Some people roll up to the gym with nothing but an iPod and headphones while others bring a body sized gym bag packed full of accessories. Some of these may be very valuable and help you progress faster toward your goals while others may be completely unnecessary. This guide covers what actually benefits you and what is better off left at home.
Let’s start with one of the most common accessories used in the gym, the standard weight belt. This is designed to provide your core with additional support to protect your back.
The benefit of using a weight belt is you can lift more weight than your core muscles can naturally support. So in situations where you max out or go to failure, a weight belt is a valuable tool. However many people overuse the belt, and their isometric core strength suffers as a result.
You don’t need to use a belt when doing curls or bench presses, this only takes away from developing stabilizing muscles in the core. The only movements when a belt is needed are squats, deadlifts, standing military presses, and possibly RDL’s if you are moving a lot of weight. And even during these lifts, it’s only necessary when you are approaching maximum effort. This allows you to squeeze more out of the lift without risking injury.
If you are the type of person to wear a belt through a whole gym session, your transverse abdominis may be weaker in relation to the rest of your body because it allows you to “relax” your abs while the belt creates the intra-abdominal forces instead.
Verdict– Bring with ya, but only use for that last heavy set on squats, deads, or military presses
Right up there in popularity with belts are weight lifting gloves. Wearing gloves can help minimize calluses and may provide better grip if palms are sweaty during exercises like pull ups. But unless you’re a princess type female or male hand model, calluses aren’t a bad thing and should be worn like badges of honor earned in the gym. Using gloves won’t even prevent them from forming if you are moving any kind of heavy weight anyway.
They can help you get a better grip on the bar, but it is through the friction created by the glove, not your actual grip strength. In fact, they make the bar more difficult to grasp because of the added thickness of the glove. They can also make it tougher to achieve ideal hand and wrist positioning.
Another problem is the way the glove acts as a barrier between you and the bar. It can prevent you from becoming completely connected to the lift because of the impaired mobility in the fingers and hands. Try sending a text message wearing gloves and you can see how your fine motor skills suffer.
Verdict– Leave at home unless you’re a female who doesn’t want calluses.
Chalk can help improve your grip during an exercise because it absorbs the sweat and provides more friction. This allows you to move more weight while recruiting the gripping muscles entirely, instead of relying on straps.
You may still need to implement lifting straps if you are doing max lifts but chalk gets the job done in most situations. The only real problem with chalk is that it typically winds up creating a huge powdered mess. Most big commercial gyms ban chalk for this reason.
Verdict– Take it with you as long as your gym allows it.
Lifting straps are similar to weight belts because they help improve maximum performance, but are too heavily relied upon by many people. Using chalk should be the first step but if that fails these help hold on to a heavier weight without it rolling out of your hands. Straps are best implemented when doing a heavy compound lift, and grip strength is the limiting factor. Deadlifts, RDLs, shrugs, and dumbbell rows are the exercises that would benefit most from using straps.
Many people make the mistake of using straps for all of their sets instead of just the last one or two. If you are always using straps, your gripping muscles are not nearly as heavily recruited. Think for a second about all the muscles involved in the act of gripping. Try clenching your fist as tight as you can and pay attention to all the muscles that become engaged. You will feel activation in the intrinsic muscles of your hands as well as forearms, biceps, triceps and even chest. These all cooperate in an isometric manner and can result in some serious growth of the forearms that you may be missing if you are always strapping up.
Verdict– Bring with you but only implement once grip becomes your limiting factor.
You may see people using an assortment of mobility tools in the stretching area. Rumble rollers, lacrosse balls, bands, and straps are quite common in this new gym environment where everyone is more aware of the importance of proper mobility. It would be wise to bring a small bag with a few tools to warm up. Ideally, spend 15-30 minutes warming up through a combination of fascial release techniques using the foam rollers and lacrosse balls. Banded distractions are also a great way to stretch the muscle and create space in the joint capsule.
Performing these mobility techniques before you do your workout enables exercise with optimal movement patterns reducing the risk of injury while placing more tension on the targeted muscle. In addition to using these tools during your warm up, you can implement intraset mobility work. For example; You are squatting and notice when you get deep too much of your weight shifts forward. Break out the roller or ball and roll out your hips, glutes, and calves and on your next squat chances are you will go deeper with better form.
Verdict– A definite must to bring to the gym!
This is a little more rare, but chances are if you are a real gym rat you have seen one of these Bane-esque characters running around. The main reason people choose to use this is to simulate high altitude training. When you train at a high altitude (which has much less oxygen in the air than at sea level), your body adapts by producing the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) which increases red blood cells and small blood vessels.
This results in more oxygen being delivered to your muscles and also helps slow the buildup of waste products produced when exercising. This allows harder training and improves cardio when you return to normal altitude. Although many training mask manufacturers claim these same benefits, most of the studies show you need to spend a substantial amount of time at a high altitude to gain benefits. We’re talking weeks and months straight at a time. So simply using the mask a few hours a week won’t simulate the same increase in EPO.
However, there is a potential benefit from using a training mask. They will increase your cardiorespiratory capacity with far less wear and tear on your body. Wearing a mask while lightly jogging could produce similar benefits to the cardiovascular system as sprinting that same amount of time. Many people have joint issues or dysfunctional movement patterns that make high impact movements dangerous. This is a viable option to get just as intense of a cardio workout without beating up your body.
Verdict– You probably don’t need it unless you are really looking for cardio benefits from low impact training.
These will likely be seen in the more hardcore gyms. Bands and chains are a way to add progressive resistance to an exercise. This means the weight gets heavier as you lift. They are frequently employed by powerlifters as a way to increase rate of force production plowing through “sticking points” on their lifts. Chains or bands are a great way to increase the intensity of a set, but they should be used sparingly as a technique because it can be quite taxing on your CNS and stabilizing muscles.
Verdict– Bring them a few times a week to up the intensity but don’t overuse them.
If you have ever seen a bodybuilder drinking a large jug of colored water, chances are it was some type of amino acid compound. BCAA’s help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise and aid in recovery. This is especially important if you are in a caloric deficit trying to lose bodyfat.
When you are in a bulking stage, it may not be necessary to consume a large amount of BCAA’s because your muscles will be in a positive nitrogen balance and glycogen stores will be full. During a cut, your nitrogen balance lowers, and your body lacks glycogen which means it turns to muscle tissue and breaks down the amino acids into glucose for fuel through the process of gluconeogenesis. BCAA’s provide your body with free floating amino acids that can be converted into glucose instead of catabolizing muscle tissue.
Verdict– Bring it if your workouts are longer than 1.5 hours or you are cutting and in a caloric deficit.
On your bodybuilding journey, you want every little edge you can get. Accessories like straps and belts can allow you to perform overloading techniques safely, but it’s important to avoid relying on them instead of your core or grip strength. Chalk is a great addition, and an assortment of mobility tools will be extremely beneficial as well. Bands and chains are awesome ways to bust through plateaus but like any intensity technique they should not be done more than a couple times a week.
If your workouts are on the longer side, or you are cutting, bring some BCAA’s with you as well. And while there are worse things to wear at the gym (sunglasses, flip flops, 80’s sweatband) than an oxygen training mask or workout gloves, you probably don’t really need them.
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