To Belt or Not to Belt?
So over the past few weeks I’ve had quite a few questions regarding support mechanisms, lifting belts in particular. I’d say I have a decent amount of experience in this avenue, having gone from never wearing a belt at all and lifting barefoot, to wearing a belt, knee sleeves, wrist wraps, and weightlifting shoes every time I lifted, back again to a more minimal approach, and then finally settling somewhere in the middle.
The riddle of the belt can be answered quite simply once you understand what the belt does, and where it has benefit. The belt is an advanced weight training tool. It’s purpose is to help you brace during a strenuous lift, allowing you to increase intra-abdominal pressure, thus potentially improving your power transfer. This can be useful during a heavy 1 rep max lift, because often a one rep max can incur a much longer time-under-tension than a repetition done at a more moderate load.
For example, lets say your back squat 1RM is 300lbs. Doing a single repetition at 200lbs may only take you 3-5 seconds from start to finish. This is because the load is sub-maximal, and your legs and body have enough power to move that weight quite quickly. The muscles in your trunk and abdomen should have no trouble keeping you fully braced (unless you have a deficiency in your midline stability, due to lack or training or postural issues). Lets now say you are going for a new PR. You have 310lbs loaded on your bar, and from the time you begin your squat descent to the time you stand up again, 12, maybe even 15 seconds have passed! It’s a grind of a rep; your legs are still trying to push that weight up in 2 seconds, but it just takes much longer because your at your limits of your power output. Your midline (needing to stabilize that entire time) may begin to fatigue; enter the belt! Again by increasing pressure in your mid section and allowing your body to brace against the belt, it can improve your power transfer, allow your core to remain rigid beyond its normal fatigue point, and thus allow you to lift a heavier load.
The belt can also have some benefit during a metabolic conditioning event. Let’s take this year’s “18.4” as an example. This workout required you to do a high volume of deadlifts beginning at a moderately heavy weight (for most), and then increasing to a heavy load (for most). Your leg power is going to drop as you get fatigued. Time under tension is high, and your midline will work hard to stabilize, fatiguing it quickly. Assuming you know how to brace without a belt, and assuming you are competing in the open, this might be another opportune time to wear the belt, but there is a caution here. First, if you are not competing and this is just a training session for you, I would forgo the belt; instead I’d let my ability to hold form dictate the pace strategy I use for the workout. You will get more out of your training session this way, and I don’t believe putting on a belt to pound out a few more reps faster is a good mentality to have (UNLESS you are in a competition). Second, remember that the belt is cinched around your waist, and thus will restrict your ability to breathe. Breath is the very thing you need to brace your midline effectively, as well as being a critical factor in a metabolic conditioning workout. You could keep the belt a little looser, but then is the belt really doing it’s job, or is it just a psychological crutch? I leave that to you to decide.
How is the belt supposed to be used you ask?
1. Wrap the belt around the smallest part of your waist, just above you hip bones.
2. Keep it loose, and tighten just before its time to lift.
3. BREATHE DEEP into your stomach, let your belly expand against the belt, and THEN contract and make your midline solid.
4. Perform your lift holding this pressure and holding your breath.
5. Exhale once you have completed your lift.
6. Tear the belt off, throw it across the room and celebrate your display of power!
7. Don’t do #6
That is where the belt is most useful. It can help you brace and improve power transfer during heavy lifts. Now we can talk about where and when the belt is not useful, and how it can even be a detriment to your strength development.
The belt is not a safety tool. In fact if used incorrectly, in my opinion it’s more likely to facilitate an injury than prevent one. Wearing the belt every time you train or lift is not a good idea, and the explanation as to why is actually a very simple one: the muscles surrounding your midline are your belt. Your midline’s very job is to stabilize your spine. If you wear a belt every single time you lift, you are not allowing them to develop alongside the muscle groups you are working (which in relevance to the lifting belt usually means your legs). Your body will also forget how to brace on its own, so the moment you don’t wear a belt after constant use, you’re going to feel weaker, and like you can’t keep your spine braced at weights that “should” be easy for you.
You need to know and understand how to brace your midline without the help of a belt. Then and only then can you begin to use a belt if you choose to do so (and if its actually helpful for you) when the weight reaches beyond a certain percentage of your 1RM, or when attempting a 1RM, or during competition. You may also try using a belt and find no benefit at all from it, or even find it awkward. Rejoice; you do not have to wear the belt! There are plenty of examples of individuals who can move some serious weight and never wear a lifting belt. The belt is not a requirement to lift large loads, it’s just an accessory tool, that all.
All in all, how do I feel about the belt today? I think it is a useful, advanced lifting tool, and I now use it only when I need to. If you are looking for a quantifiable number, consider the belt once you reach 90% or above your current 1 rep max. If you are doing a 5x 5, I would argue that you leave the belt in your bag. Sure you may lift 5 or 10lbs less, but you’ll get so much more out of your session. You’ll notice that you actually need to focus on bracing every single rep, and be mindful and present with your lift, rather than simply pumping out a set of 5 however you can.
Everything is Everything. In the end you will find that every repetition you do matters, because even if you forget that one training session where you did that 5×5 back squat at that heavy load, but your knees caved in and your back rounded every single rep, I promise your body will remember. It will remember in the wear patterns and injuries you develop over time as a result of letting your form slip, or the poor mechanics you internalize, that will translate into your next session, and your front squat, and your overhead squat, and in how you pick up a heavy box, or even a pencil that has fallen on the ground. Your body remembers everything you do, and the goal of your training should be to become fitter and stronger, reduce risk of injury in life, and improve the way you move.
Do yourself a favor and check your ego, learn how to brace properly, and save the belt for when it’s truly needed.