In the "Tools of the Trade" series, we highlight important training tools, methods, and protocols to help improve performance and health. This post focuses on one of the most ubiquitous pieces of gym equipment, the Weight Belt. (And if you're into this kind of stuff, be sure to check out my previous Tools of the Trade post: Pull-Ups.)
First off, a weight belt is not there to protect you. It's not a back support and it won't keep you from damaging your spine if you're lifting with bad mechanics. The only thing that keeps you safe in the weight room is lifting properly. If belts could magically make everyone lift with ideal mechanics, I'd be doing something else right now instead of writing this post. While weight belts definitely provide a great service in the world of weightlifting and powerlifting, what about athletes weight-training specifically for their sport? Should all athletes use weight belts while lifting—or can a weight belt actually cause more harm than good?
THE CASE FOR BELTS
Before we unpack how weight belts can help athletes in the weight room, we first have to know what wearing a weight belt actually does for the lifter. The purpose of a weight belt is to allow the lifter to create more overall tension through the midsection than is possible without a belt. This tension increases the stability of the spine and allows for even more force to be produced than without a belt, which can result in more weight being lifted. Wearing a weight belt at the right time, for the right lifts, can make you stronger than if you didn’t wear a belt. Belts are a great tool for maximal attempt lifts. They not only allow the abdominals to push against something in order to create more internal pressure, but they also provide a mental feeling of increased tightness through the midsection. The psychological boost can come in handy, especially when attempting to max out your back squat.
A personal rule I follow when it comes to belts and heavy attempts is to limit the use of a weight belt to lifts at 80% or higher of my 1RM. If possible, I save the belt for even higher attempts, in order to maximize my body’s ability to stabilize my spine sans-belt. But for your heavy lifts, a weight belt can feel like a warm, protective hug shielding you against the massive weight your body is working against.
THE CASE AGAINST BELTS
The problem with weight belts isn’t the belt itself, but rather improper use of the belt. For the great majority of your training, a weight belt simply isn’t necessary: belts are primarily used in squats, presses, and deadlifts. And even then, wearing a belt is still based on your personal preference and comfort in those lifts. While lifting with a belt can be beneficial for certain lifts, training too often with a belt—or, more accurately, training with a belt when you don’t need a belt—can actually be detrimental to your performance.
A huge reason free-weight-based compound movements are so effective as training modalities is that they force the body to brace itself under load. Maintaining stability through the trunk improves the transfer of force through the entire body, improves trunk control, and supports the spine—making you a better, more efficient, and safer athlete. But wearing a weight belt too often, or for movements where it’s not needed, artificially provides tension to the torso and can impede an athlete’s ability to naturally strengthen the core. It is crucial for an athlete to know how to brace their core and keep a neutral spine BEFORE introducing a belt as a training tool. Therefore, the novice athlete has little to no use for a belt. Intermediate and advanced athletes with a few years of training under their belt (see what I did there?) can use a weight belt to help them progress in strength without detriments to their ability to brace the core.
Belts won’t make or break your training in the weight room. They are a nice addition for maximal attempts, but won’t be one of the most used tools in your training arsenal. Don’t fret if you don’t have a belt: you can still lift effectively at maximal attempts without one. If you are interested in trying out a weight belt, I recommend the Velcro Valeo Low Profile as a nice affordable option, the leather Eleiko Weightlifting Belt for something more substantial, or the Rogue 13mm Powerlifting Belt if you want some serious thickness. Remember: using a belt isn’t mandatory for heavy lifts, nor does it make those lifts suddenly risk-free from injury. Belt or no belt, as long as you are performing your squats with proper positioning and good bracing of the spine and torso, all should be right in the world—and the weight room.
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