It’s always worth grabbing the popcorn and settling into the comments section when someone brings up topics like “How does a weightlifting belt work?” on social media. Some people swear by them – claiming they can lift more and are more stable with a belt, some people say that a lifting belt does the job your core should be doing and that using one is a crutch that won’t allow you to develop appropriate core muscles for heavy lifts.
Both parties usually make some pretty interesting arguments and some valid points. However, research does show that correct use of a weightlifting belt increases rectus abdomninis activation – creating more intra abdominal pressure, which helps to reduce compressive forces on the spine and increase stability of trunk muscles. Intra muscular pressure in the spinal erector muscles has also been shown to be increased when a weightlifting belt is used properly, stiffening the trunk and assisting with stabilization.
How lifting belts work…
When you perform a heavy lift such as a squat, you should be bracing your core to increase spinal stability. Intra abdominal pressure is created when you brace correctly, and increased if a valsalva maneuver is performed (Lifter takes a big diaphragmatic ‘belly breath’ and holds it for the rep – think of a balloon inflating inside your abdominal cavity, pushing your core muscles outwards).
A lifting belt acts a bit like an extra ring of core muscles to push against, further increasing intra abdominal pressure. This helps to create and maintain a very rigid core and keeps your spine in a strong and stable position throughout the lift. Having something to physically push against helps the lifter brace consistently for the whole movement. There is some evidence that using a belt may slightly increase bar speed and explosive power output for squats, and many people say they can lift more weight with a belt on. The jury is out on how much of that is placebo and extra confidence from ‘feeling’ more stable/safe.
Tips for using a lifting belt
The height the weight belt sits should be somewhere below your ribs and above your hips, exact positioning is up to individual preference.
The belt should be reasonably tight but not as tight as possible – you need some room to be able to take in your big ‘belly breath’. On the flip side, those gym dudes you see wandering around with their lifting belt hanging loose round their waist, taking selfies, and flexing in the mirror? The only thing that belt is helping them with is an ego boost!
Don’t use a weightlifting belt for all your sets, only when lifting heavy weights around 80-90% of your one rep max. This way you can practice proper bracing both with and without a belt – with a belt you brace outwards, without a belt it’s easier to brace inwards/downwards – imagine trying to pull the bottom of your ribs into your belly button.
Don’t rely on a weightlifting belt to fix bad form. If you can’t lift correctly without a weight belt, perfect your technique before using one.
Breathing techniques are important with a weightlifting belt, to create an increase in abdominal pressure. To brace, take a big deep breath in – fill your belly/diaphragm with air – and push your belly out laterally. Try to fill the space around the entire belt. Hold it until you are either past the sticking point of your lift, or have completed a full rep (or maybe even 2 reps). weightlifting belts are ineffecftive if you don’t do this.
Choosing the right weightlifting belt
Lifting belts come in many different shapes, sizes, and materials. The right belt for you will largely depend on your training style/goals, and which weightlifting exercises you want one for.
The most heavy-duty belts, typically used for Strongman and Powerlifting style training are up to 13mm thick, and 4 inches wide. Leather belts are popular as they are strong and durable, with a lever or pin buckle. Nylon and other synthetic materials are also available. These belts are often a little too wide for shorter women.
A more comfortable choice, and still very effective is a 3-inch wide belt, between 6.5 and 10mm thick. These are still great for powerlifting/strongman, and can also be used for crossfit or olympic lifting, and you won’t feel quite as much like you’re wearing some crazy waist corset.
If you’re an Olympic lifter or a Crossfitter, a tapered belt will allow you to move around more comfortably in your belt.
Velcro belts should generally be avoided as velcro can easily come undone while lifting, and belts with levers or prongs are typically more sturdy and easier to get consistent tension with.
Who should wear weightlifting belts
Most people who do strength training can wear a weight lifting belt. Those who lift heavy weights will benefit most – Powerlifters, Olympic lifters, Crossfitters and those doing Strongman training. Both recreational lifters and competitors can wear a belt – basically, anyone who is lifting heavy loads.
More advanced lifters will typically benefit more, and it is wise to practice lifting without a belt at times even if you do choose to wear one.
People who have had a back injury may benefit from wearing a belt.
Thor. No, really, in Norse mythology he had one.
Who shouldn’t wear weightlifting belts
Beginners shouldn’t wear lifting belts. They should learn to brace and stabilize correctly without one, and be able to lift roughly their body weight or more good technique before considering a belt.
Those with high blood pressure should exercise caution and refrain from wearing a weightlifting belt or performing the valsalva maneuver without medical guidance. The extra intra abdominal pressure causes blood pressure to spike.
People with a hernia should not use weightlifting belts, as the increased intra abdominal pressure can aggravate the hernia and potentially make it worse.
Women with pelvic floor issues should avoid weightlifting belts. Because they increase intra abdominal pressure, they can cause too much force to be put on the pelvic floor and contribute to bladder control issues – and while peeing during a heavy lift is a common issue with several memes dedicated to it, it is something that should be addressed rather than just dealt with.
People doing bicep curls in the squat rack probably don’t need to wear a belt, but you’d never do that….right?
What exercises can lifting belts be worn for?
Typically, belts are worn for heavy lifts where the lifter would benefit from added stability and stiffness of the erector spinae muscles, and where a tactile cue is helpful to ensure optimal bracing.
Weight belts are often worn for deadlifts and squats, as well as Olympic lifts – clean and jerk and the snatch. A belt can be utilized for overhead lifts such as the military press, push press,jerk, and variations, where keeping a neutral spine and maintaining core stability is important.
Ismana is a true clichéd ‘gym bunny’ and loves crossfit and powerlifting, which enable her to enjoy an active and adventurous lifestyle – the body will never be an obstacle before the mind is! Ismana loves to share her skills and knowledge with others, and is an experienced strength and performance coach, with a strong belief in keeping things simple when it comes to training.