The weight belt is a staple in the world of weight lifting accessories, but is it being used correctly? Learn when you should use one, and how to use it properly....
The weight belt is among the most abused and misused lifting accessory in most gyms. The question; shouldn't I always wear a belt to help protect my core and low back when lifting? continues to be a hot topic. In my opinion, the answer to this question lies on the individual lifter and their experience in lifting weights. If the lifter has previous injuries or challenges, then maybe a weight belt is a good tool to use to avoid further injury. If not then it should only be used by those who have been lifting weights long enough and understand how to utilize then belt.
There are no set numbers written in a golden book that states once you lift x-amount of pounds you need to throw on a weight belt. Because every lifter has different body types, different goals, different training history, experience and injury; there are no rules as to when the belt is to be used in comparison to the weight on the bar. However, there are only set lifts in which the belt should be used. The Big 3 lifts; squat, bench and deadlift are among the top lifts you will see lifters using the belt, some overhead presses as well on occasion. Any lift that places a strain on the low back (causing spinal flexion) you are safe to use the weight belt on to help keep the body in a neutral spine. Sorry but your barbell curls do not count to use the belt on so leave it in your locker next to your gym gloves.
The belt is not a fashion statement to make you look cool, so only experienced lifters should use the weight belt. You will need to know how to brace your core and create a stable brace through your upper body (shoulders, lats, hips and core). Most lifters who use the belt have absolutely no idea how to use it, where to wear it and the benefits and dangers it can cause when used incorrectly. Myself personally, I will only use the weight belt when I reach near 75% or higher of my 1RM for my major lifts. As mentioned earlier everyone is different and if you are one of those who have an injury and feel that the weight belt helps protect your low back and spine when you lift then by all means throw it on, even if that means using it for your warmup sets.
Now it's time to learn how to put on and utilize the weight belt properly
Now you are using the weight belt and have been training for at least 2 years or so, you know how to execute the lift safely and can brace the core correctly, you're belt ready. There are different widths and sizes in belts and you should chose carefully and use one that is sturdy enough for you to brace against. For the squat you want to place the belt just above the crests of your hip bones, making sure just as your dress belt hugs your waist below your belly button, the weight belt covers the actual front of your belly button. The tightness of the belt DOES matter! The belt is used to reinforce a stable, diaphragmatic breath. Don't just push your abs (belly) into the belt. You shouldn't have it so tight that you can't get adequate pressure into it, restraining your belly to expand into it. Breathe in through your mouth, getting a big air in your belly. You should feel your whole trunk (core) fill with air. Their should be pressure going into the belt at 360 degrees, from the front of you to your low back and each side. If you have the pressure just in the front, you are causing spinal flexion and putting the low back into more risk for injury when the body is loaded with the weight. You should be holding your breath the entire lift until you have to take another breath, breathing in through your mouth and again bracing, pushing your entire core into the weight belt. (Make sure to gather your air at the top of the squat NOT in the hole, STAY TIGHT).
If you are using a belt for the deadlift you can use the same belt and set it up the same way as mentioned above for the squat or you can use a thinner belt. Most squat belts will be 4" but depending on the individuals size and length this size belt may hinder the positioning on the deadlift as the bottom of the belt could rest on the upper thigh, resulting in the low back not being flat and the lifter could lose force from the very set up of the deadlift. This is most common with people who are shorter or who are short bodied (short waist). If you fall into this category you can either position the belt up a little higher on your trunk or get a smaller width belt. For the deadlift you will gather the optimal amount of air into the belly getting your air standing up rather than being bent over. When you're bent over you aren't able to get all the air into your diaphragm.
In conclusion, belts are just a tool that we use when lifting. They are a great accessory to help learn to brace your core when lifting and can help you move some serious weight when performed correctly. Most importantly, know when to use them for YOU and know how to use them safely!