The Beginner’s Guide to Olympic Weightlifting Equipment

Andrei Aramnau of Belarus at the 2014 European Championship

Andrei Aramnau of Belarus at the 2014 European Championships | Photo by Hookgrip

If you’ve recently started training in Olympic weightlifting or are interested in learning the snatch and clean and jerk, you’ll probably have noticed that weightlifters, whether in the gym or on the competition platform, tend to use some specialised pieces of equipment that aren’t really standard issue for your average weight room denizen. From weightlifting shoes to knee sleeves to tapered belts, each of these items of gear can offer an advantage to the experienced lifter, helping them to lift more weight when it matters most. Many beginners however find themselves overwhelmed by the range of weightlifting equipment sold by online retailers and are confused about what items they need to buy when first starting out.

This guide will discuss what equipment you need to get started in weightlifting as a newcomer to the sport. It will focus on personal weightlifting equipment – the kind of apparel that you might buy and bring to the gym with you for a weightlifting training session. Let’s assume that you’re not actually buying equipment for your own home gym and are at least passingly familiar with barbells, weight plates, collars, platforms, squat stands and the rest.

Unlike many other sports, the basic equipment requirements for weightlifting are actually fairly minimal; a bar, some plates and a platform and you’ve got what you need to perform the snatch and clean & jerk. That said, investing in the right equipment will help to make your training much more successful and rewarding, not to mention safer. But what do you, the novice weightlifter, actually need to buy in your first couple of months in the sport and what can wait until later?

Weightlifting Shoes

Nike Romaleos 2 Weightlifting Shoe

Nike Romaleos 2 Weightlifting Shoe

What Are They?

Specially designed shoes with an elevated heel, a flat sturdy sole, a flexible toe and one or more straps for a tight fit. Weightlifting shoes are designed to allow the lifter to achieve a deeper squat, raise the heel on the rear foot in the split jerk and generally to improve balance and stability in the snatch and clean & jerk. The raised heel is also solid and non-compressible, which prevents your feet from wobbling under heavy weights. Companies like Adidas and Do-Win produce shoes ideal for beginners priced in the region of £80 in the UK or $90 in the UK (significantly cheaper on the opposite side of the Atlantic) while top-end models from Adidas and Nike – the Adipower and Romaleos 2 shoes respectively – will set you back closer to £170/$200.

Do I Need Them?

In a word, yes. If you only buy one of the items detailed in this post, make sure that it’s weightlifting shoes. For a serious lifter, they’re nothing short of essential. Your shoes are probably the most significant investment you will make as a weightlifter and if you think you’ll stick with the sport in the long term, it’s well worth buying a pair as soon as possible and splashing out on something decent.

Weightlifting Belt

Eleiko Weightlifting Belt

Eleiko Weightlifting Belt

What Is It?

A belt worn tightly around the waist or lower abdomen designed to provide weightlifters with extra support and stability during heavy lifts, particularly the clean & jerk and squat and pull variants. Weightlifting belts are traditionally made from leather with a one or two prong buckle to fasten them but belts made from synthetic materials such as nylon with velcro fastenings are also available for those who prefer to sacrifice tightness of fit for mobility. Many belts designed specifically for Olympic weightlifting are ‘tapered’ – thinner at the front and thicker at the back – to stop the belt from obstructing the lifter when getting into a deep squat position, though non-tapered belts that are the same width the whole way around are also available. Which is best largely comes down to personal preference.

Do I Need One?

As a beginner lifter, you probably won’t get very much use from a belt for the first few months at least. Early in your lifting career, you are more likely to be focusing on honing your technique with lighter weights rather than trying to move maximal loads. As you become more experienced and start to find trunk strength a limiting factor in either your competition lifts or your squats and pulls, you will probably want to invest in a weightlifting belt after a few months, although some lifters prefer not to wear a belt at all.

Knee Sleeves

Rehband Blue 7mm Knee Sleeves

Rehband Blue 7mm Knee Sleeves

What Are They?

A one-piece sleeve, usually made from elasticated and bonded materials like cotton or polyester or else from neoprene. Knee sleeves are designed to reduce wear and tear on the knee joint by compressing the area, improving bloody flow and aiding recovery. Sleeves also help the synovial fluid in the knee to warm up and prevent excessive movement of the patella. Knee sleeves also offer a small amount of support to the ligaments of the knee joint, although this protection is fairly minimal as no additional reinforcement is permitted for competition-legal sleeves. Some lifters, though not many, prefer to use powerlifting wraps or simple bandages to support their knees. Weightlifting knee sleeves manufactured by Rehband and Eleiko are considered the gold standard, though many perfectly serviceable and cheaper alternatives are available.

Do I Need Them?

Most lifters who train regularly wear knee sleeves, though many wear them as a precaution rather than in response to any specific knee problem. As a beginner, you probably won’t require knee sleeves to start out with but as your training frequency and intensity increases, you may want to pick up a pair if you find your joints aching after training. If you have an existing knee problem as a novice, you may wish to purchase a pair of sleeves immediately.

Wrist Wraps

Eleiko Cotton Wrist Wraps

Eleiko Cotton Wrist Wraps

What Are They?

A length of fabric, sometimes elasticated, which wraps around the wrist and fastens to create a tight and stable support for the joint when doing overhead lifts. Most wrist wraps will also feature a thumb loop to aid in putting them on, though most lifters prefer to tuck this out of the way when actually lifting. Wraps come in a variety of lengths – longer ones can be wrapped more tightly but are arguably more cumbersome to wear – and while most use velcro to fasten, a few types use a metal fastener. Wrist wraps are most often used in the clean & jerk, where the additional support can assist with keeping the weight stable overhead. Some lifters prefer to use them in the snatch too.

Do I Need Them?

Once again, as a beginner you are unlikely to ‘need’ wrist wraps when first starting out as the weights you are using are unlikely to place your wrists under heavy stress. The exception to this is if you have a pre-existing hand or wrist condition – in this situation you may value the additional support. Among more experienced athletes, use of wrist wraps is perhaps less common than of knee sleeves. Although most international level lifters tend to use them, a significant minority do not use wrist wraps even for their heaviest jerks. As ever, personal preference plays a major role here and as you become more familiar with the lifts and training loads increase, you may want to see if wrist wraps work for you.

Lifting Straps

Iron Mind Straps

Iron Mind Straps

What Are They?

Thin strips of material, usually nylon or leather, which loop around the lifter’s wrists and are then wrapped around the bar to securely attach it and reduce the demands on grip. Not to be confused with wrist wraps. Lifting straps are most often used by weightlifters when performing snatch variants in training – particularly work from the hang – and for heavy clean and snatch pulls. Some lifters who train very frequently prefer to use straps for a lot of their snatch work in the gym to allow their hands to recover. Using straps for cleans is generally strongly discouraged, especially for beginners – a number of high profile wrist injuries have occurred as a result.

Do I Need Them?

Early on in your lifting career, particularly when you are learning the lifts, you should avoid using straps in order to develop your grip strength and allow the skin of your hands to callous and toughen up. It is likely that your hands will hurt and that you will experience callous tears during this phase of your training but grin and bear it, using tape to cover over cuts and tears as needs be. As you begin to train more frequently and perform heavy pulls, your grip should be sufficiently developed that using straps occasionally won’t pose any problems.

Singlet

Adrian Zielinski of Poland wearing an Adidas singlet

Adrian Zielinski of Poland wearing an Adidas singlet

What Is It?

A tight-fitting one-piece garment that covers the lifter from just above the knee to the shoulders, usually made from stretchable elastane/lycra and other synthetic fabrics like polyester or polyamide. Lifters are required to wear a singlet in official IWF competitions, as well as official competitions run by nearly all national federations and most local organisations. More expensive singlets may offer additional features such as slightly enhanced fit or the use of specially designed fabrics to help absorb moisture, anti-slip material on the upper chest or thicker material on the thighs. Adidas are perhaps the world’s leading manufacturer of singlets but many other companies also produce them.

Do I Need One?

Not unless you’re planning to compete, no. That said, some lifters do genuinely prefer to wear compression fit clothing in training, in which case a pair of full-length tights or knee-length compression shorts may be just the thing for you.

Chalk

Chalking Up at London 2012

Chalking Up at London 2012

What Is It?

Blocks of, powdered or occasionally a liquid solution of chalk (most frequently the chemical compound magnesium carbonate) that is applied to the hands before attempting a lift in order to improve grip and prevent moisture from accumulating on the skin. Dedicated weightlifting gyms will often supply chalk in buckets or receptacles, others may expect lifters to bring their own. Chalk is relatively inexpensive and is available from most climbing and outdoor supplies shops. Some may also stock liquid chalk, an alcohol-based chalk solution which is squirted on to the hands as a liquid and rapidly dries to form a coating of chalk.

Do I Need It?

Almost certainly, yes. Even when just learning the lifts with an empty bar, you’d be surprised how much moisture can build up on the hands so chalk up as soon as you need to.

Athletic Tape

Hand taped for weightlifting

Hand taped for weightlifting | Image by Crossfit Invictus

What Is It?

Basic zinc oxide tape 1 to 2 inches in thickness, usually tearable by hand, sold in rolls. Athletic or sports tape is used to tape up and protect areas of the hands that are subject to a lot of abuse during the Olympic lifts, most frequently the thumb. Athletic tape is also frequently wrapped around the hand in the case of callous tears to offer additional protection, prevent chalk getting in the wound and to allow the lifter to keep training. Some lifters prefer to tape their wrists for additional support rather than wearing wrist wraps. Not to be confused with coloured kenesiology tape.

Do I Need It?

For the most part, habits like taping your thumbs or wrists come down to personal preference – some lifters do it every session, others never do it. However, regardless of whether you tape up thumbs or wrists, it makes sense to keep a roll of  athletic tape in your gym bag in case of callous tears or small cuts to the hand – being able to cover them over and protect your hand may be the difference between being able to continue to train or having to cut your session short.

Conclusion

As a new weightlifter, you’ll want to pick up a pair of weightlifting shoes as soon as you possibly can; these should be your number one priority. Pick up some chalk and a couple of rolls of athletic tape to go with them and you should be pretty set for your first few months, unless knee or wrist issues dictate that buying a pair of sleeves or wraps early on is a good idea. As you get more experienced, you will probably find that you want to invest in a good belt and a set of pulling straps but you certainly don’t need to worry about these right way. Further on down the line, a singlet is a necessity if you want to compete but that’s something you can pick up when the time comes.

One of the many joys of Olympic weightlifting is that not a lot of equipment is required once you have access to a decent bar and plates so don’t feel obliged to rush out and buy every accessory under the sun just because you see more experienced lifters using them in the gym or in videos on the internet. Take your time to grow into the sport, get a feel for what your body is capable of and add different bits and pieces of weightlifting equipment as and when the need becomes apparent.

  • http://peckmeout.com/ Wayne

    Interesting article, I would say most of the items are aimed more at intermediate lifters, however.

    I’ve been lifting for a few years now and am only just starting to really feel I’m let down by pieces noted above. Knee sleeves and shoes are high on my shopping list!

    As a side, some gyms are funny about people using chalk. Might be worth caveating.

  • fredrik

    Really great article! Lately I’ve been looking into this, and I really needed a beginners guide. Thanks for displaying all the different kinds of equipment and what they do in detail. I have a lot of experience with workout, but I’ve never really paid any attention to the equipment.
    Great content!

    //Fredrik
    http://learnyourmind.com/

  • http://myhealthcarecorner.wordpress.com/ Tulip Flower

    This article has a lot of helpful information. I’ll take it into consideration for my new post in http://myhealthcarecorner.wordpress.com/

  • Ryan Gains

    Some good info but it’s a little dated now. Check out some more up to date guides on weightlifting and powerlifting equipment at http://gainsbible.com