The use of weightlifting belts used to be limited to Olympic lifters and Powerlifting, however in recent years they have become much more widespread and now even people completely new to lifting are using them. Are they really necessary? And if so, what are the correct uses and are there any dangers?
Belts serve two main purposes. They reduce stress on the lower back when lifting in an upright position and help to prevent hyperextension when pressing overhead. A lot of people assume that the belt supports their back, however the actual point of the belt is to increase intra-abdominal pressure which help stabilise the abdomen. For this purpose the best one is a powerlifting type belt which is the same width all the way round. If you are using a belt with a thinner front section, my advice would be to wear it backwards so you can use it as intended.
How to wear it – The correct placing of the belt varies from person to person depending on their own body structure, but as a guide it should be worn around the small of your back and lower abdomen. You want it fairly low, but not so it pushes into your hips/pelvis at the bottom of a squat or deadlift. You want it fairly tight, but as your aiming to push your abs into it, my recommendation is to go for one notch looser than full tightness. This will also make it easier to remove after your set!
How to use it – In order to increase the intra-abdominal pressure, it is important to use the Valsava maneuver. Take a big breath into your belly (not diaphragm/chest), and push your stomach as hard as possible into the belt. Imagine your trying to blow out as hard as possible but with a closed mouth/throat. This pressure against the belt will then provide support around the whole midsection and feel nice and stable. If your belt is done up too tight (see previous point), you will struggle to get a big enough gulp of air into your belly as it’s already being restricted.
When to use it – I personally don’t advise using a belt for every exercise or even for every set of the big lifts. In order to increase your own core stability, you need your lower back and abs to function normally. Try and save the use of the belt for max effort sets only. Correctly performed squats, deadlifts, etc .. work your abdomen and lower back harder than any specific core-type training, especially under heavy load so do yourself a favour, skip the sit-ups and practice your main lifts. I’m not saying you shouldn’t train your abs, but remember the main purpose of your core is to stabilise the spine. When under load this is an absolute necessity, if you use a belt every set, you won’t increase your own strength & stability around the middle and may be more at risk of injury due to muscular imbalances. On top of that, when you do decide to lift without one, you will feel very weak and unstable.
Pro’s of belt use:
- Increased intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) to support spine
- Prevent hyper-extension of the lumbar spine
- Increased stability during main lifts
- Allows heavier weights to be used
- Reduced spinal shrinkage (lower back compression) due to increased IAP
Con’s of belt use:
- Inhibited motor recruitment patterns
- Increased blood pressure
- Injuries can be more severe – due in part to heavier loads being used
- Will not make up for bad technique
- Weaker core (if used excessively)
These are just some pro’s and con’s, if you are interested in a more in-depth study have a read of Stuart McGill’s review here.
In summary, belts are not necessary for most types of weight training in which the spinal erectors don’t work against heavy resistance – i.e. machine work or isolation exercises like bicep curls or lat raises. They can be used for heavy compound lifts, but I recommend only on max effort sets. Anyone with blood pressure problems or heart conditions should use them sparingly, if at all.
Most importantly – Do some research! don’t just throw on a belt because your mate/training partner tells you to, or you’ve read it in some forum somewhere. Read up on what they’re for and why to use them!