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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Want to Start Strength Training? Here’s the Gear Pros Recommend

Luke Stoltman adjusts the thick leather belt around his waist as he stares down the 470-pound tree trunk on the competition floor. With his coach just inches from his face shouting words of encouragement, the pro strongman tightens the straps stabilizing his wrists. Stepping into the sprawling arena, where hundreds of spectators wait in anticipation, he pauses at a bin of chalk and meticulously covers his palms and fingers with the white powder. Standing before the bar, he raises his arms overhead to mobilize his shoulders, bending slightly at his neoprene-sleeve-clad elbows, then reaches down to adjust his compression shorts.

“You see the athletes using every bit of kit they’re allowed,” pro strongman and commentator Laurence “Big Loz” Shahlaei explains to viewers watching the Arnold Strongman Classic via live stream. “These are all going to help protect their body as much as possible and allow them to lift as much as possible.”

As the crowd shouts in anticipation, the athlete known as the Highland Oak takes one final deep breath, then reaches down to grab the handles affixed to the inside of the log. He pulls it from the floor to his lap, where it comes to rest just above his neoprene knee sleeves. Then in one swift motion, he stands up, rolls the log up his chest and over his grip shirt, pausing at the top of his shoulders. With a quick bend of the knees to generate leg power, Stoltman extends his arms and swiftly presses the log overhead, nailing the lift—then pauses to take in the eruption of applause from the crowd before dropping it to the mat. He looks toward the bleachers and raises one finger in the air in acknowledgment of his ascent to the top of the leaderboard. Slapping his chest and creating a cloud of chalk that hangs in the air, he turns his focus to the camera: “Easy!” he booms. “Warming up!”

At his level of athleticism, and throwing around that kind of weight, Stoltman, who won the title of Europe’s Strongest Man in 2021, relies on his gear to provide joint protection, stability, and power. But do you need the same for your casual trip to the weight room?

I walked into my first CrossFit class nine years ago with just a water bottle and a pair of Asics running shoes. We were told to work up to a three-rep-max barbell clean (the heaviest weight you can pull from the floor to your shoulders, for three consecutive reps). I grabbed a barbell and returned to my spot when I noticed the classroom floor was empty—everyone was crouched by their gym bags, rifling through their gear. They pulled out thick neoprene sleeves which they tugged over their knees, tied on shoes that had a shiny wedge affixed to each sole, and wrapped long pieces of cloth around their wrists. I instantly felt underprepared, but I also wondered: Was all of that really necessary?

Yes and no, I later learned. For the experienced athletes moving heavy barbells, for whom joint stability and lower back support are significant concerns, that kind of gear might help them hit bigger numbers safely. For me, working on technique with an empty 35-pound barbell? Not so much. 

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“In general, novice trainees should not rush to use gear like belts and wraps,” Dain Wallis, my current coach and one of the world’s strongest men, explained. “Tissues need time to adapt, and exceeding this capacity is a fast track to joint pain and injuries alike. Even more advanced trainees can benefit by saving gear for maximal lifts and competitions.”

I’ve been competing in the sport of strongman on and off for about eight years, but until recently, when I started moving up to significantly heavier weights, Wallis steered me away from my gym bag so I could focus on learning to lift properly first.

His top gear pick for a new lifter? A phone or recording device. “Reviewing video is the best way to hone movement patterns, techniques, and tempos in the shortest amount of time,” he says. Once you know a bit about how the barbell should move in your lifts, apps like OnForm and Iron Path can help you analyze your videos to ensure you’re moving correctly.

For a little more insight into what experienced and new lifters need, I headed to the Arnold Sports Festival, the largest annual multisport event in the US, where athletes from around the world compete for world championship titles.

The Most Recommended Piece of Gear

Once you’re ready to start lifting heavy, there’s one piece of gear nearly every athlete I spoke to suggested: a belt. It’s also the piece of gear most of them can’t live without for their own lifts.

There are two kinds of belts you can add to your bag: a soft belt and a hard belt, with the former usually worn under the latter.

Start With a Soft Belt

For pro strongwoman Andrea Thompson, who pulled an 800-pound Hummer tire deadlift at the Arnold, her soft belt is an indispensable part of her own training and the top piece of gear she recommends for new lifters.

“I wear it for probably about half an hour before I even start lifting anything, and it warms up my lower back,” she told me. “I wear it during lifting as well, because it adds extra compression with my lever belt on top, and helps to protect my back.”

Wallis adds that soft belts can also offer “some nice kinesthetic feedback for your abdominal brace.”

For a soft belt that can be worn solo, the Back Support Belt from Cerberus features skeletal splints in the back for extra support. The brand’s Underbelt is designed to be worn under a hard belt (though I often wear my soft belt on its own for lighter lifts and warm-up sets). Rogue’s Rehband is designed to reduce inflammation and low back pain, and can be worn solo or under a hard belt.

Then Add the Hard Belt

“Start with nothing, and then, when you really feel like you want to invest your money in something, get a good weightlifting belt,” says lifting coach and strongman Eric Dawson. “It’s going to be something you can carry with you for 20-plus years. If you buy a nice belt at the beginning, you won’t need a second one.”

Once you do invest, it’s important to learn how to use your belt correctly before going for those big lifts. “Learning to use a lifting belt takes a while, so invest early on,” suggests Stoltman. He prefers a lever-style belt, but he points out that the most comfortable belt position differs from one person to another, so the sooner you can figure that out, the sooner you can use it to your advantage.

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If you’re just starting out, this sturdy self-locking one from Element 26, which also comes in an array of colors, is a great option. I’ve tried a number of hard belts, but I found that this one from Cerberus is the most comfortable and supportive for my intermediate-level lifting. When you’re ready to go really heavy, a lever belt like this one or a buckle belt like this one will keep you supported and safe.

Ditch the Running Shoes

“Don’t lift in your running Asics,” advises Stefi Cohen, a 25-time world-record-holding powerlifter, professional boxer, and doctor of physical therapy. Following up on the advice I really wish I’d heard before my first CrossFit class, Cohen adds that really “anything flat-soled” will work.

Pro strongman Rob Kearney, who set an American log lift record in 2020 with 475 pounds, agrees. “I would say the most important thing would be a multipurpose shoe. So not necessarily a lifting shoe, but something with a more rigid bottom. I like Reebok Nanos, and Nike has the Metcons. The Nano is a really good universal shoe for weightlifting and moving events, to create a really stable base and make sure you’re not off balance.”

Working Out at Home

If you’re new to lifting and looking to do your strength training at home, rather than the gym, both Shahlaei and Stoltman say the single best investment you can make is a really good, multiuse barbell.

“If you’re looking to get stronger, the most important piece of kit is a barbell,” Shahlaei said, “because you can squat, you can deadlift, you can press, and those are the three key movements that are going to allow you to get strong throughout your body. If you get good at the basics, there’s always a carryover to something else.”

Look for a bar that’s multiuse (not explicitly for powerlifting or Olympic lifting) and sturdy, so it can support heavy weight as you get stronger. Rogue’s classic Ohio Bar includes a lifetime guarantee against bending, while RPM’s barbell is available in three different weights, making it ideal for beginning lifters. Lastly, if you’re looking for an affordable but still sturdy option, the CAP 7-Foot Barbell is available on Amazon and has more than 3,500 reviews and a 4.5 star rating.

The Best of the RestCoaching

Actually, Cohen told me the best thing a newbie lifter can do is find a really good coach. “For someone who has never lifted before,” she adds,”hiring a coach, maybe even an in-person coach so you can properly learn technique,” can really make a difference.

If you’re not ready for an in-person coach just yet, there are apps that provide online programs and classes for all levels, or can be customized to your needs. Cohen’s Hybrid offers intermediate and advanced programs, and JEFIT offers customizable strength training plans and videos showing real people demonstrating each lift.


Because all that lifting can take a toll on your muscles and fascia, powerlifter and current deadlift world record holder Tamara Walcott picked a foam roller as her most recommended piece of gear for newbies. Walcott prefers a vibrating hard roller and uses it for “stretching before and after workouts. That’s one of the things that at the beginning I took for granted. And then I realized that stretching before and after your lifts is how you perform better the next time.”

As your lifts get heavier and you become more technically proficient, having the right gear can make the difference between a good lift and a great one. Before you lace up your flat-soled shoes, buckle your belt, or pick up your barbell, though, most of the pros I spoke to recommend making sure you have one thing nailed down first: the right mindset.

When asked what a new lifter really needs, Walcott was hesitant to suggest any gear at all. “The one thing I want them to always have with them is determination over motivation,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, motivation is going to die out. You’re going to hit that number that you wanted to hit. Then what do you have next? It’s about staying determined to hit that true ultimate goal.”

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