The Proper Use of Weightlifting Belts

Nothing says deadlift day like everybody strapping on their weightlifting belts.  But, why do you wear a weightlifting belt?  What advantage does it give you?  Do you know how to use a weightlifting belt?  Are you sure?  If you cannot confidently answer these questions, then read on…

Before I get into the technical aspects of a weightlifting belt, let me share my personal opinion.  I do not like weightlifting belts.  Heavy deadlifts and squats are excellent developers of core strength.  That’s right!  People sometimes ask why we don’t do more core work, but we do core work every day!  That is why we call these functional movements.  The lifts (power and olympic) are great developers of core strength.  If you are not squeezing your core every rep of air squats (or any other movement) you do, you are doing them wrong.  I can spend all day talking about stabilizers vs. primary movers, but that is beyond the scope of this article.  If you want to discuss this sometime, please see me. 

Back to the topic at hand, people often use weightlifting belts as a crutch.  Because of the belt, they do not develop the core strength that they should by powerlifting.  That being said, you will sometimes see me in a belt.  I have a pre-existing back condition from a work injury.  When I see a heavy weight on a barbell, I remember the pain I felt before and I get scared.  It is a psychological thing, and I believe all lifters have experienced this mental block.  For some odd reason, wearing a belt gives me greater confidence.  My rule is simple:  if I am lifting more than 80% of my 1 rep max for a given lift, I wear a belt.  80% or below means no belt.  I do have exemptions to this rule.  For example, I recently did a multiple round workout that included 365 pound deadlifts each round.  This is more than 80% of my 1 rep max, but I did not wear a belt because I did not want to slow myself down by donning and doffing the belt each round.

To understand the purpose served by a belt, we must first consider proper technique when lifting.  It is of utmost importance when squatting or deadlifting to maintain a neutral spine.  We often say this means keeping your back straight, but that is not entirely true.  The spine has a natural S-shaped curved created by the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions.  Having a neutral spine means maintaining this natural curvature throughout a movement. 

The spine is an amazing piece of human anatomy that allows us to twist, bend, and move in multidimensional planes.  Each vertebrae, however, has a limited range of movement.  Bending any one of these spinal joints under load, even if that load is only your bodyweight, creates significant shear forces on the spine.  Sometimes this can lead to immediate injuries such as a torn spinal ligament or bulging disk.  More often, these are repetitive motion injuries.  Your spine is built to last millions of flexion and extension cycles when done with proper form.  Inappropriate rounding of the back causes a severe decrease in the robustness of the spine.

To prevent these injuries, we should maintain a neutral spine as we move.  We typically do this by squeezing our core.  When I say squeezing our core, I do not mean simply tightening our abs.  It must be a squeeze of all the muscles that support our core, including but not limited to our abdominals, glutes, and spinal erectors (think tummy, butt, and back muscles).  Think of your abdomen as a balloon.  When you lift, you want to think of squeezing the balloon walls form all sides equally to prevent the air from bulging out in any one particular direction.  This helps to stabilize the spine and keep it neutral under load.

Keeping with the balloon metaphor, when we use a weightlifting belt, we are reinforcing the walls of the balloon.  Now, imagine wrapping a sturdy belt, with no give, around the balloon, and blowing as much air as you can into the balloon.  As you can imagine, there will be significant pressure against that belt, and the inside of that balloon with be tight.

This is exactly how you use a weightlifting belt.  First, when you are about to lift, you want to cinch your belt down as tight as possible.  It should be uncomfortable, otherwise it does not do you much good.  Next, as you are setting up and bracing for the lift, you want to try and force your abdomen, all sides equally, into that belt.  Think of using all of your core muscles to try and break that belt off of your abdomen.  The weightlifting belt DOES NOT replace your core musculature; instead, it gives your muscles a solid wall to push against.  This causes significant stabilizing force around your spine.

One more note about using a weightlifting belt; it is my observation that most people wear their belt way too low.  The belt should ride above your hips and around your midsection.

In closing, don’t wear a belt.  This is functional fitness, meaning its stuff we want you to apply in your everyday lives.  It is unreasonable to think that you are going to don a weightlifting belt every time you pick up your dog’s food bowl from the floor (deadlift) or sit down on a toilet (squat).  But, maintaining a neutral spine is just as important in these daily actions as it is in the gym trying for that 500 pound back squat.  And yes, I am assigning equal importance, relative to a neutral spine, to sitting on a toilet and squatting 500 pounds.  If you must wear a belt, for whatever reason, please follow the advice in this article and do not have a false sense of security.

For more information about the importance of a neutral spine and methods to ensure you are achieving it, check out Dr. Kelley Starrett’s work at www.mobilityWOD.com

  • Coach Jeff

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