We’ve all seen people at the gym wearing a weightlifting belt. Maybe it was during squats, maybe it was some heavy deadlifts, heck maybe it was sit-ups… please tell me it wasn’t sit-up’s. So what is this thick leather contrapment you ask, and should I be wearing one too?
Like anything in this world, and a common theme in these blog posts is that, well, it really depends. We need to consider firstly who’s wearing the belt, why they’re wearing the belt and when they’re wearing the belt.
The single most important thing to understand regarding weightlifting belts is that they by no means guarantee protection against spinal injury. I can promise you this, you can still throw a disc out whilst wearing a belt. Even one worn correctly won’t protect against, or compensate for, poor mechanics. So bearing this in mind, let’s take a deeper look into when and why we should wear a weightlifting belt.
Weightlifting belts are designed to increase intra-abdominal pressure – meaning an internal pressure surrounding the core/abdominal area. This internal pressure assists to stabilise the spine and can help prevent the core from collapsing when lifting heavy weights, thus increasing our power output and efficiency.
However, the body has its own mechanism to create this particular effect. It’s called the Valsalva maneuver. To create this effect we breathe in deep, hold the breath, and then push out the abdominal muscles. This is what coaches are trying to get you to do when they say “squeeze the butt, flex the gut”. If you haven’t tried this before, give it a go next time you squat, you’ll notice an immediate difference.
The problem with wearing a belt is that we don’t train the body to naturally create the Valsalva maneuver and thus the belt can become a crutch – meaning we can’t operate without it. An athlete that has become reliant on a belt to obtain core stability can open up the risk of injury when performing exercises without a belt. And for this reason the vast majority of us we should be looking to avoid the use of belts for the most part and instead training the body to provide core stabilisation naturally.
So when should we be using a belt? Assuming there’s no injury involved, a good rule of thumb followed by many is anything less than 80-85% of a 1RM should be performed without a belt. When pushing into loads above 80-85% of 1RM then pull the belt out and strap in. This system will give us additional support when we need it on our big lifts but still train the body to create the Valsalver maneuver naturally in the lower weight ranges.
Something to think about next time you go heavy.