Imagine this: You’re at the gym, using a weight belt, lifting straps or wrist wraps, when some bro scientist approaches you and tells you that you’re “cheating.” Basically, the bro scientist is saying that the gear you purchased after a considerable amount of online research, including reading articles written by yours truly, somehow invalidates the workout you just did.
These little things matter a great deal to the bro scientists. Back in October, the International Powerlifting Federation caused a stir among lifting enthusiasts when it approved some of fitness mogul Mark Bell’s heavy-duty Sling Shot knee sleeves and wrist wraps for use in IPF-sanctioned competitions. The approval of Bell’s gear in exchange for a $253,000 contribution to the IPF raised a few concerns, which resulted in some of the sleeves being removed from an updated November “approved list” and Bell updating his website to reflect this.
“Lifters went to the IPF and said, ‘I can’t believe they’re letting this in,’” Bell says. “And so we’ve had to re-work the [Sling Shot heavy-duty ‘X’ knee sleeve] to pass muster with the IPF, even though it was already approved by a couple other powerlifting federations. It can be pretty contentious in terms of what doesn’t count and what does, what people think gives someone an edge.”
And yet, what does that even mean? Anyone who frequents a gym will hear that some piece of gear is ineffective or constitutes cheating, but cheating in what sense? In the sense that straps might help your weakened grip support more weight on a deadlift, so you can apparently lift more than someone else in the gym? And even in powerlifting and strongman competitions, which offer paltry returns in terms of money or glory, does wearing gear invalidate an otherwise-impressive lift?
“Look, ‘Dr. Squat’ Fred Hatfield won competitions in his own double-thick custom knee wraps, which were made of jock-strap knee bands,” says fitness journalist Anthony Roberts. “The referee at one of his competitions argued that the wraps were too thick, but Hatfield was allowed to compete and then set a world record. It’s not cheating if they allow it to count, like the year all those Olympic swimming records were crushed when swimmers wore wetsuits. Or in baseball, with the increases in fly balls and home runs that can occur whenever the manufacturing specs of the ball are changed.”
But something still seems… well, wrong, doesn’t it? Even if, as powerlifting coach Louie Simmons wrote in his impassioned defense of supportive gear, “Most people use computers today, not an ink quill,” isn’t there something to be said for the noble simplicity of writing in ink? After I interviewed Mark Bell for the first time in 2016, I received some of that year’s knee sleeves and wrist wraps, as well as the bench-assisting “Sling Shot” training band.
Bell’s sleeves and wraps felt much thicker and more substantial than the Rogue and Inzer products I had been using, and at least anecdotally, I felt like I had the confidence to squeeze a few more pounds out of my squat and bench press. I’d felt a similar jolt of confidence about a decade ago, when I switched from one of those thin, cheap weight belts sold at big-box retailers to a heavy-duty weight belt, a change that, combined with proper breathing, added a great deal of stability to the lift. Compared to what I had been doing — which was in many cases nothing, since I’d begun training as the rawest, most gear-free of lifters — it was cutting some corners, right?
“That’s a weird question to ask, although I suppose I can see why the thought might occur to a layperson,” says Andy Galpin, a professor at the Center for Sport Performance at California State University, Fullerton. For Galpin, different types of equipment are necessary for different training methodologies. “I see comments all the time about ‘cheating’ on various YouTube videos, but what does that even mean? Should a Special Forces trainee who is trying to learn functional strength not kip their pull-ups? Should Eddie Hall, one of the world’s greatest deadlifters, have his thousand-pound deadlifts invalidated because he uses straps to support his grip? In Hall’s case, are we saying that he’s not ‘doing’ the lift even though his glutes and hamstrings are dragging that massive amount of weight off the ground? Obviously, the strongest parts of his body can support that deadlift, so why should he be held back by his weakest part, his grip?”
Sometimes, the gear is so specialized it lends itself to highly refined variations on the primary sport, such as benching in a heavy-duty bench shirt. “If it’s within the rules of that specific version of the sport, it’s fine by me,” says Vanessa Adams, a veteran bodybuilder and Strongman competitor. “There are equipped powerlifting federations and raw federations, and in Strongman, we can use straps for pulling, but it’s not magic. I’ve never worn a deadlift suit and still out-repped women who are using them in competition. I’ve also seen people fully wrapped and strapped who zero their events.”
“I was benching 800 pounds in a single-ply bench press suit, yet was struggling to reach 600 pounds raw [meaning benching with just wrist-supporting wraps],” adds Mark Bell. “Within powerlifting, there’s a considerable variety of lifting categories, separated by weight class, type of equipment allowed and so on. For the most part, the products I’ve developed for Sling Shot are simply high-quality supportive pieces that complement the lifts that trainees are attempting. Should discussion of their use be this controversial? No, but people love to argue about this stuff.”
“If there’s any non-anecdotal data behind whether knee sleeves, wrist wraps and elbow sleeves can actually help an otherwise unequipped ‘raw’ lifter, I’ve not seen it,” adds Galpin, with a deep dive into PubMed and other archives confirming the professor’s educated guess. “Banning elbow sleeves in a powerlifting federation might have much more to do with determining whether there’s a proper lockout at the top and less to do with any support it provides.”
Yet that hasn’t prevented my cousin Douglas Alexander, a gym habitue and obsessive watcher of opinionated YouTube fitness celebrities from criticizing my many derivations from what he perceives as proper lifting etiquette. Recently Alexander has criticized an extremely heavy deadlift set I performed while wearing straps (“You’ve got such a great grip… man, what a waste”); a decision to deadlift using a sumo stance rather than a conventional stance (“gross af”); a decision to use the Sling Shot bench shirt for lockout work (“that thing is silly”); a decision to do three reps of a set (“hypertrophy, bro… that’s what [Stan] Efferding says”); a decision to wear Pedestal socks while deadlifting (“stupid and I won’t even count that”); a decision to kip a final pull-up in an otherwise-strict set (“just a waste”); a decision to use a safety squat bar for a heavy set of box squats (“so wrong”); and a decision to squat in Bell’s knee sleeves while also wearing a weight belt (“you may as well just pay someone to squat that for you”).
When I ask how he determined all these seemingly arbitrary rules, given that his competitive fitness experience consists of a single “all-ages,” “drug-free” bodybuilding invitational at Colorado College, he shrugs. “You keep an eye open and learn the rules of the road,” he explains.
“That’s all nonsense,” says Roberts, who has made a career out of dismissing this kind of idle fitness chitchat. “You can track the equipment and clothing used when setting a particular record, but we already do this, much as how you in track and field can look up a world championship and see what the headwind was. It’s all quite distinct. Learning to use a pole in a pole vault doesn’t strike me as very different than using a bench shirt. So for example, ‘you couldn’t lift as much without that shirt’ is basically ‘you couldn’t jump as high without that pole.’ Some people jump high without the pole, and they’re called high jumpers. They don’t get nearly as high, sort of like how Mark Bell can bench 800 in a shirt and 200 pounds less without one.”
And that’s just the sport aspect of it. Most of us are merely training to improve ourselves in one area or another. We’re not involved in the “sport of fitness,” no matter how hard CrossFit once worked to popularize that notion. “If it’s training, who gives a sh*t?” asks Galpin. “There are specific ways to train to achieve specific results, with specific gear available to assist with that objective, and the information for trainees has never been more readily available. Not to mention, the training-specific equipment has never been better.
“If someone from 40 years ago is complaining about how much better they’d have been with this equipment, that’s a lot of sour grapes. They were as good as they could have been with what they had, on a playing field that was much less level and really was determined by whether you had access to one of the few good weightlifting or powerlifting coaches working in isolated parts of the country. If anything, the challenge today is sorting through all the misinformation and ‘bro science’ that’s competing for our attention.”
For his part, Bell, who has become a “meathead millionaire” selling all this gear, isn’t especially concerned with what critics think about its use, so long as his customers remain satisfied. “Does anyone care if you’re benching with a certain type of elbow sleeve? I mean, really, does anyone care? Are you making any money off your bench presses? Will it matter five minutes after you leave the gym? But what will matter is if a sleeve or wrap, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, can alleviate pain or keep an area warm or stabilize you so you don’t get hurt,” he says. “The rest of it is just a lot of talk, and talk like that is so cheap it’s free!”