Your guide to gym gear

Gym toys are kind of addictive. You buy one thingamajig, and then before you know it, your gym bag looks like one of those carfuls of clowns with stuff popping out everywhere. Now, you don’t technically need any of these odds ‘n’ sods, but in a consumerist society, the small matter of actual need doesn’t trouble most folks. Here’s a handy guide to gym gear.

lifting belts

There are several schools of thought on belts. Judging from the himbos at my gym, you apparently need a belt for biceps curls and walking on the treadmill. Others will say that using a belt makes your abdominal column weak. However, what the actual research indicates is twofold:

First, belts increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and thus are beneficial especially during maximum effort lifts such as squats and deadlifts. Think about your midsection as sort of a hollow cube composed of layers of muscle. The front is your abdominal musculature, the sides are your obliques, the rear is your spinal musculature, the bottom is your pelvic muscles, and the top is your diaphragm. Your body is so smart that before you even actually initiate movement, this cube goes rigid to keep your body stabilized, and it works very nicely in complete synchronization (you can breathe and move without collapsing, although maybe not walk and chew gum at the same time). These babies fire milliseconds before any other movement takes place. This coordinated rigidity of the torso cube results in IAP. IAP is what keeps your midsection from turning into a wet noodle when you put a squat bar on your back. Wearing a belt has been shown to increase IAP, which is a good thing when you’re attempting a very intense lift. This has applications for people like competing powerlifters, who regularly attempt one-rep maxes, both in the gym and in competition. Powerlifters push their abs out against the belt to maintain torso rigidity throughout the exertion.

Second, a belt worn loosely can increase proprioception in the area. In other words, because of the presence of the belt, your body gets sensory feedback that gives it even more information than normal about what’s going on and what it needs to do. This can help you with both producing IAP and keeping proper form. This might have applications for folks with impaired body awareness, or some other difficulty in maintaining torso stability.

Thus, a belt is neither uniformly bad or good, just a useful tool if properly applied. For the average trainer who may never do a one-rep max, or even something like a three-rep max, a belt isn’t really necessary. While many people do feel some tenderness in lower back when they first start squatting, it’s a better strategy to keep intensity lower, work on technique and flexibility, and do a little bit of additional strengthening work for the area.

Now, the problem with belts for women is that many of us are shorter, and are skinnier in the middle and wider at the distal ends. A large leather belt can cut into ribs or hips or both, prevented from fitting properly by our womanly voluptuousness. Many women find that a narrower, flexible belt such as a nylon belt is more appropriate. You might also find some belts that are wider in the back than in the front; if you do want to wear a belt during max lifts, make sure the wide part is in the front, so your abs can press into it. Many powerlifting belts are of uniform width, simple cylinders that you can buckle in the front without sacrificing the belt area to push into. If you’re thinking of competing, might be wise to investigate PL belts rather than the el cheapo lifting belt.

wrist wraps

These are strips of fabric that are wrapped around your wrist. They are used to provide wrist support and stabilize weak wrists, generally for things like bench presses, pushups, etc. If your wrists are healthy, you shouldn’t need these. Or, you may find that at first they provide you with some good support, and that you can eventually phase them out as your connective tissue strengthens.

lifting straps

Not to be confused with wrist wraps. Straps are made of a heavy canvas or leather, and they are a strip with a loop at the end. They can aid your grip on the bar. They are useful for beginners whose grip fails before her pulling muscles have fatigued (for example with deadlifts). Train the exercise till grip fails, then use straps. They are also used for exercises where the weight is quite heavy or unwieldy, again before grip strength has adequately developed, such as some Olympic pulls, or calf raises with a dumbbell. Finally they can be used for folks who are injured (for example, elbow tendonitis), who may try to minimize the amount of gripping they do.

To the left, here ya got yer basic strap, or at least my artist’s rendition of one. It’s a strip about two inches wide and several inches long, with a loop at one end.
They come in sets of two, obviously. To make a wrap, simply thread the end through the loop. Now, here’s something stupid I did. My first straps were padded inside. For some reason, having been given this “inside” and “outside”, I got it into my head that the strap could only be looped one way. I said to my OL coach, “Hey, I got two right handed ones.” To his credit he did not point and laugh hysterically. He kindly took one strap and re-threaded the end through the *other* side of the loop. Big fat hairy duh on my part. So, to avoid having your coach think you’re special in the short bus kind of way, make sure you thread one strap through the loop from right to left, and the other strap through the loop from left to right.

Once you’ve threaded the straps, put them around your wrists, and turn them so that the loops go across your palms. The loop points towards your thumb. Pull the straps tight (not too tight, just snug) and grab the bar.

Place your hand over the bar so that the strap is hanging down from your wrist, and wrap the strap underneath, then over the bar, making sure there is fabric under your palm so that when you grip the bar tightly, you’re gripping both bar and strap. You don’t need to wrap the whole strap. As long as you can wrap it once, then get a good grip on the piece you’ve just wrapped, you’re fine.

Finally, rotate the bar towards you to tighten things up. This takes a little practice to get the hang of it, so keep trying.

knee wraps

Same idea as wrist wraps, except that they are usually only used during maximum effort squats. They are wrapped around the knee joint above and below the knee. However, unlike wrist straps, knee wraps are designed to support the joint through compression of the patella (kneecap). While wrist wraps can be worn regularly with no harm, regular use of knee wraps can cause cumulative trauma to the knee joint because of the patellar compression. As such they are worn only for maximum effort type lifts. Or by gym dork guys who like to make a big deal out of wrapping their knees for their little overweighted butt bounce.

bench shirt

The bench shirt looks like a thick fabric tshirt. A bench shirt is designed to be worn in powerlifting competition during the bench press. It adds a level of resistance to the downward path of the bar which enables the lifter to bench press more weight. When the lifter puts it on, or more accurately, when other people put it on her by forcing her into it, like pulverized cow lips into a sausage casing, she cannot lower her arms past about 45 degrees to the body.


No real need to bother with these. They keep your hands callus free but it’s much harder to grip the bar with them. If you’re worried about calluses, exfoliate palms daily with a pumice stone or foot file while in the shower, then apply heavy duty moisturizer. You may find that your hands are a little sensitive when you first start lifting, but after a week or two, you should be fine.

dip belt

The dip belt is a handy gizmo that looks like a regular weightlifting belt with a chain attached. You thread the chain through the holes in weight plates, or wrap it around a dumbbell, and the weight hangs from your waist. It’s generally used to add weight to do dips, chinups, and pullups, but you can also use it for stuff like calf raises. The cool factor is high on this one, for sure. Just watch those swinging weights once they get hanging, and don’t smack your kneecaps off. Lucky female biology, though, we don’t have to worry about yoinking anything unmentionable.

To the right is a shot of me doing pullups with a dip belt (and the truth comes out: I actually don’t own a head nor feet). You can see that the belt sits low on the hips, and the chain is threaded through a plate.


Zut alors! Who ees zat styleesh squatter? By the Chanel sunglasses of Anna Wintour, it's Krista in her squattin' boots!

Now, this may surprise you a bit, but the best shoes to wear while lifting are not necessarily those fancy schmancy athletic shoes with the cushioning and air pockets and antigravity and all that. For squatting, standing work such as shoulder pressing, and Olympic-type lifting in particular, a flat-soled shoe like Chuck Taylors is good, or something with ankle support such as a boot with a slight heel. Bear in mind that as the heel increases, the weight is shifted forward when squatting, so that forces on the knee increase. With a slight heel, this isn’t really a problem, though. Just consider it if you’re planning on squatting in the Manolo Blahniks.

Before I got proper weightlifting shoes, I used to swear by my steel-toed army boots for squatting. They have a very slight heel, about half an inch, and they’re heavy and solid. Once I tried them I never looked back. Running shoes are much too unstable and squooshy for squatting in. If you look at Olympic lifters, you’ll notice that they’re performing in what looks like bowling shoes with a wedge heel. These hard-soled shoes also add stability.

For deadlifting, if possible, use your sock feet (or barefeet if you lift at home). Yuh-huh, I said sock feet. No shoes. This provides you with both a flat stable platform (that being the floor), and you’re lower down relative to the bar, which makes the lift easier. In competition many powerlifters wear deadlift slippers, which look sort of like ballet slippers.


Ooh, I love the smell of chalk in the morning. It smells like victory! Chalk, aka the humble magnesium carbonate, is the white powdery stuff you see gymnasts slapping all over their hands when they do their events. It absorbs moisture and makes it much easier to get a good grip on the bar. Competing powerlifters even chalk up their backs before squatting or bench pressing. You can get chalk in a couple of different forms. It comes in a solid block that you just rub on to your palms (it’s handy to keep this form in a tupperware container). It also comes in a chalk ball, which is a small squashy ball made of netting, full of loose chalk. It’s about the size of a golf ball. This is the form that rock climbers use, and they put it in a cute little bag with a drawstring neck. Then they just stick their hand into the bag, pinch the ball between thumb and fingers, rub it back and forth, and retract their hand with chalk on it. Chalk balls and bags are quite easy to locate; simply check at your local rock climbing or outdoor gear store. The block form is sometimes harder to find since many sporting goods stores don’t carry it (lately, sporting goods stores seem to cater to folks who just want to look athletic, not be athletic. However, you can order it online from places like Ironmind.

Now this stuff will definitely make your life easier. Problem is, it isn’t allowed in many gyms, so you either have to make a fuss about it and see if they’ll grant you special treatment (dubious, but worth a shot) or sneak it in. Using a chalk ball and bag is a good way to do this. If you wear baggy pants that are light gray, you can probably even get away with sticking the ball in your pocket. Discreetly get some chalk on your hand before lifting, then wipe the bar when you’re done (carrying a little towel is handy for wiping up spills and evidence).

surgical tape

This stuff is good to have on hand for taping owies, splinting minor injuries, and wrapping around your hand if you’ve just ripped off a callus. By the way, if you’ve just torn off a callus part way, you can tape over it to lift, or you can even apply Super Glue to hold it on. Personally I think the glue thing is gross, but some people do it.

baby powder

Baby powder does the opposite of chalk: it makes things slippery (so don’t get them mixed up!). This can be useful for deadlifting because the bar may scrape unpleasantly along your thighs. Sprinkle some baby powder on areas that are getting scraped, and voila! No more abrasion. Make sure you don’t get any under your feet, though, unless you want to do a Three Stooges routine. Baby powder, didja know, can also be used to fix a squeaky floor if the problem is the floorboards grinding together. Just sprinkle baby powder between the cracks, brush it in a little bit, then sweep excess away. Don’t say I never tell you anything useful!

mini plates

Sometimes, a five pound jump in resistance is too much, and that’s usually the smallest increment of weight that you can add at most gyms. Enter the baby plates! You can buy these in increments as small as half a pound at PDA (by the way, I strongly recommend these folks… when I ordered from them they were super helpful, fired off speedy emails to answer my questions, and shipped the plates the following day). Or, you can go to the hardware store, buy some big washers, and make your own by duct-taping a few of the washers together. You can also buy Platemates, which are magnetic weights that come in a few different forms, and will just stick to dumbbells, bars, weight plates, and cable stack weights.