Weight Lifting Belts?
Lately I’ve seen more and more weight lifting belts around the gym, so I thought I should take the time to provide some information on what they do and what they do not do. Fortunately for me there is a lot of information available on the internet to show how to properly use a belt; quite a few videos (this is my favorite, but the audio lacks How to Use A Weightlifting Belt and a pretty comprehensive article from CrossFit Impulse that you can see here Breath Control and Weight Lifting Belts. So, what I will offer here is a summary of what I’ve learned and an opinion of when you should consider using a weight lifting belt.
What convinced me to weigh in on this subject was when I was watching some high level Games athletes performing deadlifts while wearing weight lifting belts and rounding their backs like an angry cat on Halloween. So, in an effort lo inform, and hopefully prevent injury here is what I know about belts.
First of all the job of the belt is to help stabilize your midline. It does this by bracing your abdominal wall, and this enables you to increase your intra abdominal pressure by forcing your abs into the belt. It does not support your lower back. Let me repeat that; It does not support your lower back.
Those 2 concepts seem a little contradictory at first, but it is my observation that an improperly used weight belt is more harmful than not using one at all. This, in my opinion is because of the misconception that if you have it on then you are doing everything needed to support your lower back and thereby avoid injury. Some articles mention a feeling of invincibility that lifters have while wearing one. This attitude can be problematic because the weight belt requires much more conscious effort to stabilize your midline than not wearing one, and is a skill in and of itself.
When wearing a belt you must first choose the correct type of belt. Most people will be fine with a 4” wide belt. Some smaller individuals might prefer a 3” belt. The deciding factor on width selection is determined by whether or not it will fit between your ribs and your hips. It has to be placed on your abdomen and not where you wear your pants. The belt should also not taper in the front. The article listed above considers this type to be useless and I do not disagree with that.
Next, when you tighten the belt you should be able to comfortably slide you fingers between your stomach and the belt. This is the biggest fault in wearing the belt. You will often see individuals tightening the belt to the extreme. This provides a false sense of security that leads people to believe that they are creating support by tensioning the belt, when in fact what they have done is minimized the natural ability of their body to provide that support by reducing the amount that the abdominal cavity can expand to achieve the higher than normal intra abdominal pressures necessary to increase midline stability. Once you have established the proper tightness you will need to take a big breath into your belly, expanding your abdomen, and then force your abs out, into the belt. This is how the intra abdominal pressure is increased to a greater extent than if you were to do same thing by bracing against your abdominal muscles alone.
Once you have established the proper technique for wearing the belt try it with some air squats and see if you notice a difference in your midline stability. Then try to load it in a back squat. If this seems like it is going to work for you then try it in the deadlift as well. Proper use of the belt can add to your performance. Some estimate a 5-10% increase in your squat while using a weightlifting belt.
Now back to my opinion. I think the belt can be a very useful tool in the gym, but it must be used correctly. I think that would be in the strength components and that is pretty much it. Essentially, the use of the belt requires you to focus your breathing on more than just cardio/respiratory endurance (or as it is often referred to “staying alive), and this becomes difficult as reps increase past 5 per exercise, and reaches the realm of the impossible during a METCON (especially if there’re burpees and you happen to be me). I’m not saying that you won’t see high performing athletes using belts in METCONs. I’m just saying that it is impossible to correctly stabilize your midline while breathing and wearing a belt, and that you can move a fairly heavy load through a full range of motion stabilizing your midline using just your abs, and still breathe.
To take this a step farther it is also my opinion that pushing your abs into an artificial barrier, AKA a weight belt, is not an intuitive way to stabilize the midline, and therefore requires conscious thought. And for me, conscious thought in a lot of my METCONs is limited to counting reps, and I even screw that up from time to time.
So, to sum up; a weight lifting belt is a useful tool, but it does not make you impervious to back injury. Stabilizing with a belt is a lot of work, but it will add to your max effort lifts. A weight lifting belt does not brace your back; it does provide an additional layer to your abdominal wall that allows you, with proper technique, to add stability to your lower spine.
And that’s all I got to say about that.
Coach Matt Burns
Posted on Tue, June 10, 2014
by Matt Burns filed under