I was recently working with a weightlifter that was trying to get over some nagging knee pain. During our session I had her perform a few sets of heavy back squats so I could watch her technique. Before she would approach the bar, I noticed she would take the weightlifting belt hanging around her waist and fasten it as tightly as she could. It was as if she was donning an 18th century corset just before she attempted the back squat.
As she finished I asked her, “Has anyone taught you how to use a weightlifting belt before?” With a perplexed look across her face she countered my question with one of her own, “Don’t you just wear it really tight?”
The weightlifting belt is one of the most common training accessories. Walk around any gym in the world and you’re bound to see a few people wearing one. What I’ve come to find is that a large majority of athletes and coaches are using belts incorrectly.
Why Use a Belt?
Athletes who regularly wear a belt will cite that its helps them lift with better technique and keep their back safe. I’ve talked with many who swear by the weightlifting belt and will use it for their entire workout. While others will only use it during maximum attempts.
I’ve talked with some athletes, however, who never wear a belt. They often claim that their core stability and back strength is good enough to lift without one.
So who is right? Does a belt really provide that much additional help when performing squats? And if so, does it need to be used all the time or just with maximum attempts?
A weightlifting belt provides additional stability for your lower back (3). It does so by aiding your core muscles. If you remember back to our lecture article on correct breathing mechanics during the squat, you would recall that creating stability in your lower back is all about breathing and bracing.
When we get under a heavy barbell, we need to take a big breath and brace our trunk muscles so that the weight on the bar does not bend us in two. Doing so amplifies the pressure inside our abdominal cavity. If you breathe correctly during a heavy squat you will feel your stomach rise and fall. Not your chest.
Essentially the volume of the body’s intra-abdominal cavity will increase when we take a big breath. If we couple this expansion in our core by bracing our muscles, the pressure inside the abdominal cavity grows because the volume can no longer expand. This is how intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is created. The belt is just another “layer” that halts the expansion of our abdominal cavity thereby increasing IAP even more.
Think of your abdominal cavity like a balloon. As you blow air into the balloon, it expands. If you place some light stretchy tape around the balloon and try to blow air into it again, it won’t expand as much. The tape acts like the muscles that surround our core. Because the balloon can no longer expand in size, the pressure inside the balloon goes up.
However, what if you now place some hard duct tape around the balloon and try to blow air into it again. By restricting the expansion of the balloon to a greater degree than with the stretchy tape alone, the pressure inside the balloon rises even more! This is what happens when we wear a belt.
The belt does not replace our core muscles, but rather it acts as another restraint. A belt combined with a correctly braced core is more stable than no belt. Research has shown IAP values can increase anywhere from 20-40% when wearing a belt during a heavy squat (1).
How to Use a Belt
In order to properly use a belt, you must breathe “into the belt”. If you only wear it tightly around your waist, you miss out on the potential of the brace. Always think about expanding your stomach into the belt and then bracing against it.
Researchers have shown that athletes who wear a belt correctly tend to lift heavier weights with more explosive power. They are also able to maintain their trunk stiffness for more reps during higher rep maximum lifts like an 8 RM attempt (1,2).
When to Wear Your Belt
While it is clear that wearing a weightlifting belt can contribute to more stability in your low back during barbell squatting, its benefits need to be taken with some caution. While wearing a belt can be very helpful on heavy lifts, the long-term use of a belt on ALL lifts can have some harmful effects.
By using a belt ALL the time, the body naturally starts to rely on the passive support the belt supplies. You’re essentially weakening your core by relying on the belt as a crutch. Therefore, learning how to brace and create stability on your own with lighter weight should be the first priority of all lifters.
Our goal as a coach is to always ensure our athletes are safe and lifting with the best technique possible. A belt can help facilitate this. Some athletes will not use a belt, even with maximum attempts. That’s okay, as long as they maintain good technique. However, if you are going to use a belt you should know how to use one correctly. I recommend practicing with a lighter weight with the belt on, making sure you’re using correct breathing/bracing. Therefore, when you do attempt a heavy squat it will be second nature.
If you have a weightlifting belt, I caution you to use it sparingly. I often will keep mine in my gym bag until my heaviest or most intense training lifts.
Until next time,
- Lander JE, Hundley JR, Simonton RL. The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 May;24(5):603-609.
- Zink AJ, Whiting WC, Vincent WJ, McLaine AJ. The effect of a weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise. J of Strength Cond Res. 2011;15(2):235-240.
- Cholewicki J, Juluru K, Radebold A, Panjabi MM, McGill SM. Lumbar spine stability can be augmented with an abdominal belt and/or increased intra-abdominal pressure. Eur Spine J. 1999;8:388-395.