“But that's just a crutch, right? Once you start to use it, you get dependent on it, and then you can't gain any more strength!”
This is essentially the argument I heard from one of my clients after I recently got ahold of a pair of lifting straps, but it's nothing new: I heard similar arguments when I bought a lifting belt, a set of knee wraps, etc. Accessories are essential to the career of any serious competitive lifter, yet the general public seems to carry around a lot of misconceptions about what accessories are and what they do. This article is intended to be an introduction to the functioning of lifting accessories and how they actually help your lifts in the long run instead of hurting them.
As mentioned above, the argument is always something like this: if X accessory covers up Y weakness, then Y will never get developed and you become dependent on X to continue seeing strength gains. Let's use lifting straps for X and grip strength for Y.
In virtually every lift a strength athlete will attempt, it will be a large, full-body lift. This means that it will use large muscle groups and often many muscle groups at once in order to get the weight up. When using so many different muscle groups, all it takes is for one muscle group to fail for the entire lift to fail. This is the basic theory behind all weakpoint training; by focusing on the weak part of the lift, whether it be the bottom of your squat or the lockout of your bench press, you can train that weak link to get out of the way and thus enable your stronger areas to function unhindered. If you can't hold on to the bar during a deadlift, then your grip strength is your weak point and it needs to be trained so that you can effectively lift the bar with the rest of your muscles. But, if you were to use lifting straps, then you would be able to lift the bar right away.
This has a few benefits. One, you can lift the weight right now. This means that you can continue to train the muscles that you would otherwise be unable to target effectively without enough weight on the bar, aka everything else but your grip strength. Being stronger at your deadlift may mean that you get a faster pull and can therefore lift it fast enough that your lack of grip ceases to be an issue. If you didn't have the straps, this wouldn't have been possible.
Further, not all muscle groups are created equal. Some are bigger than others, some build strength faster than others. Your grip strength, sad to say, is based on a much smaller set of muscles than your deadlift. This means that in training, your grip strength will always theoretically be lagging behind your deadlift, unless you do other training that involves grip strength as well (and it should, but we won't go in to that right now). Now say you've done your deadlifts for the day; your grip strength is tired out and your palms have been torn up holding on to the bar. But you've still got other lifts to do, and these still involve grip strength. Either you can suffer through those lifts poorly and allow your performance to suffer since you won't be able to hold on to them effectively, or you toss on some straps and hit them up like a boss. If your grip strength is already tired out then you've already done all you can to improve your grip strength for the next workout. One of the sayings I'm always telling people is not to hit your body when it's already down. There's no point in punishing your performance.
There are other lifts where grip strength plays into the equation, but the primary function isn't to develop grip strength. Shrugs, calf raises, and some variations of rowing exercises are good examples. In each, grip strength is not the main focus: when I'm doing calf raises, I need a good two hundred pounds to challenge my calves. But to hold on to two hundred pounds gets very tiring for my hands very quickly, particularly when your gym equipment is like mine and all the dumbbells above a hundred are so little used that the grips will shred your hands just for picking them up. I can painfully struggle to hold on to them while my calf workout suffers, or I can just use straps and let my calves get in a good workout while my grip strength is a non-issue. Is a calf raise a competitive lift? No. Do I care that my grip strength isn't good enough for it? No. I'm just looking to get a calf workout in.
If used properly, lifting straps will actually improve your lifts by removing a common weak point, your grip strength, from the equation. For best results, use your straps after you've already exhausted your grip strength and need to keep training, or on lifts when grip strength isn't an issue. In this way straps will allow you to train harder than your grip strength would normally allow, allowing you to build more strength in your primary movers, and ultimately benefiting your lifts.
The same goes with your belt and core stability, or knee wraps and knee stability. Only after you've already tired out a group should you move on to using the accessory in order to continue lifting. Naturally you'll also want to use these accessories in a competition setting so that you can lift more: you'll always be able to lift more with an accessory than without it, period. The issue is in using the accessory intelligently so that you can get the best effects both of raw training and equipped training within the same workout. I'll also admit that I use my belt a lot more often than I should: since spinal stability is so key, I prefer to wear my belt more often so as to protect my spine from potential injury. I'm certainly willing to trade a little bit of dependance for the added safety that the belt provides to my low back during deadlifts.
Even raw lifters can gain a lot from learning to intelligently apply these crutches during their training. In fact, while my client may not have meant it, he was perfectly right: accessories are a crutch. But no one's body is in perfect shape all the time, and in a moment of weakness, a crutch is exactly what your body needs. Learn to use it only when you need to, and your body will develop strength even faster than before.