Feb 23rd, 2013
Back in the fall of 2010, I wrote an article on the use of weightlifting belts. I would encourage those interested in the topic to read it when you get a chance. I won’t repeat the entire article today, but will remind readers of a few points.
The belt is an external aid to lifting weights that increases the rigidity of the torso. It does this by providing the abdominals an external resistance against which they can contract. When combined with a strongly held breath using the Valsalva maneuver, your torso can more efficiently communicate the force generated by the lower body to the bar. The second sentence in this paragraph is important and bears repeating. The primary purpose of the belt is to provide your abdominals something against which they can brace. A belt is not designed to support the back, at least not directly. If a trainee cannot keep their spine from overextending, flexing, or otherwise wiggling around, a belt will not save them. A trainee must be able to lift properly before introducing a belt into the proceedings.
When a trainee first begins lifting, most of their energies are spent on learning the gross motor patterns of the movement. There is plenty to keep track of and any additional variables, such as a belt, serve as a distraction instead of an aid. As training progresses and technique begins to solidify, the musculature is forced to adapt to handle heavier loads. During this time a belt is still probably best left out so that a trainee can learn to effectively engage the trunk musculature and hold the spine in proper extension throughout the movements. If a trainee is just learning the movements, or has not started to handle heavier weights, it is best lift without a belt.
What are heavier weights? That varies based on age and bodyweight, but some generalities can be made. Realize that these numbers are not set in stone. If you are a woman and your work sets on the squat are around 150 pounds, or if you are a man and your work sets are somewhere near 300 pounds, then a belt would not be out of place. These numbers get revised downward the older a trainee is, the lighter they are, or if they have a back injury.
Above I wrote that a belt is not designed to directly support the back, yet I suggested that those who suffered a back injury may want to lift with a belt. A belt doesn’t prop anyone up and it will not substitute for proper form. However, if a trainee can use their abdominals properly in a squat, the belt will amplify their ability to utilize the trunk musculature to keep the spine from moving under a load. The spinal erectors in conjunction with the abdominals keep the train on the tracks. The belt provides an extra layer of support to hold everything in place. If you hurt your back, this is a good thing.
Belts are wonderful. They are a popular and essential piece of gear in the strength training arsenal. They should not be used in the early phases of a trainee’s career because they will primarily get in the way. After getting some experience and strength and once proper form has been established, then a belt can be considered.