Using a weightlifting belt is one of those topics that tends to divide people. There are those who consider wearing a belt cheating, that if you can’t lift without a belt, you shouldn’t lift at all. Just as passionate are those who insist on wearing a belt for everything from barbell curls to deadlifts. In this article, we discover exactly when and how to use a weightlifting belt for best effect.
The Purpose Of A Belt
A weightlifting belt allows you to create more intra-abdominal pressure when you are performing power exercises like squats and deadlifts. Before beginning a rep on the squat, you should take a deep belly breath. Wearing a belt prevents the stomach from expanding. This creates the same amount of pressure in a smaller container. So, wearing a belt allows you to squeeze and brace harder than if you weren’t wearing a belt.
The extra abdominal pressure that you can create with a lifting belt allows you to lift more weight. This is making you stronger. And rather than compromising the integrity of the core, some studies have shown that a lifting belt actually activities the core more than not using one. This may be because the belt acts as a proprioceptive cue, reminding the lifter to breathe and apply abdominal pressure against the belt.
A weightlifting belt is a tool to help you overload your body, thus making you stronger. While it’s true that you can lift more weight with a belt, it will also make you stronger without a belt. For instance, if you train squats with a belt and take your one rep max from 405 to 425 pounds, your one rep max without a belt will also go up. Getting the right weightlifting belt is also super important… make sure to check out this super detailed buying guide to find the best weightlifting belt for your needs.
How to Wear A Belt
Position the belt around your belly button area. Do not make it too tight. You actually want it to be slightly loose, one notch back from tight fit. This will allow you to expand your stomach into the belt by pulling air into your belly and pushing out against the bracing provided by the belt. This creates a larger core base to provide more stability throughout the lift.
When to Use A Belt
Weightlifting belts are designed to be used for the big powerlifting exercises:
- Overhead Presses
These are the three exercises that benefit most from the intra-abdominal pressure that you can create with a lifting belt. But that doesn’t mean that you should be wearing a belt for every rep of every set on these exercises. You should restrict it to your heavy, low rep sets.
Use a belt when you are doing sets of 6 reps or less. For your lighter warm up sets, and your progressive mid-range sets, do not wear a belt. This allows you to build up your natural core strength. But when it comes time to push the envelope in terms of your max strength and power, that’s when a belt comes into its own.
So, the majority of your training should be done without a belt. In fact, as a beginner you shouldn’t wear a belt at all. You body needs to learn how to breathe and brace under a heavy barbell before you start using an artificial enhancer, which is what a belt is. If you haven’t learnt to do this there may be a tendency to relax the midsection when you are wearing the belt, which you don’t want to do. You should avoid using a belt as long as possible.
Once you stop making progress as a beginner, you should then try wearing a belt. That means that you have gone for a number of weeks and been unable to add more weight to the bar. The use of a belt on your heaviest sets will allow you to continue adding weight.
For intermediate and advanced level lifters, wear a belt on your max rep sets. This should be the last set you perform and the reps should be 5 or less. This should have you training with 90% or more of your one rep max.
Exceptions to the Rule
Some people may need to wear a weightlifting belt every time they squat, deadlift or do overhead presses as a result of past injury. If you have suffered a hernia, abdominal strain or lower back injury, you may need the extra core safety that comes from a belt.
What Happens If You Overuse Your Weightlifting Belt?
We all have an inbuilt weight belt that we carry around with us all the time. It’s called the transverse abdominis. When you rely too much on an artificial weight belt, your natural belt may be weakened, which will cost you when you’re doing your big lifts.
The transverse abdominis lies directly under the ribcage and wraps all the way around the body. Essentially it cinches the core, just as if you were tightening a weight belt. This provides circular stability to the spine and core. In order to train the transverse abdominis you need to learn how to contract it so as to flatten the belly down rather than allowing it to extend outward.
When you rely on a weightlifting belt you are counteracting what you want to achieve with the transverse abdominis. When you push against the weight belt you are actually training with a distended belly. This is not the ideal positioning for your spine, which is far more stable when you bear down with intra-abdominal pressure due to contraction as opposed to distension.
Overuse of a weightlifting belt will result in greater inactivity of the transverse abdominis, making it the weak link in the core chain. When you really need, it won’t be able to perform.
Only use a weightlifting when you are training with 90 percent or more of your one rep max. The bottom line is to use a belt when you need it, and don’t when you don’t. It is tool to be used, not abused.