It’s December, and that means it’s the season for…gearing up for next season. I’m a raw lifter, but I love new training equipment, and I’m often really surprised by the number of people who either (A) don’t even have the right stuff to make the most of their training or (B) have it, but don’t use it effectively.
In my opinion, there are two things that every lifter needs, regardless of their goals: a good belt, and a good pair of shoes. Everything else is optional, but you absolutely must have these to really maximize your training. A belt provides the support and functions as a kinesthetic cue for proper core activation, which is (or should be) a component of every movement you do in the gym. Your shoes are your connection to the ground, and again, that’s going to influence every single exercise you train. So don’t skimp here!
First, a good belt for powerlifting is made of real leather, it’s between 10 and 13 millimeters thick, and generally four inches wide. You should only consider a single-prong or lever belt. If you see somebody walking around the gym with a double-prong, they either care way too much about how they look, or they have no idea what they’re doing. (The difference between prong and lever is all preference: levers are easier to get on and off, but prongs easier to adjust between tightnesses.)
[Need a new belt for your strength sport? Check out our in-depth best belt review round-up to find the perfect fit.]
Beyond those points, you’re really looking for something that fits your personal preferences, and generally, this is going to vary depending on your sport. Athletes training for aesthetics should use a belt that’s very comfortable and moderately supportive. The goal here is to use the belt as a tool for keeping the abs tight. That sleek, tapered look you see on many classic physique competitors is the result of excellent conditioning and abdominal control, and wearing a belt can help you to remember to practice keeping your abs contracted on all your movements in the gym. You’ll want to wear the belt pretty tight, so that you’re almost forced to get that transverse abdominus working (the muscle that helps in performing a vacuum).
In this case, I generally recommend a 10-millimeter belt with a tapered front. The taper provides more comfort, especially during longer sessions, but does sacrifice some support. This brings up an important caveat: if you plan on training heavy, compound movements, you must brace your core and generate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) for optimal performance and safety. While it’s possible to do this with a tapered belt – and without a belt at all – you may find it easier with a belt that’s four inches wide throughout.
For strength athletes, support is king. Instead of wearing a belt to help you keep your abs tight, you’re really only concerned about your bracing and IAP. So you’ll probably want the typical powerlifting belt: 13 millimeters thick and four inches wide. The extra width and thickness means that the belt will probably be too uncomfortable to wear throughout an entire training session, so you’ll have to take it off between lifts. But a wide, thick belt helps because you can push your abs out hard against it, and it won’t give. This is exactly what you need to do on your heaviest attempts.
[Need a simple and rigid belt? Check out the BarBend Double Leather Power Belt.]
There are cases where a strength athlete will want a different belt. Some people, usually larger guys, prefer a belt that’s 10 millimeters thick for deadlifts because that makes it easier to get into the proper starting position. Many shorter ladies prefer a belt that’s three inches wide so that it won’t cut into their hips. And strongmen competitors often use soft, flexible belts to provide support on events like stone loading without sacrificing mobility.
Ultimately, the belt you choose should be based on your own preferences. As long as you know why you’re using the belt, and choose a style that helps you reach that goal, then your belt is working for you.
[Check out our review of the Pioneer Fitness 13mm Thick – 4″ Suede Lever Belt!]
There are several fantastic belt manufactures who all produce great products, but only Pioneer could put together something like this:
No matter what, if you’re lifting heavy weight, you need a stable shoe: one that doesn’t have excessive cushioning and won’t roll around under your feet during a heavy squat or deadlift. Beyond that, shoe choice for lifters really comes down to the question of whether you should use a heel. Heeled shoes can enhance your ankle mobility, but they can also disrupt your balancing and position. Heeled shoes are trendy right now, but they’re not right for everyone. I see way too many people in the gym who rock a pair of pimped-out Romaleos, but would be better off with plain old Chucks.
That’s because wearing heels does several things. First, heeled shoes absolutely improve ankle mobility (specifically dorsiflexion). Try this: drop into a squat by pushing your knees forward and sitting down, and then notice whether you feel any tightness in your feet or shins. If you do, you’re probably lacking a little bit of dorsiflexion. If you’re not able to do a full squat like this without your heels coming off the ground, you’re lacking a lot of dorsiflexion. Now put something like a small book under your heels and try again. You’ll probably notice less tightness. That’s good: that increase in mobility provided by the heels can make it easier to hit depth in the squat.
[If you think you’re ready for a new pair of lifting shoes, then check out our full shoe breakdown to find the best pair for your sport and body.]
But when you throw on a pair of heeled shoes, you’re also artificially increasing the length of your legs. This should be pretty obvious, since it’s exactly why high heeled-shoes became fashionable outside of the gym. But changing your leverages like that can have consequences. For some people, a longer leg length can make it easier for them to squat; but for others, it can make it more difficult. This video does an excellent job of explaining why changing limb length won’t necessarily improve your squat mechanics:
Finally, heels will change how you balance on your feet. Again, this is pretty easy to recognize: try standing with a small book under your heels again and notice how your weight shifts forward, towards your toes. Even this slight change in balance can make it difficult to push your hips back and activate your posterior chain while you’re squatting. Now, some people don’t need to push their hips back: those who are very quad-dominant or have longer torsos will generally be fine pushing the knees forward and sitting down instead. But other people, often those with short torsos or very strong lower backs, will need to rely on their posterior chains as much as possible in order to lift maximal weight.
What if you like to use a lot of posterior chain when you squat, but don’t have the ankle mobility to hit depth without heels? Then you need to improve that ankle in other ways, like using self-myofascial release for the feet, shins, and calves.
[Interested in self-myofascial release? Then check out our list of the best foam rollers for your needs!]
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that while all of the above is important, there are no hard-and-fast rules, and much of your equipment choice comes down to personal preference. And there are always exceptions to the rule: you never know when you’ll see a guy crank out a 1000-pound deadlift in flip flops.
Above all else, remember that not even the best equipment can make up for poorly programmed or executed training. Everything else you do is just to set yourself up for a better day in the gym – and if you keep having better days, again and again, you’ll end up where you want to be.
Feature image screenshot from @phdeadlift Instagram page.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.