You may have heard a lot of conflicting opinions on using a lifting belt.
Is it a gym essential or simply a crutch which weakens your core?
What Is A Lifting Belt?
A lifting belt is a belt worn around the abdomen often just above the hips that braces the core. They’re normally made out of leather and there are a few different types available.
How Does A Lifting Belt Work?
Belts help you to lift more weight by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. Belts have to be worn fairly tight to achieve this. Intra-abdominal pressure increases muscle recruitment (meaning more strength) and reduces the load felt by your spine. Lifting belts also restrict your movement, making it easier to keep good form, or least more difficult to have really bad form.
For squats you should wear your belt as tight as you can tolerate, and you’re usually best wearing it one notch looser for deadlifts.
Types Of Lifting Belts
There are three main types of lifting belts.
Velcro Back Supports
These are basically like socks for your back. They’ll keep the area warm, but they’re not really going to do anything else.
These provide some resistance to push against but not much, if you exercise for a bit of recreation but aren’t too bothered about getting super strong, these will do the job.
These are the belts that make the difference, the benefits of the other belts don’t even really compare with those of powerlifting belts. Why? Because powerlifting belts are thicker and tougher and therefore allow for more support.
Just to be clear before we go on, from now on I’m referring to the thicker 10-13mm belts used by powerlifters, strongman competitors, and heavy lifters across the globe.
Why Use A Lifting Belt?
There are a ton of reasons to use a lifting belt. There’s not as much science on lifting belts as you might think but it’s be demonstrated that they increase stability and enhance activation of muscles.
Anecdotally, my experience, and the experience of thousands other lifters is that it protects your back too.
I’ll occasionally grind out a final rep on the deadlift with a belt and my form will go to shit (not youtube shit, but my back will round) and I’ll be absolutely fine. Times when I’ve done this without a belt, I’ll have a gritty feeling in my back afterwards, not injured, but I’ll have definitely stressed some of the structures of my lower back that I hadn’t intended to.
Ultimately, the best protection against injury is training properly, but a belt is definitely a valuable addition.
Does A Lifting Belt Make Your Core Weak?
It’s a commonly held misconception that training with a belt makes your lower back and abdominal muscles weaker, after all, a belt is basically a crutch for your weakest area in the lift right?
People assume the lower back is often the weakest point in the deadlift, which is the lift a belt is most commonly used for, but often it’s not.
We often round our backs not because our core isn’t strong enough, but because our hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings) aren’t strong enough. Rounding the back brings our hips closer to the bar and improves our leverage. The core is mostly static in the deadlift and while it is sometimes the weakest point, you’d be wrong in many cases to assume that.
Squats are another exercise where belts are used, it’s more common for the core to hold you back in these but whether it does or doesn’t, the belt still reduces compressive forces on the spine reducing your chance of injury.
Why You Should Use A Belt Even If It Did Make Your Core Weaker
I’m a big fan of efficiency, but also of focusing on one thing at a time.
If you want a stronger core, train your core. if you want to lift heavier more safely, use a belt.
You can do both.
My experience is that using a belt with heavier weights than you could safely handle otherwise actually strengthens your core very effectively anyway.
When Should I Use A Lifting Belt?
I’d suggest that you get proficient in the main compound lifts before you go out and buy a belt. After that point, it’s good to use a belt when lifting over 80% of your one rep max (1RM).
What is your 1RM?
Your 1RM is the most you can lift for a single repetition in an exercise. So if you can squat 100kg for 1 rep, you should start using a belt around 80kg.
If you squat 80kg, you can belt up around 65kg.
This isn’t a rule as such, but I’m found it to be a good general guideline after a few years working with competitive powerlifters.
So if you want to get super strong and keep your back healthy, go buy a belt.
Until next time,