CrossFit athletes are famous for their affection for performance-enhancing wardrobe accessories. The sight of sleeves, bands, belts and tape are common at most boxes around the world, and you certainly spot a lot of them if you watch the Games on ESPN. But are they really necessary?
Let’s go through three of the most common performance accessories and explore their value and appropriate use.
The lifting belt
I take for granted the fact that most people have no idea how to use a lifting belt properly. Your body has a built-in muscular belt that wraps around your torso called your transverse abdominis (TVA). In conjunction with lots of other core muscles, it supports your spine through movement and loading. A weightlifting belt is not meant to replace this, nor does it make your TVA weaker. What it should do instead is give the musculature around your midsection a wall to push against, which should increase the contraction strength of those muscles and increase the stability around your spine.
To wear a belt correctly put it on above your hips a little loose. Squat down and see where it naturally wants to sit. Stand back up and tighten it around that spot as tightly as you can (though not so tight that you can’t still slide your hand underneath it.) Fit is key with a lifting belt. Wear your belt too tight and it will not allow your TVA to contract properly. Wear it too loosely and you won’t be able to push against it. Make sure the fit is just right and you will crush your PRs.
Classic athletic tape can be used in many ways, such as supporting a joint (think ankle, wrist, finger), or for covering up the little nicks the barbell puts on your shins. My problem lies with kinesiology tape, however, which I see used incorrectly. When applied by a professional trained to use it, it certainly can provide kinesthetic feedback from your skin to help you perform differently. However, the amount of people applying it liberally in the hopes of getting muscles to “turn on” or “fire” likely are receiving more of a placebo effect than anything.
Full disclaimer: I really love wearing knee sleeves to squat. But most people don’t understand when and why to use them or use them thinking they do something they don’t. Sleeves don’t provide elastic force, stability, or strength to your knee joint in any measurable amount to make a difference. For those benefits look to knee wraps. So, if they don’t do any of those things why wear them? The simple answer is heat. Your joints need to be warmed up and have more blood flow going to them to perform optimally. Knee sleeves accelerate that process and as a result may help alleviate general pain and soreness that you usually feel while warming up.
Duncan McNeill is a coach and co-owner at Alchemy CrossFit.