It’s become more common to see lifters wearing a mouthguard in the gym when lifting weights for various reasons including the belief that it can improve your strength.
So, do mouthguards make you stronger? Studies looking at strength improvements with mouthguards are generally sparse; however, there is evidence to support the act of jaw clenching in harnessing strength. Therefore, using a mouthguard as a protective measure to allow safe clenching is advised for optimal oral health.
There are several running theories for why a mouthguard can help improve strength ranging from aligning your body to improve your balance and posture to allowing your body to maintain rigidity to perform better under stress.
In this article we will go over the use of mouthguards in strength sports, the studies that currently have investigated their use, what other benefits they may provide beyond strength, whether you should purchase one as well as a product recommendation for powerlifters.
Mouthguards and Strength Sports
The use of Mouthguards in sports started in the early 20th century with it gaining even more popularity in the 50s and 60s especially in the sport of boxing and eventually in Football and Basketball where risk of contact injury is far greater.
The use of mouthguards with respect to lifting likely started within the bodybuilding community in the 80s where bodybuilders were finding that clenching down allowed them to get more reps in and work to failure.
The theory behind clenching allowing you to work harder is similar to why a gripping the handle on a muscle isolation machine or gripping the barbell tightly will help you do the same and is called concurrent activation potentiation (CAP).
Concurrent activation potentiation just means that your overall strength is optimized when activating muscles that aren’t part of the muscles involved in the specific movement. Therefore creating whole body tension, including the head and neck, will have downstream effects to other muscles.
An example of concurrent activation potentiation is actually the use of the valsalva maneuver and holding your breath even when performing muscle isolation exercises like a bicep curl where spinal rigidity isn’t technically “required.”
Therefore the mouthguard itself isn’t a magic pill for improved strength, but rather allows you to safely clench and create whole body tension without putting your neck and mouth at risk of injury.
To learn more about the valsalva maneuver, check out: Why Do Powerlifters Hold Their Breath? (5 Benefits)
Do Mouthguards Increase Strength (7 Studies)
While studies don’t exist that directly look at powerlifters and whether clenching on a mouthpiece improves strength on the squat, bench and deadlift, there are some studies looking at the effect of a mouthpiece and just clenching in general on performance.
Study 1: Creating Tension Through Jaw Clenching
“Jaw clenching is a valid way to help you activate your muscles”
A 2008 study didn’t directly look into the use of mouthguards but rather the concurrent activation potentiation (CAP) phenomenon. The subjects were asked to do a knee extension while also clenching their jaw, using the valsalva maneuver and gripping with the hands.
The study concluded that these different methods of creating tension do help with improving strength and support the existence of CAP and suggest that jaw clenching is a valid way to help you activate your muscles.
Study 2: Grip Strength Performance
“There is a significant effect on handgrip force when the jaw is clenched”
A 2016 study on jaw clenching specifically concluded that it would be advisable to have a bite-aligned mouthpiece to improve strength and performance. They looked at isometric grip strength and the ability to jump and found a significant effect on handgrip force when subjects clenched their jaw.
Study 3: Leg Press Performance
“There was significant improvement in leg press performance when using a mouthpiece”
“There was significant improvement in leg press performance when using a mouthpiece”
A 2018 study looked at the differences in various types of performance while using a traditional mouthguard used by contact sport athletes, no mouthguard and a bite-regulated mouthpiece.
The most relevant finding for strength athletes would be that there was a significant improvement in leg press performance when using a bite-regulated mouthpiece when compared to just a generic mouthguard and, although not statistically significant, there was an improvement when compared to the no mouthpiece condition.
Interestingly, bench press performance showed no significant improvement among the 3 groups which could potentially suggest that its effect may be more pronounced in squats and deadlifts over the bench press.
Although more investigation is definitely needed, anecdotally, I don’t wear my mouthpiece as frequently with the bench press because I’ve noticed it doesn’t do much for me in that position.
Study 4: Power Cleans & Muscle Activation
“Athletes reported feeling stronger”
A 2015 study looked at a number of mouthguards and their effect on weightlifters performing submaximal power cleans. One finding was that there was more muscle activation in present when wearing one of the tested products suggesting further research is needed on its effect on muscle activation.
A takeaway to keep in mind with this study is that the athletes reported feeling stronger and less restricted when wearing a custom fitted mouthpiece.
Although one’s perception doesn’t automatically doesn’t mean a casual relationship, it does suggest that it may at least have a positive effect on the psychology of the athlete’s performance which is not something to be overlooked.
Study 5: Vertical Jump Performance
“Improved performance on lower body power exercises”
A 2012 study looked at the effect of over-the-counter and custom mouthguards on the performance of trained men and women. The findings suggest improved performance on lower body power exercises (vertical jump) in men and in upper body loaded power exercises in men and women when wearing a custom mouthguard.
This study suggests a preference for a custom-fitted mouthguard for performance when harnessing explosiveness. It’s also worthy to note that there weren’t any detrimental effects on performance observed with any of the test conditions meaning at worst its effects are neutral.
Study 6: Strength & Power
“It doesn’t need to be avoided if it’s preferred by the athlete”
A 2015 study looked at the effect of over-the-counter mouthguards on various factors including strength and power and found no significant performance improvements in their sample.
However, the author’s also noted that there was no negative impact of using a jaw-repositioning mouthguard and so its use doesn’t need to be avoided if it’s preferred by the athlete at an individual level.
Study 7: Isometric Strength of The Head & Neck
“Biting down makes you feel stronger”
A 1999 study wasn’t done for the purpose of assessing athletic performance, but rather investigated the muscle activation in different bite positions. The findings suggested that your bite does impact the isometric strength of the head and neck (cervical) muscles.
While the study isn’t specific to powerlifting, we know that being able to achieve full body tension to lift maximal weight is important. And perhaps it’s less about the mouthguard and more about the act of biting down that may be making those who use a mouthguard feels as though they are stronger.
For our review of of the 5 best mouthguards for powerlifting, check out: Best 5 Mouth Guards For Powerlifting: Guide & Reviews (2021)
What Other Benefits Do Mouthguards Have for Lifting
Given the information that evidence for direct strength improvements is inconclusive, you may be hesitant to give it a shot, but the mouthguard is more than just a means to stronger lifts.
Protect from Dental Injuries and Damage
Breaking down and chipping of teeth from grinding and clenching while lifting can lead to cracks and holes in the teeth that then leave you vulnerable to cavities. In addition, long term temporomandibular joint dysfunction is not unheard of among those who lift weights from the tension and stress put on the muscles of the face and neck.
Aside from just breakage, undue stress on the teeth and jaw can cause recession of the gums as well as damage to the tissues inside your cheek, inside of your lips or the tongue.
If you are experiencing serious issues with this you will want to speak to your dentist about what’s best for you. However, starting the use of an over-the-counter mouthguard may be what you need to even just avoid going down that route entirely.
My personal choice in using a mouthguard was when I noticed persistent jaw tightness and receding gums from clenching or just holding my jaw in a suboptimal position when lifting and was encouraged to start wearing a mouthpiece by my dentist.
Prevent Lifting Headaches
Grinding and clenching down on your jaw creates stress in the muscles of your head and neck and can be the cause of post-exercise headaches.
Having something to keep your teeth separated while still providing a surface to bite down on may help alleviate the tension and improve the occurrence of these headaches.
Improved Airflow While Lifting Weights
A mouthguard not only keeps your teeth in place but it also keeps your mouth in a partially opened position. As a result you are able to bite down while still taking in air or releasing a controlled breath during the lift to help brace.
Some lifters pass out from holding their breath too aggressively when lifting maximal weights because they are clenching or creating so much head and neck tension without allowing any air flow.
Therefore a mouthguard may be a good option to help improve your breathing while you lift.
To learn more about the proper breathing and bracing techniques while lifting check out any of the following articles:
- Proper Breathing Technique For Squats (Step-By-Step Guide)
- How To Breathe Correctly In The Bench Press (Step by Step)
- How to Breathe Properly In The Deadlift
Should Powerlifters & Strength Athletes Wear Mouthguards?
Powerlifters should consider trying the use of a mouthguard as they get more advanced in the sport or as recommended by a professional.
When it comes to overall strength, a mouthpiece can not be considered necessary for good performance. It’s important to remember that there are elite competitors who do not wear a mouthguard when competing at the highest level of the sport and are able to still dominate despite this.
There are some top level competitors who find deadlifting with a belt to negatively impact or have little impact on their performance while most others swear their success on it.
I would still not prioritize a mouthguard before investing in a lifting belt, sleeves and good lifting shoes; however, it should be something you consider for yourself eventually.
Regardless of any potential performance benefits, I think a mouthguard should be worn by most, solely for its benefits on oral and jaw health especially as a lifter who naturally clenches when moving heavier weights.
Therefore, if you have concerns regarding clenching during lifting or are curious to see if having a mouthpiece is something that feels comfortable for you, trying it out is relatively harmless as reported by multiple studies mentioned above.
I personally use one and know several competitive powerlifters who do as well simply because it is an extra measure to improve whole body rigidity, providing an external cue to keep the jaw in place thereby protecting us from long term damage to the teeth and jaw.
Mouthguard Recommendation For Strength Training
The best mouthguard for powerlifters and strength athletes is the New Age Performance 6DS mouthpiece (click for today’s price on Amazon).
When choosing a mouthpiece you have two broad options: getting an appliance fitted by a dentist or choosing an over-the-counter option that can be molded simply by boiling and biting into it.
The former can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars and is inaccessible to many, so for everyday powerlifting purposes going for a boil and bite mouthguard is going to be a more realistic option.
The New Age Performance 6DS mouthpiece is specifically designed with powerlifters in mind and is the most rigid model they create. It is not a model that does well with cardio activity, but can withstand its shape and support while you lift heavy weights.
It not only provides support for the teeth when biting down, but also has barriers on the side of the appliance to prevent lateral movement of the jaw. There is also minimal obstruction on the front which makes it easy to still take in or release air while you lift.
The best part is that it’s easy to set up and shape to fit your bite. It is also the longest lasting of its kind with the ability to serve you for 3 months of consecutive use.
So yes, you will have to replace it after 3 months (I’ve actually pushed mine to 4-5 months). But again, that’s the same with any mouthguard.
The strength improvement from the use of mouthguards is still up for debate and is far from conclusive, but clenching is a common practice among powerlifters that a mouthguard can help facilitate. Many lifters love using them and even if the effects turn out to be placebo, there are no known detrimental effects to using one.
While its muscle strength benefit is questionable, its role in preventing dental issues, tension headaches and airflow is worth acknowledging and therefore will be a useful addition to anyone’s gym bag.