One of the most common questions I get is: should I wear a lifting belt? And if so, why and when do I wear it? Well here’s the deal, like most things – it DEPENDS.
Why a belt? Here’s the basics:
- It can help you learn how to brace properly
- It allows you to lift more weight
- It’s another accessory you can sport at the gym
- You will automatically look stronger
- …or weaker if you wear a belt doing wall balls
Let’s start by talking a little bit about bracing. You need to forget all that nonsense about breathing in on the way down and out on the way up – or the opposite depending what you learned in your high school gym class. Breathing is important because it has a great deal to do with bracing, which helps us stay “tight” in a strong position during a lift. When beginning a lift your first thought should be about bracing or “setting” your core, and this begins with the proper breath. Before the lift take a big breath and think about pushing your core outward. Put your thumbs on your obliques (abdominal muscles on the side of your stomach) and literally to try to push outward into your thumbs as you inhale and expand your diaphragm.
This creates tension throughout our body which keeps the core “tight” or strong during the lift. This is called intra-abdominal pressure and it is key to lifting heavy weight. Hold the breath as you begin the movement and then exhale only once you have passed the “sticking point” of the lift. Repeat the same steps for the next rep. Now I should note that this is specific to strength work (sets of 1-5 repetitions) so please do not try holding your breath during a CrossFit or Endurance workout!
If you are having trouble with bracing during a lift, a belt can help give you more feedback by thinking about pushing into the belt while lifting.
Strong Core= Bigger Lifts
In all human movement our body works best with stability coming from “Core to Extremity”. This means that in order to create more force through our limbs like: throwing a jab in boxing, kicking a soccer ball, or squatting 500 pounds you will be more successful when your core is tight.
Consider the boxing example and think about a “tight” core like an anchor point for your arm. To apply greater force more effectively you would want the anchor to be stationary not mobile. Lifting heavy weights works the same way. Stabilizing your core (abs, hips, spine) leads to greater production of force.
If you want to get stronger the simple answer is to: lift more weight, more often. You may want to consider a belt because it will increase the stimulus to your muscles and nervous system. This can have immense implications to improving your strength numbers.
It is particularly true in some movements where your core might be the “weakest link” preventing you from moving a load your limbs could otherwise tolerate. A great example is a front squat where having the load of the bar across your shoulders creates greater stress on your core than a back squat. Meaning you may feel unable to stand up out of the squat from your core failing (rounding of the spine) rather than your legs not being able to lift the load.
If you are a strength athlete competing in powerlifting, weightlifting or trying to increase power for sport-performance a belt is a good idea in some capacity. As I mentioned earlier: increasing load+frequency will result in bigger lifts. Just like anything there is a time and place for the best results.
A belt undoubtedly increases stability and tension throughout the body, which will increase the load you can tolerate, but the question becomes at what cost?
I should mention that a belt is not a back brace and will NOT prevent injury. If you need a belt to lift without pain – that’s a serious red flag and something is wrong!
The belt will improve lifts acutely, but chronically we may be lacking core strength & positioning by relying on a belt too much. Lifting weights without a belt is one of the greatest core exercises you can perform, especially if you include tempo and pause work into your program!
We only want to use a belt to enhance performance, not as a crutch. If you use a belt too much you are missing out on strengthening your core and can also lose sensitivity to movement patterns and the ability to “feel” good or bad positions.
If you are a recreational athlete or weekend warrior you may want to skip the belt altogether. Is hitting 20 pounds more on your squat really worth it just so your ego can say you beat Johnny in the workout?
Beware that using a belt is the gateway drug to all the other “gear” -it’s proven science! Before you know it you will be rocking knee sleeves, lifters, wrist wraps, and a mouth guard to do a rowing workout – you don’t wanna be that guy!
If at the end of this discussion you are feeling torn because you are not an elite lifter, but want to reach your peak potential let me leave you with one last thought! A happy medium is to save the belt for specific circumstances rather than a daily habit. Don’t use a belt for any weights less than 80% of your 1RM. This will allow you to train without a belt and improve core strength and bracing ability, but also give you that extra boost when hitting heavier percentages. It will increase the stimulus you get from getting under heavier loads and allow you to use it as a tool rather than a crutch.
If you take one thing from this article I hope it is that you realize there can be a time and a place for everything. The key is in understanding your “why” and not sacrifice what you want right now for what you want most.