Lifting Belts: To Use or Not To Use...
A lifting belt can be fantastic tool to boost your performance but they are very commonly misunderstood, and often misused.
You’ve probably seen someone wearing a thick lifting belt in the gym and wondered if it helps them lift better, or even more safely. The latter is actually the common perception, and according to this study found in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning a majority of surveyed belt wearers use one because they think it’ll help prevent injuries.
If you’re on the fence about buying a belt or whether or not you need a belt, or don’t understand the benefits or how to use a belt, here is the ultimate guide to using a lifting belt.
WHY WEAR A LIFTING BELT?
Wearing a belt can make the lift safer by assisting and preventing injury. For this reason, it also allows you to lift more weight. You put a belt on to be able to train at a higher intensity and more consistently given these important factors.
You can use a lifting belt for anything that’s demanding of your mid and low back. Examples: Squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, weighted carries, weightlifting movements, and the clean and jerk and snatch. See below for a more complete list of movements.
WHAT THEY DO:
Belts are there to assist you in bracing — acting as a second abdominal wall. The way you use a belt is not just by putting it on tight, but by putting it on, bracing and pushing into the belt.
For example, when someone tries to open a jar of pickles and has an issue with it, they make that funny noise and brace. They’re trying to get their whole body involved in the simple task of opening a jar. We want to brace our core and push our abdomen into the belt for each rep.
The belt supports your abs — NOT your back
In reality, a weightlifting belt primarily supports your abs, not (directly for) your back. It sounds backwards, but here’s why: The belt acts like a second set of abs to prepare your entire body to lift heavy loads, something we similarly discussed when we talked about “breathing” and lifting here. The short version is that to brace yourself for those super heavy lifts you’d take a deep belly breath and hold it, a method of “breathing” called the Valsalva maneuver.
The Valsalva maneuver helps create intra-abdominal pressure that cushions and supports your spine. And that’s where a weightlifting belt bestows its powers. With a lifting belt, you do your deep belly breath into the belt, which pushes back against your abs. This amplifies the effects of that intra-abdominal pressure, and in turn, helps protect your back and lets it handle the stress of heavier loads even better. This study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise confirms that the resulting pressure is greater and builds faster than it would without a belt.
The belt increases your lifting efficiency so you could bang out a little more weight than you would without one. Of course, that is assuming you know how to properly lift and have fine technique in the first place. In the end, you lift a tad more weight and get more stability where you need it (your trunk and torso).
WHEN TO USE A LIFTING BELT:
You can wear a belt whenever you want––from the start to finish of your workout. But if you’re using it as a crutch, you might want to set certain standards in your workout or certain weights that you’ll want to add a belt in. You may also want to add in training days here and there without a belt to refrain from becoming too dependent on it.
A weightlifting belt is not a fashion statement; it’s a training tool.
Most lifters prefer using a belt for squats and deadlifts, where a little extra support can keep the spine from buckling during these power lifts. That means experienced lifters throw the belt on for near-maximum efforts, and take it off for regular training and warm-ups. Just so we’re clear, “near-maximum” is a weight that is 80% or more of your maximum lift. The exact percentage is often arbitrary, so wear it when you think you really need the extra support on big lifts.
That said, knowing when you need to wear it and when you don’t comes with experience, and can also depend on your training style (high volume versus low volume, for example).
You can always use a lifting belt, but that doesn’t mean you need to go heavier with a belt. You still want to focus on proper form and good technique and becoming efficient at the movement. From there you can utilize the belt to increase your volume and intensity of training. You also do not always need a belt, but you don’t need running water or electricity either, but they’re very nice to have.
Belts are intended to provide some safety by helping to prevent injury, such as herniated and slipped discs and hernias, but will not prevent 100% of all injuries.
The reason people get hurt is somewhere in their core, abdomen, or mid- to low-back, there is a breakdown and they no longer have the ability to hold the position. So the belt is just reinforcement so you are able to hold the position.
The goal with training with a belt is not to train through an injury, it’s to help prevent injuries. The easiest way to make gains or progress is to train over the course of a long period of time. The healthier you can stay and more you can prevent injuries makes that journey easier and your goals easier to attain.
HOW TO USE A LIFTING BELT:
If you’ve never used a lifting belt, start by placing it where your splitting your belly button horizontally. From there, everyone is going to have to learn where they get more benefit from the belt. Don’t be afraid to try it in different places. Start there, and then you’re going to have to learn where you want to place it, whether that’s higher or lower or angled higher in the back and lower in the front, or lower in the front and higher in the back. To find out how to use the belt effectively, do not be afraid to try it in different positions.
Also, be smart. Don’t move your belt to a spot you’ve never worn it for your top set or a heavy set.
A good way to learn how to brace and push into your belt is to do core/ab work in your belt. For example, you can do sit ups off a GHD, weighted side bends, planks, or any core exercise you can think of. You would wear the belt loose and brace by engaging your core and pushing into the belt during the whole movement. That’s an easy way to learn how to brace and push into the belt effectively.
HOW TIGHT SHOULD THE BELT BE?
As tight as you need it. But you can put a belt on too tight. You will know if it’s too tight if it’s limiting your mobility or range of motion. And if you can’t take a full deep breath with the belt on, it’s too tight. For example: if someone is rushing to get the belt off after a set, then the belt is on too tight.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF BELTS:
Belts come in different thicknesses, different widths and different fasteners. Some come tapered towards the front and some are the same width all the way around. There are single-prong, double-prong, Velcro and lever belts. Which one you should buy is determined by personal preference. Keep in mind that if you have a smaller frame (female and lightweight males), the 4 in width belts all the way around might be a little too big and uncomfortable, so you might want to look into getting a tapered belt.
The benefits of each:
Single-Prong - Simple and easy to get on and off
Double-Prong - Same as single prong just harder to get on at times
Lever Belts - Simplest to get on, but one issue is if you have a different amount of tightness you want for different movements, then you have the take the belt apart and move your clamp to adjust.
Velcro - Velcro are simple and easy but don’t always stay secure. You don’t want to take a heavy lift and have it pop off.
Lists of movements in which you can use your belt:
Any of the squat movements. Examples include:
Clean and jerks
Heavy dumbbells if needed
Any variation of the deadlift. Examples include:
Stiff legged deadlifts