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Belts, Straps, Wraps and Stupidity

Belts, Straps, Wraps and Stupidity

18 May 2021

Step into any gym or weight room and chances are you will be greeted with the sight of fitness enthusiasts trussed up like a chicken with a hernia. Red faced and panting they will grunt and heave their way through set after gruelling set of reps more often than not with less than perfect technique, veins (and lumbar disks) bulging as they chase the 'gainz'. Here is a scenario I see on a daily basis in the gym. Guy is bench pressing, in between sets he is talking to his training partner, "I have this pain in my shoulder, it's really bad" he then proceeds to add more plates to the bar, tightens up his belt another notch before grinding out another set of joint destroying reps. Or the other guy doing deadlifts, in between sets he walks around the gym with a lopsided gait that just screams "herniated disk!". Knee wraps check, weightlifting straps check, belt buckled up so tight he can hardly breath check.

Someone once told me that fitness enthusiasts could be classified in one of two ways; the first group where interested in numbers. Miles ran, weight lifted, size of bicep, calories consumed, whatever the metric it usually boiled down to some sort of dick measuring contest. The second group where more interested in the health benefits of exercise. To them it wasn't about performance or PB's it was more about feeling good, moving well, longevity, enjoyment and quality of life. As you can probably infer from this statement the first group most likely would be (mostly) male, young and ego driven and the second group older with a few more life experiences or injured as a result of behaving like the first group. 

Before you get all offended while I mock your hormone fuellded weight-based pastimes, relax bro, I used to be one of you. I would put plate after plate on the bar chasing PB's, do endless hill sprints and all that, good times too. Then injuries would happen, progress would stall, and performance suffered. With each passing decade recovery from injury took longer and the constant pain athletes wear as a badge of honour became more and more annoying. Eventually you come to the realisation that if you want to be in this game for the long haul you are going to have to rethink things.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Humans have lots of weak links, joints typically being the biggest ones. We do luckily also come with some clever mechanisms for preserving the health of our joints. The human nervous system under normal circumstances will not allow you to lift more than you can safely handle. Artificial aids like belts, straps and wraps enable you to go beyond these limits. "Great" says us, "now I can push my muscles beyond supraphysiological limits thereby creating greater adaptations", meanwhile your connective tissue says "oh no!" When you go to lift a heavy object off the floor and you tighten your grip the muscular tension in your forearm radiates upwards, through your bicep and into the shoulder joint creating more stability and increasing force production. This is known as Sherringtons law of irradiation. when you lift with wrist straps it negates the need to grip and squeeze the bar as the strap is doing the work. The idea being forearm muscles are smaller and weaker than the stronger back muscles therefore to effectively train the back muscles we need to bypass the limiting factor of the forearm muscles. Seems reasonable enough right? Except that now you are exposing your shoulder joint to dangerous loads. You see you don't need to grip the bar at all with straps and so you can (as most weightlifters do) hold the bar with a relaxed grip and so missing out on the stiffening effect of irradiation. In a last ditch effort to preserve the shoulder joint the body will offload as much of that load through the passive ligamentous structures of the shoulder joint as it can which eventually leads to instability and reoccurring shoulder injuries. 


Above is a picture of my wife jumping a horse. Notice that she is doing this without a saddle or a bridle. Now imagine how much core strength, balance, coordination and power it requires to do something like that. She doesn't work out at the gym, she does enjoy Yoga, what she does do on a daily basis is lift and carry hay and feed across uneven ground and pushes heavy wheelbarrows across muddy fields. Like me she's not as young as she used to be but she is still an absolute injury free bad ass and all done without the aid of any belts, braces, straps or wraps. Unlike her I do enjoy working out at the gym and in my younger years would often wear a belt. I've ruptured more disks than I care to remember as a result and so, like most coaches and therapists who learn through getting injured I've learned the hard way that true, useable real world strengh requires you to be honest. Hiding behind a belt isn't going to help you in the long run.

This then begs the question "what do you need to be strong for?" How much use is that strength and those big pumped up muscles if the only way you can express that strength is by putting on a weightlifting belt or wrapping your knees? And this is the problem, over reliance on machines and lifting aides creates false strength. Because you've not taken the time to develop your core strength or train whole body movements you move like a collection of separate body parts, the deficits amplified and all it takes is one tiny thing and BOOM!. Hello injury.