Weightlifting belts are a form of ‘back belt’ similar to the type worn by workers in industries that require heavy lifting, or people undergoing physical therapy. If you step into a high school or college weight room you’ll usually find a bunch of beat up leather lifting belts hanging from the wall or being used by young athletes in the squat rack. They appear sparingly in commercial gyms as well – often used unnecessarily or inappropriately by inexperienced lifters trying to avoid ‘throwing out’ their backs.
It’s not that the belt doesn’t have a place in the gym, or that the people using them to preserve back health shouldn’t, it’s simply that most people wearing lifting belts have never been schooled up on how to properly use one.
The true purpose of a belt is to reduce spinal compression. Researchers have found that when a lifter inhales and braces before performing a lift, spinal compression can be reduced by about 10 percent – a comforting thought for anyone looking to avoid a back injury while still moving big weights on the squat, deadlift, and overhead press.
As a general rule the ideal time to use a lifting belt is when training at or above 75 percent of your one rep max in a compound movement. Broken down “Barney style” this means the best time to use one is when squatting, deadlifting, or overhead pressing with a large amount of weight. Since the goal of the belt is to improve stability and reduce stress on the back by increasing intraabdominal pressure, they can really come in handy when going for a Personal Record or during a week where the training schedule has you going a bit heavier than usual.
If you plan on using one I would recommend using one of the old school looking leather belts with buckles as opposed to the Velcro version. The reason for this is simply the ability to maintain tension – buckles do it better than Velcro. Once the belt loses tension it also loses utility and becomes a fashion statement (and a bad one at that).
Outside of heavy compound movements I would generally avoid using a belt for a couple of reasons. Lifting weights – even performing a single joint exercise like say a hammer curl – in the standing position forces you to engage your spinal erectors, abs, glutes, etc. When you throw a belt into the mix you replace that effort with a prop and lose out on some of the training effect — modern life is ruining our posture enough as it is, so let’s take every opportunity to improve it. Belts should also be avoided when performing compound movements with lighter weight. This is a prime time to train the body to create its own intraabdominal pressure, which over time will make us stronger. Hence the short term goal of easily lifting a weight with the help of a belt becomes overshadowed by the long term benefit of a sturdy mid-section.
Using a belt is simple – put it on tight (it’s going to cause some discomfort, if the belt is too loose it becomes an ornament – looks cool, but doesn’t do anything) inhale before lifting, hoist heavy metal!
As always I like to include some perspective from well-respected fitness pros. T-Nation asked a bunch to weigh in on this very topic, here’s what they had to say:
“Only those who are trying to compete in a strength sport (Olympic lifters, powerlifters, strongmen, etc.) should be wearing a belt when they lift.” – Mike Robertson
“…if the exercise really doesn’t stress the lower back/core that much – leg presses, triceps pushdowns, etc. – wearing a belt is unnecessary (apart from making your waist look smaller and your shoulders look bigger). Over-reliance on lifting belts might also weaken the core musculature. Think of a belt like a crutch – use it too much and the muscles don’t respond because the belt is there.” – Tim Henriques
“While belts are a useful tool, they should be saved for the big lifts and Olympic lifts, and for efforts at 75 percent or greater of one-rep max. Sorry, but screaming, parachute pant biceps curls aren’t belt worthy.” – Todd Bumgardner