MYTH-BUSTING: Weightlifting Belts
Weightlifting belts have been around for a long time and come in all shapes and sizes. People typically wear them for higher intensity lifts or lifts at/near-maximum effort to give them a more powerful brace thus more support for the spine.
Like most things in exercise and nutrition, there is a convoluted message surrounding weightlifting belts and their use or misuse.
MYTH 1: Wearing a weightlifting belt makes your abs weak.
There is this idea that if we wear a tight piece of leather around our waist all of a sudden our abs no longer need to contract and that the belt will do all the work. Right? Wrong. Wearing a weightlifting belt serves as a means to achieve greater internal abdominal pressure (IAP) to brace a position when lifting weights. This can be done without a weightlifting belt, but a belt helps to A) provide a tactile stimulus (something to contract against) to encourage circumferential bracing, B) make the abdominal volume "smaller" so IAP can increase further, and C) reduce lumbar spine range of motion to increase stiffness. Most people find that they can brace harder with a weightlifting belt on thus giving them more trunk stability.
In fact, studies have shown that a weightlifting belt increases IAP to a significant degree aiding in trunk stability during high-intensity lifts. Having something to contract against gives the muscles of the core a better capacity to produce force.
MYTH-BUSTED: Intra-abdominal pressure increases with a belt on and the tactile stimulus of the belt helps to expand circumferentially. This combination of increased IAP and circumferential abdominal engagement serves to further stiffen the spine to give the lifter more stability under heavy load.
Correct positioning for bracing is seen on the left, with the diaphragm and pelvic floor properly aligned to create the "fluid ball" that gives our torso rigidity in lifting. Pulling the diaphragm down, maintaining neutral pelvic floor alignment (not anterior or posterior pelvic tilt), and using the abdominals circumferentially creates pressure from 360 degrees. A weightlifting belt used and worn properly can help increase that effect.
MYTH 2: You can lift more weight with a belt on.
This is a tricky one because if you are a more advanced lifter who knows how to brace without a belt then using one may help you to lift more.
I remember years ago when I was working the floor at my college gym a patron came up to me and asked "if I can squat 275# without a belt how much do you think I can lift with a belt on?" I responded and said, "If you gotta ask, you can't afford it." He didn't get the reference so then I said "275 pounds." He was disappointed. Afraid. A chill went down his spine.
The fact is, you won't magically be able to lift more weight by wearing a belt. But, through the mechanisms mentioned above, you can increase IAP, you can feel more stable, you can feel stronger and safer, and that confidence and increased stability may propel you to push harder. Studies have demonstrated that during the squat, lifters with a belt were able to better maintain IAP throughout a heavy set of 8 reps.
When we are faced with instability or we are apprehensive about something we don't push as hard. It's a protective mechanism. You need to commit to pushing hard. You can't be thinking about anything else. So, when a belt is used properly you can definitely feel more stable through the low back, and with that security, you can push harder.
MYTH-BUSTED: Your legs don't get magically stronger by putting a tight belt on. But, if you learn to use the belt properly you can increase IAP and feel more secure and stable through the back to lift more weight or more reps by committing to the lift and producing more force.
MYTH 3: I should wear a weightlifting belt if I have a bad back.
I'll start here by saying that you don't "have a bad back." The spine is a ridiculously stable, strong, and resilient structure that hurts sometimes. You can have herniations, scoliosis, osteoarthritis, etc and still, function, lift, be strong, and pain-free. That's a discussion for another time. Google Lamar Gant and tell me again how you have a bad back...
P.S. I would argue (with loads of scientific evidence) that avoiding lifting heavy weights is making your "bad back" even "badder."
That said, if you are currently experiencing low back pain that is made worse with squatting, deadlifting, or loading the spine then slapping on a tight belt is not going to make it magically go away.
The first thing I think when someone tells me they need to wear a belt is that they NEED to learn to brace without one. They need to learn to coordinate breathing with their abdominals and lats, and then maintain that stiffness throughout a loaded movement pattern.
There is limited evidence that a belt actually reduces injury or "fixes anything" aside from 'maybe' lifting technique. The belt adds stiffness to the lumbar spine and doesn't let it move as much which forces you to bend more at the hips and knees. Lifting instruction and the ability to brace the spine would have a similar, and better, effect.
P.S. I only say limited because I couldn't find any but I'm sure there's 1 study out there somewhere...
MYTH-BUSTED: Wearing a weightlifting belt does not make back pain magically disappear. Instead, spend time learning how to brace and move properly.
How to properly use a weightlifting belt.
Learn to brace stable positions without a belt (breathing, setting positions, holding positions).
Use a belt for heavier lifts if you want to. Some coaches arbitrarily say never use one for anything under 80%. I guess that's a good guideline, but it will be different for everyone. Should you wear a belt during your full workout including for bicep and delt work? Probably not. The answer lies somewhere in between these two recommendations.
Do not tighten the belt maximally, you need some room to breathe into the belt. You should be able to put one finger inside the belt when it is tightened.
Which weightlifting belt should I buy?
This is a matter of personal preference. There are quite a few out there.
Leather + metal buckle - tight, the buckle won't wear like velcro will, metal buckle sticks out a little more from the abdomen so maybe not the best for olympic weightlifting, middle range for price This is what I use/prefer.
Cloth + Velcro - much cheaper, very close to the body, usually does not stick out from the abdomen, velcro can wear out and not be as sticky over time
Thick leather + latch - very, very stiff, get extremely tight, mostly for use in higher-level powerlifting (have not used one of these before, can't offer much more insight than that), need to check that it is approved by the federation you hope to compete in, can be priciest option
Rogue has a nice selection with some information about each so you can make a good choice. My belt was a gift about 8 years ago and is still in great working order. I think an investment in a good leather belt will go a long way, over some of the cheaper cloth/velcro models.
Like most things in exercise and nutrition, the answer to should you wear a weightlifting belt is "it depends." Do you want to compete in a strength sport? Can you set positions and brace without a belt? Do you lift heavy weights and want to take advantage of increased IAP for increased trunk stability? If you said yes, check out a belt!
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Miyamoto, K., Iinuma, N., Maeda, M., Wada, E., & Shimizu, K. (1999). Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Clinical biomechanics (Bristol, Avon), 14(2), 79–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0268-0033(98)00070-9
Cholewicki, J., Juluru, K., Radebold, A., Panjabi, M. M., & McGill, S. M. (1999). Lumbar spine stability can be augmented with an abdominal belt and/or increased intra-abdominal pressure. European spine journal : official publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society, 8(5), 388–395. https://doi.org/10.1007/s005860050192
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Lander, J. E., Hundley, J. R., & Simonton, R. L. (1992). The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 24(5), 603–609.
Zink, A. J., Whiting, W. C., Vincent, W. J., & McLaine, A. J. (2001). The effects of a weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 15(2), 235–240.