Updated: Jan 28
One of our subscribers James asks:
"Hi guys, I wanted to ask about training and weightlifting accessories, particularly belts and shoes. I see that most people in my gym wear belts when they squat, deadlift etc, and my friends keep telling me I should use one. What's your take on belts and their usefulness? Second thing is shoes. I noticed some people wear special shoes to squat, others go in socks and I've seen quite a few people wear Converse! I'm wondering what the reason is and what your thoughts or recommendations are. Thanks!"
Great question. Training accessories can be useful when training for performance, however when they become “crutches” they could be doing more harm than good. It all comes down to what you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to move better and become healthier then you should not rely on accessories. If you are only training for muscular strength or athletic performance then you may need to utilise accessories.
Firstly, the weightlifting belt.
A weightlifting belt is a wide, strong belt, often made from leather or other durable materials, worn tightly around the midsection in exercises which require a high degree of core tension. They are designed to be used by athletes partaking in strength sports such as powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, though they are often used incorrectly by regular gym-goers in the hope they will drastically increase their strength - or hide their guts!
The two main problems are:
1. Most people do not know how to correctly use a weightlifting belt and think wearing one will automatically eliminate the risk of injury.
2. Most people have not progressed enough before relying on this “accessory” and therefore have not developed adequate core strength and stability.
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Let’s address the problems individually:
1. A weightlifting belt should be used to cue the athlete to forcefully push their abdominals out against the belt, thereby increasing intra-abdominal pressure and ultimately spinal stability (1). Most people who use one, however, simply tighten it and hope for the best. Increasing ones intra-abdominal pressure can be achieved by utilising something called the Valsalva manoeuvre - where one forcefully “breathes out” against a closed windpipe. This should be trained and perfected before using to a weightlifting belt.
NOTE: If you are suffering from high blood pressure it is advised to avoid the valsalva manoeuvre, with or without a belt.
2. Aim to strengthen your core and learn how to properly stabilise the spine before using accessories. The problem is if you rely on a belt to lift heavy weights, any weak link - in this case the spine - becomes proportionally weaker than the rest of the body.
The weightlifting belt should only be used if you are competing or planning to compete in a strength sport. Otherwise, it is wiser to aim to strengthen the core by building pure strength. And for crying out loud, do not be the person who walks around with a weightlifting belt to hide his gut while he works on his biceps!
On to weightlifting shoes.
Here at The Evolved Way we have slightly different views on weightlifting shoes, so we will give you both sides of the argument starting with the basics.
Weightlifting shoes have a slightly raised, hard heel which should not compress under heavy load and a flat sole to help stabilise the foot. You may see weightlifting shoes being used by Olympic weightlifters and some powerlifters. They differ from regular trainers in that they are designed to be rigid and allow the foot to articulate. Modern trainers are designed for shock absorbance and comfort which is why they are padded and have a lot of cushioning. They are not good for weightlifting because the arches of the feet can collapse more easily due to the foot muscles not working correctly. The cushioning also absorbs some of the "drive" during squatting, meaning strength and power is lost.
Weightlifting shoes work by raising the heel slightly which reduces the amount of dorsiflexion (ankle bend) required to keep the hips over the feet to adopt a more vertical torso position. This is important for those training and competing in Olympic weightlifting as a near vertical torso position is vital for successful performance - try to keep a barbell overhead in line with your midfoot when leaning forward! This is also helpful to those performing a front squat or high bar back squat as it makes it easier to keep the bar in line with the midfoot (2).
Read our article The Complete guide To The Squat for more information.
Here begins the debate. Shouldn’t one aim to increase their natural ankle dorsiflexion and squatting movement pattern without the use of an aid before resorting to an accessory - much in the same way one should aim to increase core strength before resorting to a weightlifting belt? Well, yes and no. Most adults have limited ankle mobility and therefore might need to use weightlifting shoes while they address ankle mobility issues. That being said, you can achieve the same thing by slightly elevating the heels on small plates.
What about no shoes or Converse? Squatting and deadlifting without shoes with correct posture and technique is an excellent goal for FUNCTIONALITY. Converse, or other flat soled shoes, are useful for deadlifts or squat styles such as sumo squats and deadlifts where a high degree of dorsiflexion is not required, as they provide grip, ankle support and a flat sole.
Olympic shoes should be used if:
You regularly perform Olympic exercises and/or variations
You perform high bar back squats and front squats but lack adequate ankle mobility to perform them barefoot and are actively trying to increase ankle mobility
You are aiming to build "pure" strength in high bar back squats and/or front squats
Barefoot shoes e.g. Vibram Five Fingers, or barefoot training is appropriate if:
You are training for squat and deadlift functionality
You have great ankle mobility and stability
Your gym allows you to
You perform any other leg exercises such as lunges
Converse or other flat soled, level heel shoes should be used if:
You are aiming for pure strength in squats, specifically a low bar squat
You perform sumo deadlifts and require footwear
Become stronger before resorting to aids and accessories. A holistic approach to strengthening the body is the safest and most effective way of increasing strength and performance.
For further reading, see these articles:
Related Post: A Complete Guide To The Squat
Related Post: Ask Us Anything #1: How To Diet?
Related Post: What Is Functional Training?
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.