Those big belts we see folks strap on at the gym aren't just a fashion statement — they're designed for safety, too. Weightlifting belts help support the core and protect the lower back, but they shouldn’t necessarily be used during an entire workout Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting. Kingma, I., Faber, G.S., Suwarganda, E.K.,et al. Institute of Fundamental and Clinical Human Movement Sciences, Faculty of Human Movement Sciences, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Spine 2006 Oct 15;31(22):E833-9. . Plus, weightlifting belts aren’t always necessary for strength training, and some people prefer not to use them at all. So unless face-bulging, muscle-wrecking iron pumping is on the schedule (and even if it is), it may be best to leave the belt at home.
Below the Belt — Why It Matters
Full-body weightlifting movements like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are great for building muscles and strength, but they can also cause injuries in the lower back because they load the spine with weight An overview of strength training injuries: acute and chronic. Lavallee, M.E., Balam, T. Indiana University School of Medicine, South Bend, IN. Current Sports Medicine Reports 2010 Sep-Oct;9(5):307-13. . Weightlifting belts protect the lower back in a few ways: First, they increase intra-abdominal pressure, or the pressure within the abdominal cavity, so the abdominal (or core) muscles support the spine as much as possible Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Miyamoto, K., Linuma, N., Wada, E., et al. Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Gifu University, School of Medicine, Japan. Clinical Biomechanics 1999 Feb;14(2):79-87. Effects of a belt on intra-abdominal pressure during weight lifting. Harman, E.A., Rosenstein, RM., Frykman, P.N., et al. Exercise Physiology Division, U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Natick, MA. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1989 Apr;21(2):186-90. . Weightlifting belts also help protect the lower back by reducing hyperextension and possible inflammation around the spine resulting from heavy lifting. The belt helps keep the lower back propped up so it can’t fall back into a potentially harmful position. And the belt is useful during heavy weightlifting that places pressure on the spine, since it prevents spinal shrinkage, a sci-fi sounding term that refers to the compression of the vertebral discs Effect of a weightlifting belt on spinal shrinkage. Bourne, N.D., Reilly, T. Centre for Sport an Exercise Sciences, School of Health Sciences, Liverpool Polytechnic, UK. British Journal of Sports Medicine 1991 Dec;25(4):209-12. . Some experts recommend using weightlifting belts when moving loads upwards of 85 percent of a one-rep max (or 85 percent of the amount of weight you can move once).
Weightlifting belts come in a range of shapes, sizes, and styles. Belts geared for the gym are thick and tough and are often made of leather or firm synthetic materials, with clamps and prongs to secure them in place. Other types of belts can be useful for people who work in factories or on delivery trucks and lift heavy loads throughout the day Weight lifting belt use patterns among a population of health club members. Finnie, S.B., Wheeldon, T.J., Hensrud, D.D., et al. Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2003 Aug;17(3):498-502. . These belts are made of soft materials so they can be worn loosely all day and tightened when necessary. But, even for weightlifting, it isn’t necessary to wear a belt for an entire workout.
Things Just Got Heavy — The Answer/Debate
Don’t get into a tight situation: Weightlifting belts shouldn’t be worn tightly for the entire duration of a workout Wearing an abdominal belt increases diastolic blood pressure. Rafacz, W., McGill, S.M. Department of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 1996 Sep;38(9):925-7. . Only tighten the belt when it comes time to lift loads upwards of 85 percent of a one rep max. (A weight belt worn loosely around the stomach will not help or hinder performance; it’s just convenient so it doesn't have to come on and off regularly during the workout.)
Ultimately, to wear or not to wear depends on personal preference, since there’s still some debate about the function of weightlifting belts. In some cases, wearing a weightlifting belt can increase blood pressure Wearing an abdominal belt increases diastolic blood pressure. Rafacz, W., McGill, S.M. Department of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 1996 Sep;38(9):925-7. Effect of weightlifting and breathing technique on blood pressure and heart rate. Lepley, A.S., Hatzel, B.M. Movement Science Department, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2010 Aug;24(8):2179-83. . And fitness experts aren’t certain if wearing a tight weightlifting belt means the abs take longer to get stronger; it’s possible the core muscles don’t work as hard with the extra back support Effect of soft lumbar support belt on abdominal oblique muscle activity in nonimpaired adults during squat lifting. Warren, L.P., Appling, S., Oladehin, A., et al. Department of Allied Health, Chattanooga State Technical Community College, TN. The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy 2001 Jun;31(6):316-23. . Plus, it may be risky to rely too much on the belt: One study found baggage handlers who wore weightlifting belts on the job were more prone to back injury once they stopped wearing the belts An evaluation of a weightlifting belt and back injury prevention training class for airline baggage handlers. Reddell, C.R., Congleton, J.J., Dale Huchingson, R., et al. Texas A&M University, Industrial Engineering Department, College Station, TX. Applied Ergonomics 1992;23(5):319-29. . Keep in mind it’s still possible to lift heavy loads safely without a weightlifting belt, as long as the lifter sticks to proper form and gives the muscles adequate recovery time to avoid back injury Pro-inflammatory cytokines expression increases following low- and high-magnitude cyclic loading of lumbar ligaments. D’Ambrosia, P., King, K., Davidson, B., et al. Musculoskeletal Disorders Research Laboratory, Bioengineering Division, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Health Sciences Center, University of Colorado, Denver, CO. European Spine Journal 2010;19(8):1330-9. .
To buy a weightlifting belt, check out the local sporting goods store or shop online if you know the right size. Make sure the belt width fits your torso size — when cinched around the belly button the belt shouldn't knock against the ribs or pinch the hip in a deep squat. To put on the weightlifting belt, place the belt loosely around the stomach, suck in the stomach slightly, and pull that thing tight. (There should be no space between the stomach and belt.) Then close the clasps, put those spotters in position and get ready to go — crank up the music! As with all intense athletic activity, find quality coaching if unsure about how to do an exercise, especially during very heavy lifting. Weightlifting belts are made to help, not hinder, so use them wisely.
Do you wear a weightlifting belt? If so, do you think it's made your workouts safer? Tell us in the comments below!