Looking around the average gym you don’t see nearly as many weightlifting belts as you should. If you knew the benefits and risks of lifting heavy weights without a belt you’d likely never forget to pack it in your gym bag.
Gym habits are often a case of monkey see monkey do. More often than not this is for the best because you can learn a lot that will help you develop from more experienced lifters. It can be a double-edged sword; bad habits can stunt your progress, but when there’s a risk of injury that’s when it becomes a real problem.
So where’s the stigma? Aside from the extra bit of room required in your gym bag, there are some who suggest lifting belts are counterproductive to developing your core strength. This more negative view is based on the idea that a lifting belt is a crutch that keeps you from depending on your abs and core strength for lifts. The fact is that a belt helps to increase your core strength, but the main benefit that cannot be ignored is the support and safety it offers your spine.
Of course, it’s all in the technique, you could say. If your technique is on point then you should have no problems, right? Not exactly. It doesn’t matter how broad your back is from developing your lats, a false move with a lot of weight on your spine could cause irreparable damage.
Wearing a belt increases intra-abdominal pressure by up to 40 per cent, while reducing compression on your intervertebral discs by 50 per cent. Intra-abdominal pressure means to push on your spine from the inside. Your spine also faces pressure from the outside from your abdominal wall. Increasing your thoracic abdominal pressure is a way of rivalling the great pressure bearing on you from the outside from your inside. The combination of the two means that your spine is stabilised. This support reduces the stress your spine can suffer when lifting heavy weights.
A belt doesn’t limit your range or movement, per se, but it can reduce the forward bending motion of your spine, as well as the extension when you bend back. Basically, a belt keeps you upright when you lift, meaning that the work is done by your legs. Squats and deadlifts are arguably the two exercises that most require support for your spine. They are also two exercises that most commonly result in lower back issues. By keeping you upright so that you lift more with your legs, you will be alleviating that excess stress from your lower back.
There’s an old wives tale that lifting belts can prevent hernias, but sadly that’s not true. Hernias are caused by straining and muscle weakness. Along with pregnancy, constipation and weight gain, weightlifting is a leading cause of hernias. Lifting belts, however, are not designed to brace your abs and so don’t help.
So, how should you correctly wear your belt? Your abs need to be able to contract against it; do so and tighten it as much as you can, ensuring that there’s enough room to slide your hand in when relaxed. The belt is to support your lower back, not your hips. If it’s over your hips it’s too low. It should brace your frontal abs and lower back.
When should you use it? That’s mostly common sense. If you have a back injury then you might benefit from the support throughout your whole session, but if your back is troubling you that much then should you be lifting weights? Generally speaking, you’ll know the exercises that require extra support for your spine. But there are a few lifts when you’ll definitely need a belt when going heavy: standing shoulder press, deadlifts and squats.