Is Your CrossFit Workout Gear Helping or Hurting Your Performance?
You see a lot of things when you are a CrossFit coach for 5+ years and teach the majority of the classes at your gym. For example, take the cartoon above.
You get somebody into the gym for their first week. You take the time to go over the fundamentals, build up from a PVC pipe to an empty barbell, and slowly work through first week soreness. Answer questions like, 'What gear do I need for CrossFit?' - and everything seems to be straight forward. Their first few classes go fine as they scale back and get to meet others in the gym.
Then something magical happens around week two. The same athlete walks into class with a brand new duffle bag, and proceeds to pull out wrist wraps, knee sleeves, a weight belt and a brand new pair of Adidas lifting shoes.
Uh oh, we have a new CrossFit Gear Addict.
Now, I’m not going to knock new athletes for genuinely being excited about CrossFit apparel. After all, one of the best things about starting any new fitness endeavor is buying new gear. I get it and I have been there. I bought the original Nanos back in 2011 simply because they were the first CrossFit shoe to be officially for our sport. They really weren’t that comfortable and I liked my kick-ass Army green Inov8’s better (I still have them), but hey, you gotta look good, right?
There is a time and place for all of the gear and messing that up can lead to injury and plateaus. So, let’s discuss some of the more popular gear, figure out when it should be used, and how it might help or hurt your CrossFit performance.
CrossFit Workout Gear: Hand Grips
Grips come in a variety of flavors, from the ones that cover your entire palm to those that just cover the middle section of your hand. The goal is the same though: To protect your hands from ripping during barbell and pull-up bar movements.
My experience is there is no consensus for one brand working over another. They all work to some extent.
When grips should be used: I honestly don’t have a problem with hand grips if they are being used to prevent ripped calluses. Because despite the thousands of instagram posts of bloodied hands, there is nothing sexy about torn up hands. As a coach, I never celebrated them and always reminded my athletes that their goal was to not have a tear in the first place. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Throw confetti and celebrate the fact that my athlete probably wouldn’t be back in action for a few days?
I also found grips to be useful gear early on when athletes were just starting out. It helped them work past the burning sensation that typically comes with gripping metal bars early on. However, I could also fix this issue with a simple towel or red resistance band layed over the top of the pull-up bar. In these cases, we weren’t looking for maximum reps; we were just trying to help newer athletes hold on to the bar longer before the burn became overwhelming.
When grips shouldn’t be used: For the most part, I was fine with grips being used during workouts. There is always the debate as to whether any gear gives an unfair advantage to an athlete, but I always deferred on the side of safety. I’d rather have my athletes coming back day after day with protected hands than having to sit out a week with ripped calluses.
The only time I cautioned athletes on wearing them was when they started using them all of the time. There is definitely something to be said for developing tougher hands. My advice is to have a pair around for safety, but not to rely on them. When you do get some tougher patches of skin on your palms, take the time and use a pumice stone or callus shaver to keep them smooth.
Using grips in the Open: If you already have a pair you have been using and are happy with, the Open is a great time to have them around. However, I wouldn’t buy a new pair right before the Open and try them during an Open workout. They can definitely do more harm than good if you’re not used to them.
CrossFit Workout Gear: Knee Sleeves/Wraps
I already know I’m treading into dangerous water here. Nothing - and I mean nothing - will get a CrossFitter hotter than talking about the need for knee wraps or sleeves. Especially if said CrossFitter recently got a pair and now wears them around like they are 80’s ankle warmers.
No shit, I once saw one of my athletes in the grocery store a full hour after the class and he still had them on while drinking a protein shake and picking out green beans.
But before I give you my opinion as a coach, let’s just review what knee sleeves are. Mainly used for compression from just above to just below the knee cap, the idea is you get added stability and warmth during squats and any movements that includes leg drive such as thrusters, clean, snatches and so forth.
Here’s the thing: They work. You will get no argument from me. When you wear knee sleeves/wraps, you will feel more stable throughout your squats and that can certainly be a great thing. But just because they work doesn’t mean you should wear them.When knee sleeves/wraps should be used: Let’s start with any pre-existing knee injuries or issues. If you are coming into CrossFit with knee problems, then there is certainly an argument for always wearing the sleeves or wraps. Like I said earlier, safety is the most important aspect of any training regimen.
So my advice here is to go get checked out by a professional. That probably isn’t your PCP either. I’d get an opinion or two from a physical therapist who knows and understands CrossFit. Because there is nothing worse that going to a “professional” who begins your visit by saying, “Don’t squat below parallel” or “CrossFit is dangerous.” To be clear, squatting below parallel is a normal function the knee should maintain. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
OK, so if you don’t have a knee injury, there are still a few good reasons to have knee sleeves around. For one, they increase proprioceptive feedback. That is just a fancy way of saying they make you much more aware of your knees during movement. Just like when a coach gently pushes down on your PVC pipe during overhead squat training to remind you to have active shoulders, knee sleeves do a great job of reminding you to focus on knee position throughout an entire movement.
As a coach, I might be looking for a way to help an athlete drive her knees out during a squat. I could use the back of my hand or a PVC pipe on the outside of her knee and tell her to push against them or sleeves/wraps could do the same thing by making her aware of her current knee position.
Other reasons for wraps/sleeves could simply be when working up to heavier loads. If you have ever seen somebody’s knee collapse inward as they try to snatch heavy weight, you will agree that any gear that helps prevent this is certainly a positive. Wearing knee sleeves on “heavy day” can help you feel more confident in the lift and hit that new PR, but again, this is not necessary by any means.
When CrossFit knee sleeves/wraps shouldn’t be used:
Essentially, all the time. Unless you have some previous injury/issue and you have been prescribed them by a professional, there is probably no reason you need to be wearing them all of the time.
In fact, wearing them too often can have the reverse effect of actually helping you. Because if you always have them on, you aren’t really learning to tune into your own proprioceptive feedback loops. You need to know exactly where you entire body is in space from the top to the bottom of an air squat with zero gear on before you worry about making it better. It is the whole walk before you run concept. Learn how to do a proper air squat and then make it perfect.
Think you’re a strong squatter? Try a “month without gear” (no belt, oly shoes, or sleeves) and prove it. Be able to do them fast, slow, when you are fresh, and when you are in the last 30 reps of Murph. If you have mastered the basics, then by all means try some WODs with sleeves on and see what happens. Instead of the sleeves actually preventing bad form, you will be enhancing perfect form. There is nothing wrong with that.
CrossFit Workout Gear: Lifting/OLY Shoes
Like knee sleeves, this piece of gear comes directly from the olympic weightlifting world.
If you don’t know what they are, imagine being barefoot and then putting a small wooden wedge under your heel. Now throw a strap under the block and over your midfoot. The result would be a very stable footing. With the success of CrossFit, there are now dozens of options for lifting shoes, hybrid CrossFit shoes, and even shoes where the heel is removable.
So why are they so popular?
For one, they can help you lift more and everybody likes PRs. Plus, others will think you are a badass when you go put them on. Not really, but that’s what we are all thinking, right? Seriously though, lifters have been around for decades for a reason; I won’t debate their effectiveness. What I do worry about as a coach is how they can mask larger mobility problems and errors in good form. They become a crutch and then you can’t seem to throw up 75% of your snatch 1RM without them. It is a slippery slope.
When lifters should be used: If we are strictly talking about doing CrossFit as a “I’m looking for functional fitness” regimen: Never.
Seriously, you should never need them. I have never owned a pair and doubt I ever will. I’m not a serious lifter and I can get most of the same effect by simply putting a small 5 lb iron plate under my heel for some training. That is actually fun to do and there is nothing wrong with changing up your training techniques. But I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to functional crossfit movements and I think you should be able to perform a great weighted squat barefoot if necessary.
Now, if you are an athlete that loves weightlifting, often practices your squats and cleans working up to 1RM, or sees a future in competing, you probably should invest in a pair (go used if possible to save a ton of money). Because when you transition out of CrossFit as a fitness regimen to CrossFit as a sport, you should absolutely play on a level field with everyone else. If the second floater WOD of a local competition is going to be my best snatch in 5 minutes, you bet I’ll be wearing some lifters like everyone else. Now, hopefully I’ve trained in them for awhile before comp day, because lifters are not sprinkled in fairy dust. You don’t simply PR by strapping them to you feet.
When you shouldn’t wear lifters: Almost always. Because they are a specialty piece of gear with a specific purpose. They don’t belong in 20 minute metcons, in your non-weightlifting training, or really anyplace else. They can mask ankle mobility problems (try putting your bare feet together and squatting all the way down without falling over) and they can really mess with your balance if you wear them too much.
Consider the female athletes I had who routinely wore heels outside of the gym. They always had the hardest time sitting back in a squat with no shoes on. I didn’t suggest buying lifters to mimic their day-to-day life. I prescribed a lot of ankle mobility, was always careful when they did gym jumps to not rupture their shortened achilles tendon, and we spent a lot of time just finding their balance with a PVC pipe in the front, back and overhead position.
Fun fact: Rich Froning, Matt Fraser, and many other elite athletes are rarely ever seen wearing OLY shoes. Food for thought...
Lifters and the Open: Again, it depends on the WOD. Let’s say the WOD is a repeat of 15.4 and is 6 cleans and an increasing rep count of handstand push-ups. In this instance, it really wouldn’t matter if you were wearing the lifters because the second movement has nothing to do with your feet. So if you are already using them and they help you rock out cleans, sure, go for it. But these WODs are not that common and typically you will need your feet for something else and I would forgo the lifters entirely. Don’t be the person who changes shoes in the middle of a workout. Seriously.
CrossFit Gear: Wrist Wraps
Like an angel giving your wrists a hug.
If you are like me and have poor wrist and shoulder mobility, wraps can make a huge difference in the pain you feel while doing overhead squats with any considerable weight. I’ll admit to using them during my WODs when they were one of the crossfit movements. They are essentially putting your wrists in a semi-rigid cast which feels amazing.
The problem of course is if you can only lift weight overhead while wearing casts on your wrists, you sort of missed the train on being functionally fit with that movement. When I asked him about this, Coach Ben - WODprep founder - told me this:
“I used to wear wrist wraps for my first few years, but then a coach told me that I’d get used to it. Sure enough, it’s been 6 years since I wrapped my wrists for anything and I have no wrist pain at all, even when it gets heavy.”
When you should wear wrist wraps: Warming up with them on is a great place to start with this gear. Like knee sleeves, they do a great job of making you aware of your wrist position because you can feel the compression throughout the entire lift. When you take them back off, you might find you are still dialed in on your positioning which is great. Wearing them while building up to a heavy snatch or clean might also be a great time to wear them. In these instances, you are using them to protect your wrists during heavy movements.
When you shouldn’t wear wrist wraps: I don’t advise my athletes to wear them during WODs unless they include heavy oly lifts that have caused them pain in the past. My concern, just like with most gear, is they can mask bigger mobility problems.
If you have weak wrists or experience pain, you should be starting and ending your day with ShoulderROM Unlocked. Then spend 5 minutes a day doing wrist mobility exercises. Focus on getting your hands over your shoulders during overhead squats with a PVC pipe. Then build up the weight slowly with great form. If you did that, you wouldn’t need the wraps in the first place.
Take it from me, I have watched many an athlete go for the wrist wraps early and often and they all hit a big fat wall with their progress. Sure, the early PRs are low hanging fruit because the wraps are doing the work for you. Eventually, you will stop progressing and adding weight to your overhead squat will be nearly impossible. That’s when a coach has the unfortunate job of telling you that you need to take the wraps off, drop all the way back down to the PVC pipe and start working on your shoulder and wrist mobility for the next 4 months. It is where you will end up anyway, so why not skip the eventual heartache and just do it the right way. You will be glad you did.
Wrist Wraps and the Open: If there are overhead lifts in the WOD, I’d personally wear them. I’m not going to make a habit of it outside of the Open, but since I have one or two chances at this particular WOD, I’m going to help myself out if possible. Again, the goal is to not need them in the first place!
CrossFit Gear: Weight Belts
Like lifting shoes and knee wraps, lifting belts have been around for a long, long time. Look at any old videos of Arnold lifting and he most likely is wearing a belt for the heavy sets.
But most good coaches will say the same thing about them: Delay, delay, delay.
Meaning, you should really go as far as possible with your lifts without the use of a belt. The main reason is they are acting as an artificial brace for your core. You need your core to be strong for all CrossFit movements and generally for life, so let’s work on strengthening our core - not tightening a belt.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of building core strength. If you feel weak in this area, do yourself a favor and start putting in some extra reps of hollow body rocks, hanging knee lifts and planks. A program like Functional Core could also help address your missing pieces and make sure you don’t need to worry about belts in the future. A lifting belt will not build core strength. It will only mimic one.
When you should use a lifting belt: Again, you might have a very good reason for needing one from day one. Perhaps your physician told you to always lift with a belt or maybe you have a history of hernias or a diastasis after pregnancy. Whatever the reason, just make sure you get some professional advice and your trusted advisor understands what you are doing and why you believe a belt would help.
Other times to wear a belt would be for safety during heavy lifts; they can certainly add a layer of protection. Just make sure your squat or lift is functionally sound without the belt first. When I asked Coach Ben about this he said:
“99% of the time I don’t wear a belt. The other 1% is usually when I’m doing new 1RM attempts. Otherwise, focus on using your core!”
When you shouldn’t use a lifting belt: If you are injured and are putting on a belt so you can continue working out, STOP! You are only going to hurt yourself more. Don’t be stupid and potentially cause bigger back or core problems for some 10 min WOD on a rainy Wednesday.
Rest, recover, focus on your mobility, and start back slowly only working with movements that cause zero pain. I have watched too many ego driven athletes walk into the gym in pain only to see them pull that stupid belt out of a bag and strap it on for the WOD. Please, don’t be that guy or girl.
CrossFit Gear: Final Thoughts
Getting to buy new gear for CrossFit is part of the fun. A shiny new pair of CrossFit shoes or fancy knee sleeves can actually work as a placebo and improve your times or lifts. After all, if you believe they are helping you, they probably are.
My advice is to worry less about the CrossFit workout gear and more about your form and ability without any of it. If you are addicted to new gear, spend your money on some Lululemon, some great t-shirts or a pair of nanos/metcons/inov8s/nobulls etc. You will look great and feel great knowing you are putting your focus first and foremost on your functional fitness and not on the gear that mimics it.
Here’s my challenge to you today:
Pick ONE piece of CrossFit workout gear that you normally wear from the list above, take it out of your gym bag, and leave it home for the next 30 days. No matter what comes up in your WODs, don’t allow yourself to use it. Comment below and tell me what you’re leaving home and why you chose it. I promise, in the long run you’ll be better off without it!
WODprep is not affiliated with CrossFit, Inc nor is it endorsed by CrossFit, Inc or any of its subsidiaries. CrossFit is a registered trademark of CrossFit, Inc.