Weight Lifting Belt: Should You Wear One?

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Walk into any health club and you’ll likely see some ‘fitness’ guy walking around the weight room wearing a cushy weight lifting belt on his abdomen. Weightlifting belts are nothing new in the fitness world, but what most people don’t realize is they are completely unnecessary for healthy individuals.

In my experience, unless you are a competitive powerlifter you probably don’t need one. And if you’re that guy in the weight room concerned with building huge muscles and looking good naked you definitely don’t need one.

Many believe a weight lifting belt will help prevent injury, protect your back, increase strength, improve your form, and help you function better—all of which are false. In fact, constantly wearing a weightlifting belt cause problems by giving you a false sense of security, and, in some cases, cause muscular imbalances and injuries.

Stuart McGill PhD, author of some great books on spinal mechanics, notes that motor and motion patterns are altered by wearing a belt, thus increasing the risk for injury when the belt is not worn.1 What’s more is that those who are injured actually risk a more severe injury when using a belt!

Your “Inner” Weight Lifting Belt

Your body comes fully equipped with an “inner” weight belt that’s primary purpose is to stabilize your spine and prevent injury to that area. You have your rectus abdominis (abs) in the front, internal and external obliques on the sides, and erector spinae in the back just to name a few. Assuming you’re healthy, these muscles should do a great job on their own.

When you perform daily tasks and lift properly your core musculature should be all that you need to support your spine. You may be limited in how much weight you can lift, but the whole reason you are lifting weights is to get stronger, right?

When And Why To Use A Weight Lifting Belt

Now that that stuff is out of the way let’s talk about when you would actually have the need to use a weightlifting belt. As I mentioned before, powerlifters utilize belts to lift ungodly amounts of weight in the squat and deadlift exercises and most have exceptionally healthy backs. What gives?

For one thing, most seasoned lifters only use the belt at or above 90% of their estimated or calculated 1RM (rep max). This means they only utilize the belt for their heaviest lifts in training and competition and NOT as a means to protect or strengthen their core. For those new to powerlifting, when I train, I may recommend using the belt at or above 80-85% of their estimated 1RM in order to get used to the belt and have a smoother lift.

It is important to note that the main reason lifters use the belt is NOT to prevent injury but to increase the efficiency of their core musculature in order to lift heavier weight than would be attempted without one. The belt will assist in creating extra intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and stabilize the torso to prevent buckling of the lumbar spine.

How To Properly Use A Weight Lifting Belt

A common misconception among those who use belts properly is that you are supposed to ‘push’ your stomach out against the belt during a lift. This is counter-intuitive as doing this will typically result in spinal flexion – the thing most people are trying to prevent in the first place.

Since the belt is used to create IAP, make sure you wear it around your abdomen and not your hips. Make sure not too tight as it can cut off circulation and prevent proper contraction, but fits snugly.

To use it during a lift, just put it on tight and forget it’s there: use your core the way you normally would. Your abs will work harder just by having the belt there, which is exactly what you want.

Not All Weight Lifting Belts Are Created Equal

For those of you who are looking to train and train heavy, having the proper equipment is essential. This includes a good weightlifting belt. Most commercial gyms may have one on hand but they are typically ones that are poorly made, taper in the front, or are made of Nylon. These are useless as they do not provide proper support around your whole midsection. Remember, you want to create IAP, which involves all the muscles in your trunk, not just your back.

A good weightlifting belt is typically made of several layers of tough leather with a width of 4” all the way around. They will take a little while to break in but once you do it is well worth it. It may cost you a few extra dollars but you get what you pay for: a decent belt will literally last you forever!

Wrapping It Up

At the end of the day, using a weight lifting belt can both help and hinder progress. It should NOT be used as a Band-Aid for a previous injury or low back pain. It can throw off the movement patterns and muscular balance that are necessary for everyday tasks, so use caution before using one to try to improve core strength.

For those with the goal of raw strength training like a powerlift, a belt should only be used for the heaviest lifts and NOT all the time. As a general rule of thumb, a beginner can use a belt when lifting over 85% of his 1RM and someone with a little more experience under their belt (pun intended) can get away with only using it at or above 90% of their 1RM.

Happy lifting!

References

  1. McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance 4th Edition. Waterloo: Backfitpro Inc., 2009.
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18 Comments on “Weight Lifting Belt: Should You Wear One?

  1. October 1, 2012 #

    This is an awesome article, Steve. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights. I wish I knew this information in college!

  2. David
    October 1, 2012 #

    This has some serious inaccuracies, particularly in usage. You are indeed supposed to push your abs against the belt, but you do so by taking a large breath into your diaphragm and squeezing your abs. If the belt is correctly fitted, it allows you to “push harder” through your abs, and it’ll bring your lower back along with it. The purpose of the belt is to be a training aid, though a lot of guys can see an extra 10-20% go onto their squat right away with proper use of a belt.

    It’s not uncommon to see it recommended to belt up with >50% of your max. If your goal is to get the most bang for your buck, the belt will let you go heavier, which is a good thing if you want to build muscle.

    There are studies (can’t find them off hand) that show superior abdominal activation using a belt, meaning it isn’t creating a weakness, but providing a superior training effect.

    1. October 1, 2012 #

      @David – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to hearing Steven’s response regarding usage, but regarding the “superior training effect” point you make, I’m not sure I agree. For example, I can use wrist straps to get an extra few reps and more muscle stimulation on an exercise like let’s say DB rows, or lat pulldowns, but forearm and grip strength is sacrificed. Similarly, a weight belt is not a natural stimulus to our core musculature, so as Stuart McGill discussed in his book it can alter our motor and motion patterns. I also think Steve’s recommendation of not wearing a weight lifting belt unless you are lifting very heavy is great advice for the vast majority of lifters out there.

      1. David
        October 2, 2012 #

        I’ll have to track down the studies Mark, it’s interesting stuff. It went like this – the group with the belt had better activation in abs, group without had better activation in obliques (or maybe other way around). I think the big key is using the belt correctly. As written, it’s not a back protector (though it will pull your lower back in slightly if used correctly), it’s a training aid to teach abdominal activation and build abdominal force for big compound movements. LBEB has a nice short writeup on this http://www.liftbigeatbig.com/2011/06/benefits-and-proper-use-of.html

        As for your point on straps – consider this. Deadlifts aren’t a grip training movement. Neither are db rows or lat pulldowns. Should you limit the development of your much larger muscle groups by your weak grip? The better point would be if you need to use straps to complete your training with those types of movements, you should add supplemental grip training to your routine. It would be silly to limit your deadlift to 400 pounds when you can pull 500 for reps with straps, right? But it would also be silly to ignore deficient grip.

    2. October 5, 2012 #

      Hi David, thanks for your input but I am fairly confident that my points are accurate and valid. Unfortunately, research on the use of weightlifting belts for athletic endeavors is scarce at best. The intention of this article is to assist the reader in making their own decisions on whether or not to wear a belt and to suggest guidelines for their prescription and use. The information I used is more research based from the listed works as well as other resources rather than anecdotal.

      You are totally correct about using your diaphragm to fill your LUNGS with air, which, in essence will create pressure on the belt without actively pressing out against the belt. Pressing out against the belt along with the pressure you have created will actually decrease the structural integrity of the supporting muscles (picture tying a rope around an inflated balloon and tightening) and thus increase extension in the lumbar spine.

      You are also correct in saying that the belt will create superior abdominal activation but as I said in the article this is achieved by simply being in place and adding stability to your trunk musculature.

      What would be the point of using a belt at 50%, 60% or even 70% of 1RM? Totally disagree with that statement. I’m not quite sure what you mean by getting more bang for your buck either.

      I stand by my recommendation of only using the belt upwards loads of 90% 1RM for heavy singles or doubles which may only be necessary for powerlifters and those who are advanced enough in their training to train maximal strength. For anyone else there is a greater amount of risk-to-reward and I don’t find it necessary or safe.

  3. Nathan Gotch
    October 1, 2012 #

    Excellent article Stephen! Unfortunately, many people do not understand this concept, and I constantly see individuals using lifting belts in a completely unnecessary way (while bench pressing…).

    thank you for providing this very important information!

    1. October 5, 2012 #

      Thanks Nathan, I’m glad you found it useful!

  4. Raza
    October 1, 2012 #

    Great site… I don’t lift heavy enough to need a belt, but I came across this article after finding your “how to get ripped and cut” article. I’m into strength training to get lean, not necessarily build tons of mass like a body builder.

    Your point to David about wrist straps as a training aid is worth noting though. Does that include weightlifting gloves that wrap around the wrist?

    Raza

    1. October 1, 2012 #

      @Raza – I wouldn’t bother with weight training straps if you are newer to weight lifting. In terms of gloves, that’s your call. I’ve never worn gloves before.

  5. Michael Thompson
    October 1, 2012 #

    @ David –

    “You are indeed supposed to push your abs against the belt, but you do so by taking a large breath into your diaphragm and squeezing your abs.”

    That is a great way to put the lumbar spine in excessive extension and coaches are now training lifters to fill up the front, sides, and kidneys with air.

    http://www.dieselsc.com/how-to-deadlift/

    A lot of this stuff can be found on Bill Hartman’s blog if you’d like to know more.

  6. Kwesi Peters
    October 1, 2012 #

    @David – The load of weight used during an exercise doesn’t necessarily determine the amount of muscle that will be built. One aspect that determines muscle gain is the effort used during that specific exercise. The belt can allow you to go heavier yes, but if your not lifting close to or to momentary muscular failure (until you can’t move the weight up anymore), then you won’t be reaching the potential to build muscle, regardless of the amount of weight you can lift.

    1. David
      October 2, 2012 #

      @Michael: perhaps I oversimplified. When you fill your diaphragm and squeeze, I mean squeeze everything, not just your abdominals. I agree, you’re not supposed to JUST push with your abs. Doesn’t cause excessive extension in my experience though.

      @Kwesi: with my belt, I can do 10 reps at about 425 on squats. without, I can only get about 375 for 10. Both are in the hypertrophy range, but one is heavier. The 425 will most certainly build more muscle in my legs, no? And don’t forget that hypertrophy and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. If strength is my #1 goal (and along with strength comes muscle mass, though maybe not “maximum potential” mass), then why limit my strength training by not using training aids that are tried and true tools to make the best gains?

      1. Kwesi Peters, CPT
        October 2, 2012 #

        @David: If you can do 10 reps at 425, and the same 10 reps for 375, doesn’t that mean that the intensity of both squats being performed is relatively the same, and is also kept within the hypertrophy range, even though one is still heavier? The intensity of both lifts is still the same even though the load is different, so wouldn’t that produce the same stimulus required for muscle hypertrophy?

        Also if legs are what you are trying to build there are studies that show there is no difference in leg muscle activity with or without a weight lifting belt during a squat exercise. The weight lifting belt affects the core to help ” increase the efficiency of one’s core musculature” as Stephen stated, so using it get a better workout out of your legs may not actually be a training aid.

        Here’s one of the abstract from a study that you can take a look at. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11710410

  7. Hank
    October 1, 2012 #

    >>For example, I can use wrist straps to get an extra few reps and more muscle stimulation on an exercise like let’s say DB rows, or lat pulldowns, but forearm and grip strength is sacrificed.

    I don’t feel this is a fair comparison. Every compound movement (power, olympic, and all derivatives and variants) will have a limiting factor that are not the primary focus of the lift and will restrict performance. Take, for example, the deadlift – your grip is the only point of contact with the bar, and due to a host of reasons beyond weak grip (irregular bar size, bad/no knurling, etc), your ability to pull weight is not in this case restricted by the main muscles involved. So if you’re training without any gear (including chalk), the deadlift becomes a grip exercise and not something that meaningfully targets your trunk, core, and back. Grip can be improved with additional exercises, and your ability to pull more weight should not be restricted by something so minor.

    I think that’s a harder sell with using a belt, since core exertion is obviously a huge component in all compound movements. That having been said, your core IS often the limiting factor in pulling/pushing weight. If you’re working up to and executing singles or doubles close to or at your max weight without gear, I see no reason not to finish with a few singles or doubles with gear to push that upper limit.

    Obviously you wouldn’t want to be using a belt at low weight, as that will, over the long term, cause your core to fire only with that pressure, but if you’re working at or near capacity, I see nothing wrong with trying to push beyond that to finish off an exercise.

    This is especially salient with people who have had core and back injuries. Stephen is right that belts should not be used to prevent injury (it may exacerbate problems in the long term), but they do mitigate atrophy associated with time spent injured. And again, like straps, supplemental exercises (GHD sit-ups, hyperextensions) can be used to supplement.

    1. October 1, 2012 #

      @Hank – Thanks for adding that extra detail. I was simply making the comparison that both are training aids and both have pluses and minuses.

  8. Andrew
    October 5, 2012 #

    I agree they are not needed. Deadlifts with increase the muscles around the back area and give you great posture. Having a belt too tight restricts natural movement. Avoid. Instead do proper squats and deadlifts. If you cant lift the weight without a belt, your lifting too much. Leave your ego at the door and your money in your pocket!

  9. Nimbette
    October 5, 2012 #

    My NPC bikini training specifies using a weight belt for every single weight lifting move and we do lighter circuit training. Interesting, I think is it because they want obliques not used to keep the tiny waist hourglass figure. We use huge belts tightened, looks crazy too.

    1. October 5, 2012 #

      Just be aware that this might not be terribly healthy. I would reevaluate your training program.

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