The Misuse of Training Gear and Accessories

In the CrossFit training context, it is not unusual to share the floor with someone who shows up on Friday morning for a 30-minute (bodyweight) Hero WOD dressed from head to toe like Ironman: knee sleeves and weightlifting shoes for air squats, wrist wraps for pushups, chalk for burpees, and a weightlifting belt for aesthetic presentation. Hopefully, this paints a vivid and humorous picture, and if it strikes you as a bit ridiculous, you are not wrong. It is ridiculous. Even so, it is a very real phenomenon, and something both novice athletes and professionals are guilty of.

Unfortunately, the gear-obsessing proclivities of advanced athletes trickle down to beginners, and the cycle perpetuates itself as CrossFit participants develop a type of genuine or imagined dependency on inanimate gear for strength/safety improvements, versus basic mechanical principles and self-discipline. This is a habit I am passionately opposed to, so I would like to share my thoughts on CrossFit participants’ preoccupations with training gear and accessories.

We can start by dispelling a common misunderstanding. Contrary to what fitness trends may lead you to believe, training gear and accessories do not make you a better athlete, nor do they guarantee your safety. Receptivity to instruction and constructive criticism from qualified coaches, as well as attention to detail, however, do. And, those attributes require zero athletic capacity (or legal tender—i.e. money!). A little patience can also go a long way, but we will table that for a separate discussion.

Bottom line: success and safety in the CrossFit training context come down to movement quality and the willingness of an athlete to master the fundamentals. There are simply no substitutes! Whether a pair of gymnastics grips have three finger inserts per hand, or just two, makes no difference for an athlete that is unable to engage his/her lats and/or coordinate the scapular retractions of his/her shoulder blades when it comes to executing a strict pullup. Strength and skill are built from within, even if fostered with the care and assistance of others; they cannot, though, be bestowed upon an individual by others or through the use of unnecessary training gear or accessories.

Returning to the primary focus of this writing, here are a few additional gear-related guidelines. First, beginners need nothing more than appropriate attire and good attitudes (sprinkled with dashes of humility and courage). That is truly all it takes to learn and practice the basics of sound movement. “Appropriate attire” does not mean the latest lifters from Nike or a pair of Russian leg wraps; rather, it means stable athletic footwear and apparel that can hold up to a waterfall of sweat. If you have the resources to invest in reputable discipline-specific footwear, then feel free to do so—but only do so with the understanding that expensive shoes will not magically morph you into the athlete (or human being) you want to be.

As you gain experience—something that can only be attained over time, with effort, and after confronting adversity—and, perhaps, become more aware of your particular passions (and deficiencies) within the broad, expansive world of Twenty-First Century fitness, you can begin looking into essential gear and accessories, with respect to those focuses. Until then, stay away. Word to the wise: most gear is NOT essential, unless strongly recommended or prescribed by a healthcare professional or qualified coach. Moreover, where that is the case, acquisition of said gear/accessories should be accompanied by: 1) a reason for acquiring same; 2) a description of how and when to use it properly; and 3) a list of things you can do to avoid or reduce dependency on it. In the absence of any (or all) of these three pieces of information, consider consulting alternative professional sources.

This brings us to another important point: belts, knee sleeves, and wrist wraps—this list is not exhaustive—are not cures for strength/skill/coordination/mobility deficiencies. Their functional utility is entirely contingent on an athlete’s adherence to proper technical standards and a corresponding commitment to addressing any underlying strength/skill/coordination/mobility deficiencies and/or injuries.

Regarding the use of knee sleeves, the compression provided by the snug sleeve can help keep the knee joint warm while exercising. This will increase blood flow to the muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joint, which can be especially comforting during high volume/intensity squat work, or while performing other squat-like movements. It can even minimize the inter- and post-workout inflammation that occurs at and around the knee joint. That said, 7mm of neoprene is not going to prevent the knee joint from collapsing or combusting because of an athlete’s failure to distribute a load properly (over time or on a single occasion) amongst the musculoskeletal structures of the leg while lifting or moving.

Similarly, neither a weightlifting belt nor a powerlifting belt made from the highest and toughest quality leather or nylon will buttress the spine from harmful rounding or hyperextension while training, regardless of how tight the belt has been secured around the trunk, if there is inadequate support from the core. Furthermore, developing the requisite midline stability to support any external load demands hours and hours of supplemental core work—and I do not mean sit ups. Breathing properly also plays a major role, here, and that cannot be addressed by using a belt all the time. Learning to move and lift properly/safely without a belt is an absolute requirement for using one. There are strength, power, and safety advantages to using a belt under heavy loads, but they are not discernible by the athlete who neglects technique and/or rushes into wearing a belt without knowing how and when to use one.

Wrist wraps can likewise be troublesome. Irritation of the wrist is often a symptom of wrist, elbow, and/or shoulder mobility restrictions (and the underdevelopment of the joint’s supporting structures), and/or imbalances present throughout the muscles of the arms and back. Wearing wrist wraps without addressing these problems outside of the gym is not a sustainable path to relief; it merely masks the pain and hinders training progress.

There are, of course, many other articles and categories of training gear/accessories that I have not mentioned—weightlifting shoes among them. (For a discussion of training footwear, I will direct you to a previous article: “Let’s Talk Shoes”.) It would be extremely difficult to give each implement its due attention—and keep yours—within the context of this discussion. Nevertheless, the examples contained herein summarize my philosophy on most training gear—and its extensive misuse within the CrossFit training context. Everything comes back to movement. Approach training gear/accessories with prudence, diligence, and skepticism. They can be more of a distraction than they are worth.
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