Gear Up for Growth
Learn how and when to use training aids like belts and straps for greater gains and increased safety.
By Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro; Photography: Michael Butler; Model: Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro
[Q] I know a strong grip is needed on all pulling exercises, so when is it a good idea to use straps?
[A] I get this question all the time and I think it comes down to preference. I’ll tell you what I think, and then you can make your own decision. Straps, in my opinion, are not great if strength is your main goal because it’s just extra help you’re giving to your lifts so you don’t get a true indicator of total strength. They’ll take away from your forearm and biceps strength, which is crucial on so many other lifts. If you ever want to enter a raw lifting competition and you’ve done all your training with straps, you can bet you’re in for a surprise! I think you should train to mimic how you might compete, which is strapless. On the other hand, straps are okay for strict bodybuilding purposes, in that getting a few more reps on certain lifts can help you take target muscles beyond failure, which is what you want. So again, it depends on your goals. If pure strength is your goal, I’d stay away from them. If you’re looking to bring up bodyparts like your back, then occasional use is fine. Just don’t become too reliant on straps.
[Q] Hey Johnnie, I like to train heavy, but I really see only competitive lifters using chalk. Can it benefit me as a bodybuilder? And if so, on which lifts?
[A] Chalk has the same basic advantage of straps: better grip. Serious powerlifters use it all the time, but it doesn’t offer the same benefit as the straps — it doesn’t “lighten the load” in the same way, but it does make your grip less of a limiting factor. The difference is that the chalk’s main function is simply to keep your hands dry. If you’ve ever had a serious deadlifting day, you know you can work up a serious sweat and the last thing you want is the barbell slipping from your hands at a crucial part of the lift. This can result in injury. If you’re at a gym that allows chalk, I say go for it. If not, then straps may be a better alternative. Best alternative? Wipe your hands dry and pull the weight raw!
[Q] I dig all the pics I’ve seen over the years of guys like you and Ronnie sporting knee wraps on a huge squat. Does it just protect your knees or does it help you get more reps? What are the downsides?
[A] Knee wraps done tightly enough can definitely offer some assistance in a heavy lift. The added stability makes it easier to squat weight. Some guys will put them on only a minute or two before their heavy lifts because the wraps are so tight they can limit circulation! But they do also offer some support that can be beneficial for people who’ve suffered an injury or have chronic knee pain. So, I think it’s okay to use them when doing heavy squats. Just don’t break them out until you’re moving serious weight.
[Q] Is it really necessary to use a weight belt when training? I hear it can actually limit how much strength you can gain in your lower back.
[A] I view belts as more of a necessity simply because your lower back is so crucial to everything else you do. There are a lot of people who believe that by wearing a belt, you’re limiting your lower-back development, and that’s true to some extent. But like with the straps, if your lower back is out of shape and you’re a bodybuilder, you’ll want to offer it some additional training exercises with back extensions or lighter deadlifts to make sure the area gets the attention it needs. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Don’t leave your belt in the bag because you think it makes you less of a lifter, though. It can be the tool that helps you train safer and for longer than guys who choose not to wear one.