Don't Artificially Limit Your Lifts

by Mark Rippetoe | May 17, 2022

lifter at the top of a squat

Getting strong is hard work. It's years in the gym under the bar, moving weights you're challenged by and are sometimes afraid of, but you do it anyway because the goal is worth it. Don't make it harder than it has to be with poorly reasoned assumptions about what is either necessary or permissible. Belts, straps, wraps, and knee sleeves are no more “artificial” than are bars, plates, platforms, and racks, and buildings, heat, A/C, and running water. Remember that we are here to lift more weight than we did last time, and as long as we are lifting the weight over the full range of motion, we are getting stronger.


The squat is the foundation of strength training, and is our most important exercise with the barbell. After a couple of months as a rank novice, the belt becomes useful. It allows you to continue to lift heavier weights by keeping your back tight – it produces more efficient isometric contraction of the muscle mass surrounding and stabilizing the spine, and prevents back injuries through the same mechanism. The details are beaten to death here: The Belt and the Deadlift.

The belt is not “cheating.” The only way to cheat a heavy squat is to fail to go below parallel. There are entire organizations devoted to this practice – we are not one of them. The belt enables you to contract the muscles surrounding your spine harder, and this allows the use of heavier weights. Heavier weights are never easier, but they can be made possible by the proper use of a good belt, thus ensuring continued progress on the squat. Do not listen to people who have not squatted heavy weights who tell you stupid things they know nothing about. The belt is necessary for progress on the squat, and progress on the squat is necessary for progress in strength training.

Likewise, knee sleeves – or even knee wraps, used correctly – can be perfectly appropriate at the correct time in your squat training. Hard training is a stress on the knees, especially if you listen to people who do not understand the squat tell you you keep your back as vertical as possible. The knees pay the price for this bad advice, and inflamed knees need support while you train through the injury, support which can be provided by knee sleeves or wraps. The compression keeps the structures in their proper anatomical position, and the warmth increases the slipperiness of the tendons and ligaments as they do their job of transmitting force around the joint while it changes angle. They also provide proprioceptive input about knee position, angle, and tightness that adds to your ability to control the squat – kinda like a belt for the knees.

If your knees hurt, sleeves or wraps are perfectly reasonable training aids, as long as you don't put them on so tight that they become active aids. This happens when the tightness of the wrap itself adds to the knee extension, having accumulated in the material during the flexion phase on the way down. If the sleeve or wrap is applied properly, it just compresses the knee and keeps it warm, without adding 100 pounds to the lift, like in the APF.

Presses and Benches

The belt is also useful for these two lifts, the press far more than the bench. Heavy presses are exquisitely dependent on the bar “groove” – an expression of mechanical efficiency (see the press chapter in the Blue Book). If your torso is loose, you cannot control the bar position with the degree of certainty required for heavy presses. And if your torso is loose, it cannot be an efficient component of the kinetic chain between the bar and the floor. The belt keeps you tight in the press just like it does in the squat, and becomes more important at lighter weights than for the squat.

The bench press is different in that the spine is not directly loaded by the movement of the bar, even though it connects the shoulders to the floor in an important supporting role. For very heavy benches, most people find the belt to be a useful aid in keeping the whole system tight during the movement.

Deadlifts and Pulls

The belt applies equally to deadlifts, as well as cleans and snatches. A rigid back is an efficient force transmitter, and a loose back is not. And it doesn't take a biomechanist to understand why: do you tow a car with a chain or a spring? A chain is not deformable, while a spring's entire purpose is mechanical deformation. When we pull the bar off the floor, a perfect pull sees all the force generated by the knee and hip extensors transmitted to the bar. If the back rounds into flexion, some of the force gets lost between the floor and the bar, which is fine if the pull is not a limit pull. This same loss of force transmission through a non-rigid spine is our primary concern in the squat and press, and the bench too. The belt is an important tool under the bar, and failing to use the tools doesn't get the car fixed.

Likewise, we see lots of people refusing to use the correct grip on their pulls, under the mistaken impression that the hook grip, the alternate grip, or straps are “cheating.” Please understand this important fact: the deadlift is not a grip exercise – it is a pulling exercise. The grip gets trained as a side effect, not as the primary purpose. However, a weak grip can certainly limit the weight of the bar, and thus the strength obtained using the exercises, if you let it.

So when it is time to hook grip, that's what you do. When it becomes necessary to use an alternate grip instead of the hook, that's what you do. If you're not going to a meet, it may be to your advantage to use straps on your work sets. Olympic lifters' hands take a beating, since most of their workouts are pulling, and straps may save the hands a little bit of callus tearing and thumbnail soreness. Powerlifters getting ready for a meet will need to either prepare the hands for heavy hook grips, or practice the alternate grip they will use on the platform.

Most lifters actually find that heavy double-overhand grip deadlifts through the last warmup set provide enough grip work for a secure alternate grip for three single attempts at the meet without having to train it specifically. Powerlifters using heavy rack pulls or heavy shrugs will have to use straps for these heavier-than-deadlift partials in the rack. But if you are an older trainee whose primary interest is in staving off death, straps are fine for all deadlift work sets. What you need from your deadlift training is back strength, and hip and knee strength, and if it takes straps to get the work done, you use the straps.

Do not let misplaced ideas of ideological purity adversely affect productive training. The proper response to 8-inches-above-parallel squatting is not 8-inches-below-parallel squatting; it is correct squatting with more weight than you used last workout. If your belt helps you do this, you use the belt. Same goes for all the lifts.

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