Masking Weaknesses in the Pursuit of Performance
A Critical Look at Tape, Straps, Braces, Belts, and Chalk
We’ve all seen him or her (usually him) at the gym. I’m talking about the guy who looks like a robot man or some sort of action figure- covered completely in gloves, tape, braces, straps, compression suits, chalk, and X-ray goggles (ok maybe not, but he would have them if he could). I always think of this guy when I picture it:
This guy believes that by creating an exo-skeleton of space-age materials, he’ll be able to perform his best regardless of what form he uses or what injures he’s fighting through. He frequents powerlifting and CrossFit gyms.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the people who believe in training and performing in as much of the natural body as possible, they don’t believe in the exo-skeleton approach, and in fact, they feel that the exo-skeleton overall makes you weaker. These people believe in climbing trees and balancing on logs. They test their strength by lifting rocks instead of barbells. You may picture this guy:
To be fair, these are obviously the absolute extreme ends of the spectrum, and both of these guys (Neal Maddox and Erwan Le Corre, respectively) are incredible athletes. And in reality, many of us fall somewhere in between these two images in the way that we approach our training and the use of support aids.
So why explore this concept? Is there a point to be made beyond simply that different people like to train in different ways? There certainly is a major difference in philosophy between the people who believe in “natural movement”, finding strength and functionality within one’s own body and in a variety of different environments, and the people who believe in moving as much weight as possible (or performing whatever athletic feat to the best of their ability) with whatever aids they find to be necessary.
So is there a right and wrong in this case? Is there a problem with utilizing these tools (known technically as “mechanical ergogenic aids”)? If they work, who cares whether people wear them or not? Live and let live, right? Well, there may be more to it than that. While we may perform better with these aids, there may be some consequences to using them. By utilizing these support structures to aid in our training and performance, we are effectively doing two things:
Masking weak links in the kinetic chain
Lowering our body’s ability to adapt to outside environments and stresses
Masking Weak Links
Let’s start with looking at how we’re “masking weak links in the kinetic chain”. While science hasn’t fully understood how these tools work (some, like chalk are easier to figure out than say kinesiology tape), many of the proposed mechanisms involve blocking the brain’s ability to perceive pain, dispersing force and aiding soft tissues in doing their job, or increasing proprioceptive signaling to the brain so that it neurologically “protects” an injured, or at-risk, area.
While all of this sounds good, essentially what’s going on (regardless of mechanism) is that the support structures are reinforcing (and thus masking) weak links that we have in our movement patterns and/or anatomy. You may be thinking, so why’s that a bad thing? It’s bad because when we rely on these tools to be able to perform our best, and to stay pain-free, without addressing underlying weaknesses, we never end up being both strong and balanced. This can then lead to long-term issues and an increased risk of injury.
If we always lift with a belt and wrist straps, and then one day we decide to lift something heavy without these helpers, are we going to be able to brace ourselves correctly, and have the grip strength, to accomplish the lift? If the answer is no, the result could be catastrophic. It’s awesome to be able to deadlift 500lbs at the gym with our exo-skeleton holding everything in place, but not so awesome when we try to pick up a 60lb box at home, and we suffer a major spinal injury because we don’t know how to brace our own body correctly.
Many times, by using these aids, we end up creating further disconnects between our weak links and our strong links. If the skin on our hands is weak and not able to support heavy gripping, or gripping of rough surfaces, then our overall gripping ability will be weak, regardless of how strong our forearm and hand muscles are. We may have the strongest lats and biceps in the world, but we still aren’t going to be able to create a functionally strong pull-up movement because the end of the chain, the skin on our hands, is too weak to support it.
Sure we could just throw some chalk on the hands and do pull-ups like crazy. Unfortunately, if we’re always masking our weaknesses, we aren’t improving them, and we end up only being as strong as we are while wearing the support structures.
On the other side, training without them is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of deal. If you can do a certain movement or lift well without any support, that athleticism and strength has real-world transferability. By using your own natural body, you actually become limited by the weak links, and you’re forced to strengthen them in order to continue progressing. This may mean a decrease in performance in the short-term, but ultimately it leads to a more balanced, and stronger, body.
Robbing Ourselves of Adaptability
This leads right into the second downside to using support tools regularly which is a lowered ability for our bodies to adapt. Our bodies create stability by being repeatedly exposed to a wide variety of external surfaces, environments, and outside forces. If we artificially create that stability (by taping our ankles for every practice, game, etc or by wearing weight belts for every training session) we end up losing out on valuable opportunities for our neuromusculoskeletal system to adapt and grow. In some ways, our bodies actually become weaker because we’re tricking them into thinking that they have stability and strength that they doesn’t actually have.
We already touched on the difference between strong skin (from forced adaptation) versus using chalk, so let’s use another example. Ankle taping (using traditional white, non-stretchy, athletic tape) is an incredibly widespread practice throughout high school, collegiate, and professional sports. The rigid tape (or brace) supports the ankle and physically doesn’t allow it to have excessive inversion range of motion, thus reducing the risk of injury. They are effective, particularly in patients with a history of ankle sprains.
But what’s the cost? Are there any consequences to the ankle not having full range of motion (in many cases in every direction)? Restriction of range of motion can cause biomechanical changes upstream (from altered gait and movement patterns) and there’s some evidence showing that ankle taping and bracing reduces the ability for athletes to cut and make athletic moves as effectively.
There’s also research that shows that proprioceptive training of the ankle may be just as effective at reducing ankle sprains as taping and bracing. And the benefits of proprioceptive training are at work 24/7/365. Whether getting out of bed, or making a sharp cut on the field, or hiking across slippery river rocks, the proprioceptive training works to make your ankles stronger, without sacrificing performance or range of motion. The taping and braces only work while they’re on and tight.
By wearing ankle braces and tape, not only are we sacrificing range of motion and the ability of our body to stabilize itself, we’re also only protecting ourselves from injury while we’re wearing them. This idea can be applied to almost any form of support structure. When we limit our body’s ability to interface naturally with the environment, we limit its ability to adapt.
True strength and stability is being able to push, pull, swing, run, jump, and move without having to create an exoskeleton of support. So why then would you ever want to use straps, braces, belts, chalk, tape, and other forms of support? The answer is simple: Performance.
Playing the Trump Card of Performance
While I enjoy the philosophy and ideas of creating the optimal human body, one that can move effectively in all circumstances without being covered in support structures, the athlete in me will throw all of that out the window for the sake of performing better. After all, that’s what it’s really all about, right? We usually don’t play sport to become the most well-rounded and truly strong athlete that we can be. We play to be champions.
There’s no doubt that these support structures can help us to perform our best. For the very same reasons that we said that they’re negative in the long-term, these aids can be beneficial in the short term. They can mask pain and protect injuries so that we can continue to play. They can enhance the kinetic chain and create stability in our weak links. They can take pressure off of overly worked and inflamed soft tissue. They can psychologically allow us to get back from an injury and reduce the fear of reinjuring ourselves.
There’s also undoubtedly a placebo/superstition effect to strapping ourselves up like superheroes (or even like our favorite superstar athlete) that need to be looked at. Stepping onto the field/court with your “armor” strapped on, ready to go, triggers primal feelings of getting ready for battle. It can positively influence our confidence and possibly even give us a mental edge over our opponent. The mental effects of these tools can be very real and shouldn’t be discounted.
There is no doubt that these tools can be useful. They can allow us to push beyond faulty form and biomechanics, push beyond ourselves mentally, and push beyond injury and anatomical weakness.
Finding a Solution
So it appears that we have a dilemma. On one hand, we want to optimize ourselves and create a strong, stable body that’s adaptable and can move/perform well in all circumstances. On the other hand, we want to perform our best today, sometimes regardless of the cost. Is it possible to reconcile the two?
While this site is all about performing our best, and continually reaching new heights of athletic performance, sometimes we have to take a step back and see the big picture. This may require us to humble ourselves and realize that although we idolize our favorite athletes and want to be just like them, or we want to be able to hang in there with the best guys/gals at our local gym, we might not be there yet. Those people are often naturally gifted athletically/anatomically, or they’ve spent years and years of training to get where they are. And for the majority of great athletes, both are the case.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t get there, it just means that you’re not there yet. It’s a better long-term solution to only deadlift 200lbs, with the correct form and without braces, wraps, and straps than it is to slap on an exoskeleton and, by any form necessary, lift 400lbs.
Yes, it’s true that chalk may be the only way that you can do 30 unbroken kipping pullups without ripping the skin on your hands. Maybe then the best bet is to scrap the kipping pullups and try to do 5 unbroken strict pullups without chalk on your hands. Take the time to build strong hands and strong pullup mechanics. I know for many of you that sounds ridiculous, and no doubt the beastly feeling that you get from doing your kipping pullups is awesome, but in a way, it’s cheating. It’s cheating your body, and it’s cheating your psyche.
Maybe you are a serious athlete and performance is your number one goal (I would contend that this should only be the case if you’re a professional, an elite-level amateur, or you’re in the military), then by all means, use your helper tools to achieve that performance. But be aware of what you’re masking by doing so, and how those weaknesses may play a role in the future health of your body and in your ability to move without those tools. Make sure that you’re taking steps to strengthen those weak links when you’re not performing. Do the rehab exercises and biomechanical training that you need to do and spend the time and effort to fully recover from injuries. Doing the work, and not simply relying on support structures, can prolong your career, and ultimately increase your performance.
If you’re not a professional athlete, the focus should be on creating a strong body that doesn’t require helper tools to be able to perform. Yes this may mean doing less weight, less reps, or scaling activities. Humble yourself, and take stock of where you really sit. Your body will thank you for it, you’ll have less injuries in the long run, and ultimately you’ll become a stronger human being.
- Using support tools (i.e. athletic tape, braces, belts, straps, chalk, etc…) not only masks weak links in the body, but they also can actually weaken already weak links, and create further imbalances in the kinetic chain.
- These aids not only many times reduce our mobility, but they also reduce our neurological system’s ability to adapt and create stability.
- They may be effective in enhancing performance, or to be able to perform through an injury, but this should be reserved for serious athletic requirements if possible.
- If you do decide to use these support tools, it’s imperative to spend extra time identifying and strengthening your weak links through rehab exercises and biomechanics training.
- Overall, allowing your own body to adapt to challenging surfaces, environments, and external forces is the best way to create a strong, resilient, and healthy body.
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