As you gathered from the title of this article, its purpose is to discuss the issue of weightlifting belts in relation to training. From hearing talk in the gym and from people posting on many sites dedicated to training, there appears to be a few misconceptions regarding their use (e.g. Are they counterproductive to training? What is their specific purpose? Which belts are the best and why?). In this article I will discuss the answers to these questions and others in an attempt to give you a greater understanding regarding their usefulness and practical application.
Purpose of a belt
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of a weightlifting belt is to indirectly support the spine during heavy compound lifts (e.g. squats and deadlifts), as the belt allows for increased abdominal contraction as well as an increase in pressure generated within the abdominal and thoracic cavities. Together, these actions give the wearer greater spine stability under heavy loads, thus decreasing injury risk. It almost goes without saying that those people who you’ve seen wearing a belt during wrist or bicep curls will derive absolutely no benefit from such practise (besides looking ridiculous, of course).
One line of thought is that wearing a belt slows the rate of strength gain by acting as a temporary crutch. There appears to be some truth to this statement as wearing a belt can decrease the activation of the lower back muscles during lifting. However, since your abdominal muscles can contract harder with the use of a belt, this may actually strengthen these muscles, as well as reducing the compression forces on the spine. It therefore appears that there is some trade-off between the potentially positive aspects of wearing a weightlifting belt (e.g. greater abdominal activation and decreased spine compressibility) vs. the potentially negative aspects (e.g. decreased activation of the trunk extensor muscles).
What type of belt is required?
Well-designed weightlifting belts are the ones that are the same width all the way round (typically four inches), and are often referred to as powerlifting belts. According to Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength and world-renowned strength coach, many of the cheaper belts (the ones that are narrow at the front and widen at the back) are designed by people who don’t understand the function of a belt. Given that the purpose of a belt is to allow greater abdominal contraction and increased pressure within the abdominal and thoracic cavities, a belt which is the same width all the way round would appear to be the most optimal design, though heavy weights have certainly been moved whilst using the tapered variety.
A thick leather belt will usually be the stiffest and most durable, though a cheaper Velcro belt does the job better than no belt. The leather ones come with either a traditional belt style buckle or a lever; the latter are easier to get on and off, though they tend to cost quite a bit more than the buckled variety. If your bodyweight tends to fluctuate, I’d go with the buckle type belt, as you may find yourself having to keep adjusting the back of the lever with a screwdriver. Otherwise, if you can justify the higher cost, the lever belts are probably a better choice given their greater ease of use.
How to use the belt
Though it would appear as simple as just putting the belt on and lifting the weight, using a belt properly is a matter of practise. Firstly, the belt should be around your natural waist (in between the top of your pelvis and bottom of your ribs). Secondly, it shouldn’t fit too tight as this would be counterproductive in trying to isometrically contract your abdominal muscles while wearing the belt. It is also important that it isn’t too slack, as this will have pretty much the same effect as not wearing a belt at all. A simple way of identifying the optimal tightness is by making adjustments until you feel you can contract your abdominal muscles their hardest after breathing in.
Using the squat as an example, once you have found your optimum positioning and tightness, maintain your spine stability as you normally would (i.e. holding a deep breath and contracting your abdominal muscles, as well as maintaining a slight arch in the lower back); there is no need to push your stomach against the belt as a lot of people suggest, as this will at best, produce the same result, or, at worst, cause an injury due to spinal flexion. The most effective way to think of things is to correctly perform the movement as if you aren’t even wearing a belt!
I’ve purposefully left the main point of the article for last (i.e. are belts beneficial? And when are they useful?). As weightlifting belts undoubtedly increase spine stability when used correctly, they are certainly beneficial, as this could decrease the risk of spinal injury in susceptable people. Additionally, because wearing a belt allows the abdominal muscles to contract harder, as well as allowing the lifter to move more weight, it is hard to argue against the idea of greater rates of overall strength gain while wearing a belt. However, the reduced trunk extensor activity means that the user has to weigh up the potential positives and negatives with regards to wearing a lifting belt, as a weaker lower back also has the potential to cause an injury or limit overall strength gains in the long run.
If you have never suffered from any spinal injuries and your abdominal muscles are strong, there isn’t really a need for a lifting belt, especially if you never plan to lift competitively. I would also recommend that beginners should hold off investing in a belt for two reasons. Firstly, it is important that they perfect their lifting technique; any device that may interfere with this learning process isn’t productive to this process. Secondly, a beginner wouldn’t be lifting really heavy weights during the early stages of their training. For this reason, a belt wouldn’t be necessary.
Ultimately, if you already use or plan on using a belt, they should be used judiciously as they may interfere with the strengthening of the lower back muscles. For this reason, the only instance in which I can see them as being beneficial is during heavier work sets in which greater spine stability is desired. Other than that, I don’t see how belts can be useful. It is a much better approach to build your natural belt through progressive weight training using mainly compound movements and a few direct assistance exercises (if needed), and use a belt only when necessary. For the majority of trainees, this is probably never.