As my eyes flip open I am greeted by darkness and a healthy dose of rheum that I carefully wipe away. I check my phone- 6:00am, time to get up and get ready for school, work, and my own training. I roll out of bed (literally) and onto the floor where I immediately pump out a set of pushups. Currently I’m doing 5 sets of 25 pushups spread periodically throughout the day so I can get some increased frequency to this fantastic upper body strength, hypertrophy, and endurance builder. Alright, it’s time to creep over to the computer and fire off some emails that stacked up overnight, check the website, bank accounts, and do a little housekeeping. Luckily the night before I filled up my nalgene with a liter of water and a scoop of Dymatize Recoup BCCAs so I’m not running on empty, yet.
At around 6:45 or 7am I head down to the kitchen to whip up some breakfast, usually a nice little spread of eggs, rice or oats, a veggie, and a cup of black coffee (Starbucks Blonde Roast ftw). After polishing this off I either pack the rest of my meals for the day into my lunchbox or mix up a shake, dry, for my post-workout nutrition if I’m just headed to the gym to train before going to class, work, etc. On this particular day I’m headed off for a nice morning of squats, snatches, good mornings, and ab work so I just mix up the shake- 2 scoops of Surge Recovery + 5g of creatine. Time to head to the gym, but wait I’ve got to get the gym bag ready!
While there isn’t a shortage of training accessories out there available for purchase, there are only a handful that are actually useful, appropriate, and worth your hard earned cash (or credit). These can be categorized into the following divisions:
- Bare Necessities
- Supportive Equipment
- Useful Fluff
In part one of this series we’ll cover the bare necessities which include lifting shoes, a belt, and chalk. These are the minimal accoutrements of any serious trainee and should not be overlooked. Bottom line, if you’re serious about your training then you should think of these purchases as an investment in yourself.
Perhaps the most overlooked facet of training is footwear. While there has been a recent surge of barefoot/minimalist zealots coming out of the woodwork recently, for the most part people don’t give much thought what they’re shoes are or aren’t doing for them. Well, prepare to have your life changed! I’ll just go on record by saying this, if you don’t own a pair of purpose-built weightlifting shoes, then you just flat-out don’t care about your training. Really. While these shoes typically cost anywhere from 80-200 dollars, they are only to be used in the gym. As such, they will generally last forever requiring minimal maitenance. What these shoes offer is a truly incompressible sole. Made of either wood or a plastic composite (for the latest and greatest shoes), the shoes allow the force generated by the trainee to be transmitted directly into the ground instead of allowing for any dispersion of force like running shoes (squishy soles) do. Additionally, these purpose built shoes have metatarsal straps (1 or 2) that support the foot on either side and again, allow for transmission of force directly to the floor. Finally, these shoes also have an elevated heel (0.5″-1.125″) which aids in lower body movement mechanics. While the science is fuzzy as to what exactly the shoes allow you do better or different than your typical sneakers, the bottom line is that the first time you squat in the shoes it will probably change your life. Squats, presses, and the Olympic movements feel so much better, more stable, and dialed in with these shoes. Some lifters prefer them for deadlifts, while others prefer a thinner and flatter shoe (like a Converse All-Star). Still, buy a pair of Olympic weightlifting shoes, it’s a great investment in yourself. Here are my top 5 recommendations:
VS Athletics– $ 80.00
The VS Athletics weightlifting shoe is a great entry-level option for neophytes and those with limited funds alike. I got a pair of these for my brother and if memory serves me right they were about 50 bucks brand new off ebay. While they’re not flashy or super “high-tech” they do the job just fine and don’t require a small loan to purchase.
Good for: New lifters, price-concious buyers.
These shoes came on the market about a year ago and had tons of selling potential. Unfortunately the soles on these shoes are a bit softer than a true weightlifting shoe, although some notable lifters prefer this (see Jon North). At any rate, these are still a fairly inexpensive option and they look pretty cool too, for those of you that are fasionable. My main two grips are the relatively low heel (0.5″) and a slightly softer sole than a true weightlifting shoe. Your mileage may vary.
Good For: Newbies, looking fly in the gym, general strength training with mixed modal workouts.
Rogue Do-Win– $119.00
These were the first pair of weightlifting shoes I purchased (the 2010 versions) and I really liked them. The heels then were made out of wood and covered by a non-slip rubber coating, but it looks like this has been switched to a vulcanized rubber coating. The heel height, side-to-side support, and comfort were all top notch. My only complaint was that if you really like to crank down on the metatarsal straps sometimes the metal caribiners would deform and require a repair. All in all, this is still a great shoe.
Good for: Experienced trainees with a little extra cash to spend, those graduating from the entry-level shoes, CrossFitters.
Nike Romaleos– 189.00
Now these are probably one of my favorite shoes. I picked up a pair of these after the Do-Wins and absolutely fell in love. These are super solid, snug, and confidence inspiring. The 1st edition of the Nikes were a little heavier than this newest iteration but honestly you can’t tell when you’re wearing them. If you can find a 1st edition Romaleos you can probably get these things for a steal! Also, this shoe wears like iron so the investment is definitely worthwhile. They also come with competition inserts to make the shoe even more snug as well as an extra pair of laces. If there is one downside- the shoe is fairly stiff. Now some people prefer the really stiff shoe while others want more feel. It’s personal preference.
Good For: Competitive lifters, people who like a snug and stiff shoe, Nike fans
These shoes just came out and being a shoe aficionado I had to have them. While these are the most expensive in the bunch, they are by far the lightest, most comfortable, and brightly colored. I really enjoy lifting in these shoes, the heel height is perfect, the single metatarsal strap functions well, and the shoes are “airy” feeling. Also, not a lot of people have these shoes yet, so I always feel cool busting these bad boys out.
Good For: The serious trainee, people who like loud colors, Florida Gators players (they are really closer to orange than red).
I know there will be some clamoring from people who say, “But Jordan I just can’t afford to drop a bill or two on weightlifting shoes!” To which I respond by saying, “How much was your bar tab last weekend, or how much do you spend for a dinner out?” It’s really inconsequential when we’re talking about a shoe that will last a long time and also that a high-end sneaker costs roughly the same anyway. I’ll accept this statement against my best wishes and then advise you to purchase a pair of Converse All-Stars, the next best thing.
Chucks have three main things going for them when it comes to lifting: price, compressibility, and stability. First, these things cost about $35 for any standard pair, which is peanuts compared to other sneakers. Yes ladies, they come in pink/purple too. Second, since their sole is very minimal it lacks the significant compressibility that’s seen in typical running or cross-training shoes. Finally, because of their lack of compressibility these allow a fairly stable platform for training. These are a nice entry-level shoe for those who just won’t bite the bullet and buy real shoes. As anecdotal evidence, go to a powerlifting meet and check the footwear of the competitors, Chuck Taylors are everywhere!
I can hear it now, though, what about the New Balance Minimus or the INOV-8 shoes? Well Virginia, they cost anywhere from $85.00 to $119.00 and for that amount of money you could’ve gotten a real weightlifting shoe instead of a glorified (yet stylish) sneaker. Don’t get me wrong, these things are cool to tool around town in, but not lifting weights. End of discussion.
Onto the next essential component of outfitting your gym bag, a weightlifting belt. Belts are ubiquitous when it comes to training and likely when I say weightlifting belt you immediately conjure up an image of a hyoooooge dude like this:
Well, chicks wear belts too…..
What do belts do anyway? They allow for forceful isometric (contraction without muscle length changes) of the abdominal and trunk muscles by providing a kinesthetic cue for the trainee to “push out” against. It’s so hard to cue a trainee to brace their abs after performing a proper Valsalva maneuver sans belt, whereas it happens instantaneously when they put on a belt. What happens is you take a big belly-filling breath in and then while holding it, push OUT against the belt (the kinesthetic cue) to engage all the muscles surrounding the spine and viscera. Once this occurs with a belt on the trainee will be able to do it without a belt easily, and then they can relegate the belt’s use for maximal effort sets as an added precautionary. Belts do not, in and of themselves, support the spine or trunk, but by utilizing them intelligently in training we can increase core muscle recruitment, strength train safely, and look cool!
Some people are probably saying “You should be able to lift the weight WITHOUT a belt, dude.” To this I simply say “Go troll somewhere else.” Each person training has their own unique training and injury history. If I can employ the use of a belt to avoid incidental injury accumulation due to previously existing issues and better cue my trainee then you bet your butt I’ll try and get them in a belt. With that being said, no, of course you shouldn’t be using a belt while doing curls, dumbbell raises, or anything that’s really light- UNLESS YOU HAVE A BACK ISSUE! ‘Nuff said.
Now onto the selection of a belt. You need a belt that’s the same width around the entire circumference of your torso- so no tapered belts. Yes I know some people have lifted heavy things in them, that doesn’t mean they’re optimal. Most adult males will prefer a 4″ belt in either 10mm or 13mm thickness. The thickness is totally user dependent and in some cases, lift dependent. I prefer a 13mm belt for squats, deads, and presses but a few guys I’ve trained with like a 10mm on deadlifts only. Females and those with shorter torsos will likely be better served with a 2.5″ belt (commonly known as a bench press belt) or 3″ belt. Additionally, the 2.5″ belt works well for women/shorter trainees, but feels like chicken wire on the squat and deadlift for people over 5’8″- which would do best to get the 4″ belt. As far as materials, the tried and true leather belt with or without suede finishing is the bees knees. Expect a good belt to run you between $80-100 and last a lifetime (unless you lose or gain like 50lbs). Don’t make the mistake I did and get rid of your old “broken in” belt for something new, it’s a pain in the rear (well abdomen actually) to break in a new belt. It comes with the territory but the nicer belts from Inzer, APT, Bob’s Belts, and similar have a much shorter break-in period and won’t leave you bruised and battered. Here are my top belt recommendations:
Good for: This is a great off the shelf 2.5″ belt for shorter trainees (Under 5’5″) and lifters who arch a lot in the bench press (as it’s more flexible).
Good For: This is THE BELT for females above 5’5″ as it’s custom made to your waist (no in between hole issues) and can be customized in any color. Additionally, it breaks in fast, is guaranteed for as long as you own it, and the quality is top-notch.
Good For: A nice off the shelf 4″ belt for males and those 5’9 and above. This is a solid, sturdy belt with a quick break in time. Since it is a 10mm belt though, some might not like that it isn’t as stiff as a 13mm belt. The 13mm belt offered by Inzer is a 2-prong belt that I previously had. This isn’t necessarily bad, however, it is a bigger pain to snug down and release than a single prong. When you’re out of breath and gassed from a heavy squat or pull you just want to rip the belt off not futz around with two prongs. Just my 0.02.
Good For: 5’9 trainees and above who want the creme de la creme belt. This thing is customized to your waist circumference, breaks in quickly, and is also guaranteed for life. This is THE BELT to have.
Note: If Olympic lifting is your thing, pick up a Velcro 4″ belt so that the buckle and prong doesn’t interfere with your pull. Also, some European Olympic lifters prefer the tapered belt for this application as offered by brands like Eleiko.
Note Two: I don’t like lever belts as lifters typically use different “holes” for the squat and the deadlift. A lever belt requires the owner to “screw in” the base of the lever mechanism to the belt so switching between one setting and another setting requires a screwdriver and time, which might be a pain during a lifting session or meet.
Finally, to end this first installment of the Gym Bag Contents series we’ll cover chalk, aka magnesium carbonate. Chalk is used to maintain dryness of the palms during the course of a long session because wet, sweaty hands can cause calluses and slippage to occur. Additionally, chalk is used on the upper back for the squat so as to increase the friction coefficient between the bar and trainee and prevent the bar from “rolling” on the back. Chalk should be allowed and provided in all serious gyms, however, I am aware that this is not the case. In the situation that you work out in a gym where chalk is disallowed I recommend getting a rock-climbing chalk bag to keep the mess and debris to a minimum. Most of my trainees use this setup and the complaints have been minimal.
Inzer Gym Chalk– $10.00
This package of chalk comes with blocks of magnesium carbonate (small block in the picture) that will provide a long lasting chalk resource. I bought a box of this back in college and still haven’t run out as I’m the only one using it. It’s quite messy so I like to keep this in a Tupperware container and keep a towel handy to clean up any left over residue or debris.
This is probably the preferred method for those working out in globo-gyms and places discouraging chalk usage. This works well for applying a slight coating of chalk to the hands while keeping the mess to a minimum. Keep it in a zip-loc baggy for optimal mess containment. The downside to this is that it’s hard to chalk the upper back properly with this kind of “sock” implement, but it can be done.
A note on chalk usage, you only need a light dusting of chalk to prevent sweat accumulation on the hands and fingers. Creating a whole layer of chalk by “drowning” one’s hands and doing a Lebron James style chalk explosion just creates a mess and is counter intuitive. If the bar becomes saturated with chalk and the knurl is packed with chalk then grip strength and dexterity is reduced. Use chalk sparingly!
Okay so now we’ve wrapped up part one of the Gym Bag Contents series. Look back here for parts two and three in the near future and thanks for reading!