Weightlifting belts – who, what, where, when, why?

‘Should I use a belt?’…

‘If I had my belt I think I could have got the rep’…

‘Anyone got a belt? My back hurts’…

This short article is not going delve into whether people should/ should not use weightlifting belts or whether they are used too often or incorrectly. The aim is to provide more information so as coaches, athletes and recreational fit-freaks, you can make more informed decisions when choosing to use your ‘accessories’. Please also consider that there are many types of weightlifting belts that differ in length, thickness, buckles and material, something that will not be covered here. Building a strong foundation in mobile, strong, healthy movement is essential before considering the use of accessories.

It is a misconception that the purpose of a weightlifting belt is to provide external support to the body in order to lift heavier weights than would previously be possible. The belts themselves do not act as protection against injury – muscle strains, bulging discs.

Why and How…?

If we want to be able to progressively lift more weight safely, though this is also possible without a weightlifting belt. To use a belt, you must first learn how to create pressure and brace your core WITHOUT a belt (see Big Red Training Instagram post – 6th March ’19). It is highly unlikely you will make any genuine strength gains with a belt if you are not aware how to lift without a belt as these gains are dependent on correctly moving a greater systemic load, rather than incorrectly grinding out a rep with a bit of thick leather stopping you from snapping. The belt does not lessen the chance of injury, exercising correct bracing and core strength does.

The belt should be so tight that you can only just slide two fingers between your body and the inside of the belt, but not so tight that you are unable to take a full breath. To simplify, the aim is to increase support of the spine during lifts through increased abdominal pressure, this is why a strong core is necessary to be able to use a belt correctly. Your core is not just your abdominal muscle, it is basically the system of body parts including the rectus and transverse abdominis, erector spinae, obliques, quadratus lumborum and more, stabilising and controlling the force we produce. A belt is not essential to lifting a big weight, being strong is.

To see how you can practise bracing (see ‘where’ section for definition) for a weightlifting belt, take a look through the Big Red Training Instagram and/or Facebook for a video on the subject.

When…

Here is the BIG question. You may see belts being worn by the occasional gym-rat for every exercise between the quad extension machine and preacher curl bench. Although ill-advised and completely pointless, this is actually fine, as long as they are aware of when it is REALLY necessary and how it is to be used. Many athletes choose to wear their belt from every set of back squats between 20kg and 180kg as it provides some kind of psychological reassurance and confidence when building up to big weights, this is also fine, as long as they are aware of when it is actually useful. Just understand that some weights for some people are simply too light to warrant any use of a weightlifting belt – as always, the development of quality, safe, optimal movement patterns for the individual is priority before any belts or accessories are considered. From there, a belt should be used for any movement where the spine is loaded heavily relative to the person’s ability; deadlifts, squats, overhead presses, cleans, snatches, and jerks. ‘Heavy’ is relative but from personal experience belts are most useful when lifting from around 85% of 1 rep max weight. As previously mentioned, a belt is only an option for these lifts; I have personally set all my personal best lifts without a belt for example. But if you would like to do 12kg hammer curls in a weightlifting belt to make your ‘taper’ look ‘fresher’ then have at it.

Who…

Weightlifting belts are for anyone and everyone. There is no such thing as too little weight to be using a belt (if used correctly) as 50-year-old Janet will feel just as loaded with 60kg, as skinny-calf Sam does with 160kg.

What…

The belts are designed to provide torso ‘feedback’ around the belly/ mid to lower back. ‘Feedback’ is where you modify or control a movement by the effects or results of the subject; in this case the subject is the belt. They can be tightened via Velcro, prong buckles, and lever buckles, and mainly come in leather and nylon.

Where…

The placement of the belt may depend on the particular lift or your body type. However, the general guide is that it covers your belly button. This is where you can optimally brace to provide support between your spine and abdominal wall. Bracing is tightening all the muscles surrounding the abdomen, pelvic floor, and rest of the core, creating a natural ‘belt’ that helps stabilise the spine.

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