Weighing In On Weight Belts
Is a weight belt right for you?
The weight belt is one of the first pieces of lifting gear to which a lifter will ever be exposed. Unfortunately, the image of that one guy at the gym who walks around with his belt on throughout his whole workout is permanently etched in the mind of anyone who lifts. But have you ever stopped to ask why exactly you should wear a lifting belt? Here are the pros and cons of lifting belts, when you should wear one, and what you should look for in a lifting belt.
A weight belt’s function
A weightlifting belt has one main purpose: It reduces stress on the lower back while the person is lifting in an upright position. A belt reduces lower back stress by compressing the contents of the abdominal cavity. This increases intra-abdominal pressure, providing more support in front of the bones of the lower back. This reduces the stress on the spinal erector muscles during the lift. To create this intra-abdominal pressure, the belt must be cinched very tightly around the waist. The lifter must then fill his or her belly with air, taking a deep breath while pushing the abdominals out into the belt. This position must be held the whole time the lifter is under the bar, requiring the lifter to hold his or her breath throughout to maintain stability.
Now, there are downsides to wearing a lifting belt. First of all, increasing intra-abdominal pressure can cause serious spikes in blood pressure. FUSION Bodybuilding’s own powerlifter Chris Armes can attest to this, having blacked out from such a blood pressure spike during a training squat attempt with 903 pounds on his back. If one has high blood pressure to begin with, this could become a serious problem.
Secondly, although reducing stress on one’s spinal erectors sounds like a positive trait, the only way to strengthen a muscle is to put it under tension. Reducing stress on these muscles means that their development is stunted. The same goes for the abdominals, which are also activated to a lesser degree if a belt is worn too often. The belt becomes a crutch, rather than a tool in a lifter’s toolbox.
When to use a belt
When, then, should one wear a belt? A properly set lifting belt should be tight enough that wearing it constantly is not an option. The person who wears a belt throughout the whole workout is not wearing it tightly enough to reap any sort of gain from it. A general rule of thumb is that a belt should only be worn on your heaviest working sets of lifts, such as the squat, deadlift and possibly standing military press (to avoid excessive spinal flexion), and only when needed. Warm-up sets and lighter working sets should be done without a belt.
How to use a belt
When wearing a belt, a general guideline is to cinch it as tightly around the midsection as possible for the squat, while leaving it one notch looser for the deadlift to allow you to get in proper position. Before removing the bar from the rack (or commencing the pull, when deadlifting), the lifter should breathe deeply into his or her stomach, and push the abdominals out hard against the belt. This must be maintained throughout the entire lift. Far too often, lifters will hold their air up in their chests, sucking their midsections in before unracking. This not only defeats the purpose of the belt but also actually decreases the lifter’s core stability and increases the chance of injury.
Choosing a good belt
Finally, what should one look for in a belt? The standard tapered belt seen in gyms worldwide is perhaps the worst possible design a manufacturer could come up with. Not only is the front too narrow to brace your abs against, but the construction is also usually very flimsy. They are made of cheap leather, which will stretch, and the added padding on the inside of these belts defeats the purpose as well. One should invest in a good-quality powerlifting belt. Power belts are 10 centimeters (four inches) wide throughout the entire length of the belt, and range in thickness from 10 to 15 millimeters (0.4 to 0.6 inches). They are solidly built and designed to withstand a lifetime of wear and tear. While the upfront costs may be greater than with your standard sporting-goods store belt, such a belt will likely last the duration of your lifting career.