By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach
DFM Director of Strength and Conditioning
In the second part of this three part series (you can view the first part here) we will discuss supportive equipment for training. Supportive equipment in this context refers to wraps, sleeves, tape, and any other wearable accessory. What you’ll notice is that most of the items in this article help support a specific joint. This can be useful when recovering from or training around an injury as well as preventing a minor tweak from becoming something more serious. If you look inside any hard-training athlete’s gym bag you’re sure to find one or more of these incredibly useful pieces of exercise garb. Hopefully at the end of this article you’ll be more informed about where to throw down your greenbacks if you find that you need a bit of extra support somewhere. Without further ado…
Perhaps as old as sport itself, athletic tape has been used to support joints, cover skin abrasions, and various other applications for training. The most appropriate uses for good ol’ athletic tape are for supporting the wrist and taping the digits (thumb and fingers).
A quick perusal through some photos of weightlifters will unveil a large number of them with athletic tape around their wrists and on occasion, their fingers. The wrist is a very fragile joint that can find its way into compromised positions in even the most form-focused individuals. Coupled with the fact that the wrist and distal aspect of the upper extremity are used so commonly in everyday activities like typing, grasping, etc. and it’s easy to see why the wrist can get dinged up during training. Common movements that put strain on the wrist include presses, squats, cleans, snatches, dips, and other lifts. Normally the wrist gets a little wonky due to excessive extension under a heavy (relative) load. Being that there are eight bones comprising the wrist joint, which articulates with the radius and ulna of the forearm and the five metacarpals of the digits (fingers), with a plethora of ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissue structures it’s pretty hard to keep everything lined up perfectly while performing classic barbell training. The accumulation of stress on the wrist over time in combination to it being a relatively slow-healing joint makes it an easy call to JUST TAPE IT.
Athletic tape is inexpensive and widely available so it’s a smart idea to keep a couple rolls of the white stuff (or colored stuff if you like to accessorize) in your gym bag. Does your day’s training call for presses and/or squats? Tape it up.
The easiest way to accomplish this is to start the taping by placing the free adhesive end down about 3-4″ below the wrist joint on the forearm. If you have significant arm hair it might be useful to get some pre-wrap or just suffer the consequences. You have the choice of making multiple single wraps with the tape or using a continuous wrap of tape from the bottom to top. The former is neater and provides ample support (see video), whereas the latter is faster and creates a stiffer cast (see picture).
After this, continue proximally (towards the elbow) by covering 1/4 of this first pass and then work towards the wrist-forearm junction by using either single segments of tape (multiple) or by just continuing to the same segment of tape.
Be careful not to wrap too loose (which would be useless) or too tight. You can check to see if your wrap is too tight by pressing down on one of your fingernails (it will turn white) and letting go (it should turn red/pink) to be sure your capillary return is normal. It’s normal for athletic tape to loosen up a bit as you sweat and flex/extend the supported joint so I always like mine to be a bit tighter at first. Here is a good video:
The other common use for lifters is to tape up the thumb, specifically the proximal phalynx and neighboring interphalangeal joint. Olympic weightlifters and savvy deadlifters utilize the hook grip where the thumb is mashed into the bar by the index and middle fingers, if possible. While this provides a secure “hook”, a high volume of pulling can result in abrasions and painful tearing of the skin covering this proximal thumb. For this reason taping this area BEFORE the skin rips and becomes painful is a good idea, although it is also useful afterwards. Here is a good picture of a taped thumb that will allow training:
I’m not a big advocate of taping the palms of a trainee’s hands when a callus rips because the tape tends to ball up and become a big mess that the athlete spends more time futzing with than actually training. Obviously, the best thing an athlete can do with regards to callus formation and treatment is to take care of their hands with a pumice stone, avoiding kipping pull-ups when their hands are beaten up, and to actually grip the bar properly.
We can use a pumice stone to help “shave down” the calluses that become pointy over time. We need the calluses to have conditioned hands that are capable of maintaining dexterity and grip even under duress, but the peaks can rip open and leave a bloody mess. So step one is to use a pumice stone or nail file if you’re not up on your fancy hygiene products to file down the peaks. In addition to using a pumice stone to take care of the calluses, some lifters and climbers have found it beneficial to soak their hands in a water and Epsom salt solution. The word on the street is that this helps promote recovery and growth of the skin of the hands (click here for more information).
Finally, we need to learn to grip the bar or implement properly. Anatomically speaking, there are a few “creases” in the hand that we need to be conscious of, namely the palmar digital and interphalangeal creases. There are five bones that course underneath your palm to your fingers, the metacarpal bones. There are either two (thumb) or three (others) bones of your fingers, or phalanges (phalynx is the singular term). The distal end of the metacarpal bones interacts with your proximal phalynx, the first of the two or three phalanges, which creates your metacarpophalangeal joint. The crease in the skin over this joint at the end of your hand right before the beginning of the fingers is the palmar digital crease. In all the digits besides the thumb there are three phalanges comprising each digit, a proximal, intermediate, and distal phalynx. Between the proximal and intermediate phalanges and also between the intermediate and distal phalanges there exists an interphalangeal joint, either proximal or distal interphalangeal joint respectively. We’ll concern ourselves with the proximal interphalangeal joint and it’s respective proximal interphalangeal crease, or PIP crease, and the palmar digital crease.
When most people grab a barbell or implement they place it in their palms, below the palmar digital crease. What happens in a movement where the hand actually supports the weight like a pull-up, deadlift, clean, or snatch is that the bar or pull up bar actually slides down to rest between the PIP and palmar digital crease. The causes the peaky calluses in the first place and will subsequently cause them to tear. A more prudent approach to this would be to grip the bar where it’s going to go anyway, between the PIP and palmar digital crease, so that it doesn’t make the troublesome calluses at all. The hook grip also ameliorates this problem but cannot be used properly for pull-ups or chins. Here is a picture of proper bar placement:
Here is a video to drive this point home:
In summary, use athletic tape if you’re a hard training athlete to keep the wrists feeling nice, take care of your hands, and tape the thumb if you’re a hook grip enthusiast. What’s about gloves? Glad you asked…
Gloves are interesting exercise products that have somehow infiltrated gyms and training facilities across the country. You see, gloves are only useful in the event of a serious skin lesion or tear on the palm of a lifter. Wearing gloves in this instance allow for training around the skin issue. If you have ripped a massive callus or have open sores on your palms from kipping pull-ups or some extra-gym activity then you can wear gloves until the skin heals.
The main problem with gloves is that they add a layer of material between the hand and the bar, thereby making the grip less stable and powerful. They also prevent normal callus formation, which is essential for conditioning the hands to actually hold on to something heavy or something that needs force put into it. Gloves simulate an increase in the diameter of the bar, which makes the bar more difficult to hold onto. This is why fat bars, axles, and fat grips are utilized- to train the grip to hold onto a larger diameter implement. Gloves just do not allow for a secure interface between the implement and the hand.
Finally, I am a Mark Rippetoe fan and this quote is worth sharing:
“Gloves are annoying. Inexperienced, non-serious people think they are supposed to wear them because they see them in fitness magazines. Cindy Crawford wears them. Richard Simmons wears them. I’m sorry; I just can’t talk about this anymore. If you insist on wearing weightlifting gloves, make sure they match your purse.”
Wrist straps are actually valuable pieces of training equipment for the intermediate or advanced athlete, especially one who has caught the Olympic lifting bug. Good wrist straps are made from nylon, leather, or cotton and can stand up to years of abuse. You can also make a pair from an old car’s seatbelts, which will outlast you. Olympic lifting companies Eleiko and Werksan have some pretty high quality straps as well and other companies such as Muscle Driver have decent options too. The ones you find at Sports Authority and Dick’s however, are weak and can fail at inopportune times. Here are a few good ones:
Good for: The general strength trainee. These straps are long, leather, and indestructible. Since they are longer they are useful for those training around injuries (like those with a cast on their arm), those with big hands, etc. Being leather, they are a bit pricier but are also bomb-proof.
Muscle Drive 1 piece Lifting Straps: 12.99 find them here
Good for: The strength trainee with an Olympic focus or small hands. Their one piece construction will last a long time. These are slightly more ideal for Olympic weightlifters as they are a bit shorter than the Eleiko’s which means less to wrap around the bar and a less bulky strap.
Wrist straps are commonly used for rack pulls, snatches, high rep pulling exercises, Romanian deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, etc. and they can also be used to perform front squats when fashioned like the picture below:
This is a better option than the crossed-arm position or California front squat as this option does not unevenly load the body and reiterates the correct front squat rack position. Straps can also be used to train around a fatigued grip from high volume or frequency pulling exercises and also to “save the grip” for heavier work later one.
Perhaps the earliest usage of straps in a proper strength program however, is for Rack pulls. You see, a rack pull is a deadlift that typically begins just below the patella. The weights that can be managed on this lift often exceed the trainee’s max deadlift poundage, even when the same positions are demanded of the trainee as used in the typical deadlift. If an athlete can pull a 500lb deadlift then they can probably rack pull 500+ for a set of 5, but the grip won’t be able to hold it most likely. Additionally, it is not advisable to use the mixed grip as pictured below to do higher-rep training frequently because of the position it puts the supinated (under-hand) shoulder in as well as the potential for muscular imbalances to be developed.
Wrist straps should only be used when the trainee’s grip warrants it, as a strong, crushing grip is part and parcel of a good lifter. Lots of times the lifter will need to use wrist straps to perform snatches as this lift can really fatigue the grip for the clean as well as tear up the hand when the hook grip is implemented due to the extreme angle of the wrist and hand. As many coaches note, if an athlete can deadlift and clean without straps then using straps on other exercises won’t weaken their grip.
Finally, for exercises like clean pulls and multiple rep sets of hang-variants of the Olympic lifts, straps are a necessity because the grip has a high likelihood of failing during the execution of this high speed, peak force lifts.
In contrast to wrist straps, wrist wraps are used to support the wrist joint instead of aid in gripping the barbell or implement. Wrist wraps are useful pieces of equipment for exercises like presses, cleans, snatches, and any other movement where the wrist joint may undergo extreme ranges of motion. Essentially the wrist wrap “casts” the joint to immobilize it a bit, just like athletic tape does. The benefits of using wraps is that they are easier to put on compared to athletic tape, and also are thicker, longer lasting (read: not disposable), and can be loosened or tightened at a moment’s notice. Wrist wraps are made from a nylon weave in lengths from 12”-36”. There is an elastic thumb hole that you put your thumb through (duh) and then start the wrap around the wrist joint from there. The longer the wrap, the more revolutions it completes around the wrist joint and thus, the stiffer the cast the wrap makes. For this reason it is advisable that women and smaller athletes get a 12” wrap, general strength trainees and larger athletes get a 24” wrap, and competitive powerlifters get the longest, stiffest wraps. While it may seem beneficial to get the stiffest wrap possible, this can actually interfere with normal lift mechanics for the uninitiated, which is why we leave the longest, thickest wraps for powerlifters with experience in this arena. Here are a few of my favorites:
APT Baby Wraps- 10.75 find them here
Good for: Women and younger or smaller athletes. These wraps come are available in a 12″ length and are thin enough to not make a super stiff cast on the wrist like other wraps. These should be the go-to wrap for female clientele!
Inzer- Z-Line Medium Wraps- 17.00 find them here
Good for: While they are available in 12″, 20″, and 36″ lengths, the 20″ length is the most appropriate for general strength training and medium to large Olympic weightlifters. The 36″ length is more suited for powerlifters and very large athletes like strongmen as it makes a pretty stiff cast on the wrist. However, this wrap is not as thick or stiff as other options out there so some competitive powerlifters prefer an even thicker wrap. The 20″ variety might be the most commonly sold wrist wrap and for good reason, it’s rock-solid and reliable.
Elite FTS Competition Wraps- 19.95 find them here
Good for: Available in both 60cm and 80cm, this is the stiffest wrap I have ever used and is reserved for competitive powerlifters and large athletes that require a very stiff cast. The 80cm variety provides the perfect amount of support for benching and squatting while not being as bulky as the 36″ Inzer wrap, it’s primary competitor. Picking up a set of these is akin to buying the Audi R8 to drive around town- not practical unless you head to the track on the weekends.
Knee sleeves are made of neoprene or rubber and usually 7mm-9mm thick. They are somewhat supportive of the joint but they DO NOT store mechanical energy and add weight to someone’s squat like knee wraps do. Perhaps their best quality is the ability to trap heat and sweat around the knee joint. A warm joint is a mobile joint and knee wraps do this amazingly well. They also provide a slight kinesthetic cue to the lifter, which is they provide information about what the joint is doing during the movement. Athlete’s using knee wraps are better able to sense if their knees are caving in, as in genu valgum, and instantly correct this allowing proper biomechanics of the joint during the lift. I recommend knee sleeves for all general strength trainees that squat frequently and I REQUIRE them for anyone with a history of knee pain. It’s just smart practice to nip the potential problem in the bud. Here are two of my favorites:
Rehband Classic Knee Sleeves: 68.00 a pair, find them here
Good for: Lifters everywhere. These babies set the standard for what a knee sleeve should be. While they are somewhat expensive, they are bullet-proof and have been proven in every competitive strength sport from strongman to Olympic weightlifting over the last 30 years. They are 7mm thick and if you want a tighter fit, order one size smaller!
Tommy Kono Knee Sleeves: 39.95 (for a pair) find them here
Good for: These knee sleeves are a great entry level sleeve for those who think they might benefit from them and/or those who just want a pair to use infrequently. They are thick neoprene and rubber on the inside. When worn without pants or long socks they tend to slide down the lifter’s legs as sweat makes them a little mobile. This can be annoying to constantly readjust them. Additionally, they are not a good idea for those who plan to wear them all the time, as the seam tends to split open after 6+ months, like mine did. While you can get two pairs of these for the price of a single pair of Rehbands, the obvious choice is to go for the classic Rehbands if you’re a knee sleeve lover. If you’re a neophyte, get the TK’s!
In contrast to knee sleeves, knee wraps can actually aid in the squat’s loading by storing mechanical energy during the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement, if and only if the wraps are very, very tight. While this may be useful to the competitive equipped powerlifter, who uses any combination of power briefs, knee wraps, and/or a squat suit, it is not this purpose that earns knee wraps credence in the general strength trainee world.
They are available in varying lengths and thicknesses to accommodate the user’s purpose for the wrap. A longer and/or thicker wrap is more suitable for competitive lifters and larger athletes as these will make for a very stiff knee wrap when applied properly. A shorter and/or thinner wrap is more suitable for general strength athletes who just need a bit more support than a knee sleeve offers. These are also generally cheaper and easier to apply than the thicker competition wraps.
For general strength trainees knee wraps offer a more supportive appliance than a knee sleeve, which is particularly useful for those with existing knee pathologies or chronic knee trouble. Using a knee wrap absorbs a significant portion of the weight used during squats while also providing all the benefits that a knee sleeve confers. The downside is that only thin wraps can be used in the same fashion, which is they are only applied at the beginning of a workout and left on for the duration of training. Thicker wraps must be constantly applied and removed in between sets as they are too tight, thick, and constrictive to be kept on for an entire workout.
Varying levels of tightness can be seen with knee wraps, from a slight cast (similar to wrist wraps) to a full on immovable cast that causes the lifter to have to waddle to the squat rack while trying to overcome numb feet. Here is a good video on how to wrap one’s knees with light wraps:
Here is a video on how to really cinch down a pair of knee wraps:
Finally, here are some of my favorite knee wraps:
Harbinger Original Wraps: 25.99 find them here
Good For: Those wanting a light knee wrap that they can wrap once before squats and keep them on between sets or for the duration of a workout. These do not give much if any rebound at the bottom, but rather function similarly to a tight knee sleeve with a bit more support. For those with nagging knee injuries of competitive Olympic lifters this is the wrap to have. For powerlifters, look elsewhere.
Inzer Z-Line Wrap-25.00 find them here
Good For: The intermediate or advanced lifter who’s considering dabbling in powerlifting OR the lifter who needs a true-to-life knee wrap with all the bells and whistles. This wrap will not allow the lifter to keep it on between sets, as it is too tight and thick. It provides considerable rebound at the bottom and a nice cast, albeit not too intrusive like the Elite wrap below. A 2m wrap (in length) will be adequate for general training purposes or for competitors in lighter weight classes (181 and below) whereas a 2.5m wrap will be more appropriate for more serious lifters and larger athletes (181+).
Elite Triple Line Knee Wraps: 25.00 find them here
Good For: This is the mother of all knee wraps and is very stiff. Reserved for competitive athletes or post-surgical trainees looking to lift serious weights, this wrap forms a very stiff cast. Available in both 2.5m and 2m lengths, the 2.5m is the only one worth buying at this stage of the game. Casual trainees and neophytes need not apply.
So there you have it folks, gym bag content part 2! Look for the third and final installment in the coming week on accessories used for training! Any questions should be directed to the comments section.