrist bends backwards on any of these lifts, the lift will be weak at best and probably hurt. Wrist wraps also help on overhead presses (strict press, push press, jerk), although a word of caution about wearing wrist wraps for shoulder to overhead: although they will help you in the overhead position, they will also restrict your mobility in the front rack position. If you are unable to hold a proper front rack without the bar sliding all the way into the back of your fingertips, they might actually do more harm than good by causing the bar to slide forward during the dip-drive. Wrist wraps do not help and are unnecessary on cleans, front squats, and other movements where your wrists need to flex in order to support the weight properly.
What they do: Grips protect your hands from ripping during high volume reps on a bar or rings.
When they help: Grips allow you to perform more reps more often on a bar or rings with less risk of ripping your hands. If you are an advanced gymnastics athlete, wearing grips can allow you to safely accumulate more reps in a given workout and complete multiple high volume gymnastics workouts in the same week. If you are a beginner athlete or looking to get your first pull up, grips might actually be working against you. Most of the time, grips make it more difficult to hold onto the bar. For advanced athletes, this is an acceptable trade-off for being able to perform more reps, but for a beginner athlete, this can make it much harder to learn.
A final note about gear
Sometimes, we can’t explain why something helps. Even though there may be no logical reason to wear a piece of gear, if wearing it makes you feel better, safer, or more confident, and it isn’t obviously hurting you, then keep wearing it! Just be sure that it is actually making you feel good and isn’t just allowing you to ignore the real source of your pain.
Good luck and let us know if you have any questions!
2019 09 17