It is no secret that spinal health can make or break (pun intended) an individual’s overall life quality. I believe if you are investing precious time in the gym you should be doing it safely and in the most efficient way possible. For this reason I set out to answer two questions: Do you need a weight lifting belt, and if so, when should you use it?
Anatomy And Biomechanics:
Before we discuss the concept of a lifting belt you should have a brief understanding of the human body and the biomechanics behind spinal stabilization.
Functionally the human “core” is made up of several muscles that act to stabilize the spine throughout movement. For simplicities sake, we will focus on the group as a whole with an emphasis on the deep core muscles such as the Transversus Abdominis (TA). Attaching to the tissue at the center of your stomach near the belly button, the TA runs down towards your groin and then out and around your back. You can picture it as a corset or a wide belt. When contracted the TA functions to provide stability to the lower segments of your spine by compressing the contents of the abdominal cavity and increasing the tension throughout the muscular fascia that runs along the base of your spine. This is important because as you lift weights you want your spine to sit still, and not slide around under the external force of your work out. If you have weak core musculature than your spine is at an increased risk of excessive curvatures and harmful intervertebral movement.
Similar to other muscles, the Trasnversus Abdominis can be strengthened by actively contracting it. Just as doing bicep curls helps to grow your biceps, abdominal contraction while lifting, moving and during everyday life can help to grow your core strength.
Pro’s And Con’s of the Weight Lifting Belt
The good, The bad, and the strong.
Supplying the core muscles with external assistance in their contraction towards the spine
Providing proprioceptive feedback to the muscles of the core, enhancing their contraction
Preventing excessive spinal curving or arching during a lift
Overuse resulting in:
Reduced training of the abdominal musculature that occurs with self-bracing and helps to improve overall core strength
Physical/Mental reliance on an external support system that will not always be accessible in life outside of the gym
Decreased contraction of your bodies own stabilizing belt, the core musculature
My personal suggestions for who should wear a weight lifting belt, and when they should wear it.
WHO Should use it?
Beginning weight lifters: No.
Novice lifters should focus on technique. You should not be maxing out or performing exercises to fatigue that will result in form breakdown
You have lots to gain from focusing on core stability throughout all workouts, therefore providing your abdominal muscles with the stimulus they need for growth
Moderately experienced lifters: No.(For the most part)
You too have more to gain from focusing on core stability throughout the lift than by belting up for 1 or 2 extra reps
Experienced weight lifters: Yes. (If lifting heavy)
By now you are likely lifting at or near your max and will benefit from the supplemental stability of a belt
You can improve your heavy lifts by focusing more intently on form and specific muscle activation rather than focusing on solid core contraction
WHEN you should use it:
When performing maximal or near maximal lifts for muscle groups that directly impact the spine
Examples: Squats, Dead Lifts, Power Cleans, Snatches
Caveat: Some may benefit from wearing a belt even when performing a lift that does not directly impact the spine, such as while benching (see the side note section below)
When performing lifts for duration where fatigue and form break down are inevitable. Yes, that means you cross fitters!!!
If the WOD has you performing high volume exercises with little rest such as squats and deadlifts you should be wearing a belt. This is because even the most experienced lifters who are conscious of technique will begin to have decreased core contraction and form breakdown with endurance related activities and AMRAP exercises
When advised by your medical professional due to issues with spinal instability
When you DO NOT need it:
When lifting accessory muscle groups
Simply put, the further away the target muscle is from the center of your body, the less you need a belt
Examples: Training of the biceps, triceps, shoulders and calves
When specifically targeting work outs for the back musculature
The core functions to stabilize your spine, AKA the back. So why not train the entire back and get a core work out while performing those lat pull downs?
Bench Pressing and Belts:
Some would argue that if you are attempting your max during a bench press you should be utilizing an arched back in order to shorten the bench stroke, decrease the required range of motion and to prevent excessive internal rotation of the shoulders
If you are utilizing this technique, you may benefit from a lifting belt to help stabilize the lower spine as it arches backward toward the bench
No Belt, No Problem:
Individuals lifting heavy weight may reasonably choose to never wear a lifting belt if they have built up enough core strength to properly stabilize the spine throughout their exercise. Many successful Olympic style weightlifters choose to never wear a belt
A weight lifting belt serves to stabilize the spine throughout movement by enhancing your core contraction and increasing the pressure around your low back. It does not completely replace the need for active core contraction.
A lifting belt is a tool, and like many tools it can be used or misused. If you are training muscle groups that directly impact your spine at close to maximal weight or high volume, than you should wear a weight lifting belt.
If you aren’t doing either of those, then do yourself a favor and put those precious gym hours to their maximal use. Don’t use a belt, keep your abdominals tight, and get your arms and legs ready for beach season while simultaneously training your core!
To learn more on the core musculature, how to contract/strengthen it, and on topics such as the valsavla maneuver keep an eye out for our upcoming articles.