Whether you are a beginner or seasoned gym pro there are certain things that everyone should have in their gym bag when looking to build muscle, these are the gym bag essentials.
You might think that this is an exaggeration and that just turning up and doing your workout, having a nutrient rich diet whilst eating in a calorie surplus and getting sufficient rest and recovery is enough to build muscle.
This is definitely true, they are the foundations without a doubt when it comes to building muscle however we are now in the 21st century and that means there are an abundance of tools to help with physique development and some of them will certainly fast track your progress when it comes to building muscle.
You’ve likely seen articles boasting the 25 best gym bag essentials and other ridiculously high numbers in order to sell you something, that’s not what this article is about.
A few years ago I produced a similar article for Bulk Powders on this topic because it’s something I truly believe can help you in your training goal to build more muscle. Below are what I consider to be genuine gym bag essential items for building muscle.
These won’t do the work for you, they are purely to supplement your training. I’m not the biggest or leanest guy out there, however over the years I’ve packed on my fair bit of muscle mass and these items have fully contributed to that.
Just for some social proofing I’ll make sure to include pictures for each that I personally own and have the wear and tear to evidence the continued use.
The 8 Gym Bag Essentials for Building Muscle
Below are 8 items that I believe are gym bag essentials when it comes to building muscle, you won’t need them all immediately however as your training progresses then adding these in slowly over time will help you make those incremental improvements to your training and ultimately your physique.
Foam Roller and Massage/Tennis Ball
Kicking this list off is the least macho, yet one of the most crucial aspects when it comes to building muscle and that is a foam roller and/or a massage ball (though tennis and lacrosse balls also do the trick).
Rolling around on these items after a heavy training seems like something you might not be seen dead doing in the gym, especially if you consider yourself to be a hardcore lifter. Deep tissue massage and myofascial release however are crucial components when it comes to building muscle and training longevity.
A tight muscle is a small muscle and also one that is more prone to injury. They seem like bold statements to make but your body is made up of this fascia tissue that’s like webbing for the muscles. When these get tight your range of motion and muscle growth is stunted.
A foam roller in particular is useful for breaking up muscle tissue adhesions and releasing muscle tightness. I was a bit skeptical of the results of this at first however the first time I had a deep tissue massage for my back it was a game changer.
The more muscle mass and adhesions you have the more painful and necessary deep tissue work is, after my deep tissue work my shoulder blades opened up and glided smoothly along my back and I slept like a baby that night.
Deep tissue work is a necessary evil and one that you will require in order to continue to build muscle and a physique. If you need some pointers then I recommend checking out Smashwerx YouTube channel, this guy shows you how to hammer your muscles, tendons and ligaments but in a good way.
A weightlifting belt is one that will cause some controversy. The reason that a lot of people use a weightlifting belt is to help them increase intra-abdominal pressure and keep their core (abdomen and lower back) tight during heavy compound lifts like the squat and deadlift.
There are arguments to say that a reliance on a weightlifting belt of this exercises will weaken your core as you become reliant on pressing against a belt and using it becomes a crux to your training.
I do agree that you shouldn’t become reliant on one however your core can only get so strong as a natural lifter, if you want to start moving heavier weights then there will come a point when you won’t have the muscular control to safely execute the lift.
An average gym goer does not have the knowledge to fully brace your core whilst creating maximal intra-abdominal pressure. Whilst you shouldn’t rely on a weightlifting belt to lift weights you otherwise couldn’t handle, you should also make use of the support to help stay injury free.
Personally for heavy movements like deadlifts, rack pulls and bent over rows I’ll work up to a decent weight without a belt however for my top set I’ll make use of the belt just so that I can focus on engaging the muscle whilst the belt will act as an external trigger to brace my core rather than using mental capacity to focus on that as well.
If you are fully in the camp of functional training then this won’t be for you but for someone looking to build muscle in place of maximal strength then you should definitely make use of this tool and for that reason I consider it to be a gym bag essential.
Not to be confused with wrist wraps, a wrist strap is something you wrap around your wrist and then the bar in order to support your grip with heavy pulling movements.
For most performing deadlifts, heavy rows, pullups, shrugs and weighted carries then you will be able to appreciate that during these movements your grip tends to give out a lot sooner than the larger muscle groups that you are targeting.
In this case your first point of action should be to improve your grip strength as a whole as it’s usually the weak link in the chain but even having said that, the muscles of your back are so much larger by comparison that your grip strength will always be a limiting factor.
This is where wrist wraps come in useful, by wrapping around the bar you can securely grip the bar with no risk of your grip giving way. This means that you can fully work your target muscles to (or close to) failure whereas previously your grip would have prevented this.
For such a simple and cheap addition you can take your workout capacity up by 10%-20% which is a game changer when it comes to building muscle. The best set I’ve ever owned were manufactured by Shiek and provided padded wrist support; however, these days I just use a cheap and basic set that still does the job.
Knee wraps are an item that I always debate the use of myself and the argument is similar to the weightlifting belt one regarding relying on an external product to safely do an exercise. Knee wraps are just that, they wrap around your knee to lock the joint in place and keep it secure when squatting or doing a heavy leg press.
Knee sleeves do a similar thing in keeping the joint warm and supporting the knee joint however they produce much less elastic force.
With knee wraps your knee is locked into a stable position to keep the joint safe during heavy lifts however when wrapped tightly (which is the point) they can create a significant amount of elastic energy essentially helping you lift heavier weights whilst making them feel lighter.
A good example of this is a calf muscle, when you pause at the bottom of a standing calf raise for a few seconds you eliminate the elastic energy created by the muscles, if however you go up and down with no pause then the build up of elastic tension helps to finish each rep easier.
Knee wraps do a similar thing but on a greater scale, therefore if you rely on this elastic tension to help you with the reps then you are putting your muscles at serious risk of injury by tears. What knee wraps are good for however is supporting the knee joint and allowing for a safer lift when used correctly.
As long as you only use them on weights that you could handle without a wrap then you will be fine and these will become an excellent addition to leg day.
These are a very niche item and you might not see too many people making use of these, especially in a more commercial gym. Fat Gripz are a brand (though you can get other models that do the same thing, just called fat grips) and products that are made from high grade rubber to increase the thickness of a dumbbell or bar.
They are small and portable and pull open and snap shut around bars to add an extra inch or two to the diameter of the bar to allow for thick bar training. Thick bar training is an old school method of increasing grip strength however it also have many other benefits.
Thick grip training is easier on the wrist and elbow joint as the tension of the weight is placed over a greater surface area. Also having to squeeze and grip a bar with a thicker diameter requires more tension and ultimately more muscle fibres recruited in the upper arms.
Fat Gripz are therefore mostly used for arm and grip training. They are however an incredible tool to have with you for building a physique. Traditional thick bars are a specialty item and therefore not readily available at most gyms.
Having these easily portable items that can wrap around most bars means that you can take your training up a level without needing to search out expensive specialist equipment.
Just to demonstrate the effectiveness of grip force to muscle tension try the following:
Raise your right arm as though you are going to flex and show of your biceps however don’t actually tense or contract your biceps. Now place your left hand around your upper arm, this doesn’t need to be a tight grip a firm hold will do. Finally squeeze your right fist (the raised arm) as hard as you possibly can.
Once you’ve done this you should easily realize how much your upper arm contracts and tenses as a result. Being able to replicate this on arm specific exercises is a key to maximum muscle fibre recruitment and that is why Fat Gripz are such a useful gym bag essential.
If you want to find out how you can incorporate Fat Gripz into your workout then you can check out my post here that covers exercise selection in detail:
Resistance bands are something that took me a long time to see the importance of and this was for a few reasons. The first and main reason why you should use resistance bands is to warm up your muscles and joints prior to training.
Mobility drills are crucial for activating the muscles and joints that you intend to work during the session and resistance bands are a low impact way of activating your muscles without fatiguing them. This is of particular importance for smaller support muscles like the rotator cuff, supporting muscles of the scapula and pec minor.
Correctly activating these muscle groups is not only important for performance but also injury prevention as usually an injury will occur due to an inactive support muscle being placed under a heavy load.
The second reason however is to add increased tension to exercises with less than optimal strength curve. The strength curve of a movement is basically the points where the load is the greatest during the movement.
A bench press for example is more difficult at the bottom of the movement than it is at the top, a deadlift is also harder for the first portion of the movement however once you get it past your knees (the sticking point) then it becomes much easier.
The issue with conventional moves is that an exercise will lose tension at certain points of the movement, during a squat and deadlift there is almost no tension on the active muscles at the top of the movement.
Resistance bands therefore help to apply tension for the full range of motion of an exercise but alternatively help to reduce sticking points in certain lifts to get more reps at a certain weight.
Banded pull ups for example will help you at the bottom of the movement which is often the hardest and then you can finish the movement where you are strongest for a peak contraction.
For the multiple uses of a resistance band you should definitely have these in your arsenal, you just need to check out world renowned hypertrophy coaches John Meadows and Joe Bennet (better known as the hypertrophy coach) to see how they utilize bands to manipulate the strength curve of certain exercises.
Ok I need to admit that a dipping belt is not necessarily an essential item because you can get a similar result by placing a dumbbell between your legs. The reason I prefer dipping belts though is because they are useful for people past the beginning stage of training.
When you get to a point where you are strong in body weight exercises and have started to prioritize pull ups and dips as a primary compound movement in your routine (which you should do as it provides a different stimulus) it gets a lot harder to try and hold 100lb dumbbells between your legs.
This is therefore a very specific accessory that probably won’t be a gym bag essential for most people but the more advance you get in your training the more benefit you will see for getting stronger in these two basic lifts.
A weighted pullup is an all round strength and muscle builder of the upper back, I like lat pulldowns because you can get locked into position and can apply force into the pad with your legs creating more mechanical tension which is key for muscle growth.
A combination of the two however will produce optimal results and getting stronger in the pullup and dip will have carryover to all of your other lifts.
For this reason I personally feel a dipping belt is an essential item but really it’s once you start to get more advanced in your training.
Last but not least is a shaker bottle for your pre, intra and post workout shake. Peri workout nutrition is a key to muscle growth and neglecting this aspect of your diet (and training) will mean that you are leaving gains on the table.
You can of course build a great physique without the use of shakes however for optimal training sessions there is no denying that correct nutrition is key and for practicality reasons shakes and supplementation is the best approach to take.
A combination of fast digesting carbs, protein and if needed a training stimulus will ensure that your fuel for a workout is optimal whilst also enhancing your recovery capabilities. For that reason a few shakers for multiple purposes will go a long way and are making it onto the gym bag essentials list for building muscle.
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