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When is a weightlifting belt necessary and does it hinder core growth?

The real purpose of a belt

The main purpose of a weight-lifting belt is to increase intra-abdominal  pressure, which provides support for your lower back on exercises such as deadlifts, squats, bent-over rows, and overhead lifts.  For most guys, it’s a good idea to wear one but only for maximum-weight lifts. Only guys with back problems can use them more liberally. A weight belt is not needed for an exercise that does not directly load the trunk even if it places stress on the lower back (e.g., lat pull-down, bench press, biceps curl, leg extension).

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Compromise is always the best solution

Because the use of a weight-lifting belt has both advantages and disadvantages, you need to make a compromise. The job of the muscles around the spine is to hold it stable. Wearing a weight belt can rob these muscles of the stress they need to grow. Yet wearing a belt can help you lift more weight, which you need for greater site and strength. What’s the compromise?

Warm up and perform light sets without a belt. Only put it on when you’re lifting your top weights of the day. As you get stronger, you will find you are able to lift progressively heavier weights without the belt.

How to choose the right weightlifting belt?

Shopping for a weightlifting belt

Shopping for a weightlifting belt is quite a hard task. It is so because you have to search through the whole market and find out which one is better for you and which not. You look for something comfortable, long-lasting, and very efficient in use.

While selecting a belt, one feels excited and concerned. Always remember But you also have to keep in mind that the type of exercise for which you will be using the belt limits your desires. And you only have the option to choose the belt as per the requirements of the situation.

A thick belt does not necessarily mean a better option

The average width of the most widely used belts ranges from 10 millimeters to 13 millimeters. A better thickness of the belt means better support and anchorage to your spine. But it is not always a good point to go with. One must keep his comfort and ease in mind before choosing the right belt. And should gradually keep on increasing the thickness as the practice proceeds ahead.

Go with the belt that is made from the material that suits your lifting style

Weightlifting belts are made from a variety of materials like leather, Velcro, or suede. But the belt you should choose is completely upon your purpose of using the belt. Powerlifting belts are preferred to be leather made as these belts last for a longer period of time, and they are stronger.

Talking about the suede belt, it is softer and feels more comfortable to wear. Also, a combination of both these materials is also put together to form a belt that is both good and comfortable to use. For Olympic lifting one can opt for a Velcro belt as it is most appropriate.

Choose a belt that is comfortable

Firstly measuring your waist at the navel and then choosing the right size of your belt is the wisest option. Make sure you take the measurements appropriately because wrong readings can put you in trouble while carrying out heavy weightlifting.

When Do You Need A Weightlifting Belt  

For the most part, a lifting belt is not needed.

For the most part, a lifting belt is not needed.

Typically you only need a belt if you are an experienced lifter and you want to work toward going heavier with your weights.

I would not recommend using one unless you reach at least 80% of your 1-RM  (1-RM, or one-rep max, simply refers to the max amount of weight you can lift for one rep).

It is key that you have your form and breathing down before throwing a belt on. A belt is not designed to fix improper form or prevent injury due to improper form.

There are also only a handful of moves that might require a belt. These include:

-Squat

-Deadlift

-Overhead Press (multiple variations)

Due to the pressure they put around your core, they are only needed during the move and then should be removed. They should not be worn during your entire workout.  

What Are Weightlifting Belts?

Contrary to popular belief, weightlifting belts aren’t some kind of back brace to protect your lower back.

So when you see someone using a weightlifting belt on every exercise of their workout – including many isolation exercises – they’re probably using it wrong.

Basically, weightlifting belts are thick belts, often made out of leather, that can be used to assist with certain core-intensive exercises like squats and deadlifts.

There are many reasons for wearing a weightlifting belt, but obviously the biggest drive for its advocates is that it allows them to lift more weight.

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Weightlifting belts are an accepted part of natural powerlifting, and if you wear one you are still considered to be lifting ‘raw’.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a competitive powerlifter who didn’t use a weightlifting belt, but the question here is whether or not they are suitable for regular, non-competitive lifters as well.

How to properly use and wear a weightlifting belt

Now that we understand how belts work, it’s time to discuss how to use them effectively. One of the ways to make sure that you’re using your belt to its fullest potential is by practicing the right breathing techniques.

When you lift heavy you need to produce a large amount of force, think back to when you had to move something heavy like furniture. You usually take a big breath and push or pull the object while holding your breath. The same applies when training to lift heavy weights, except it has a specific name, it is known as the Valsalva Maneuver. This technique involves breathing in the air into your belly (not your chest), and exhaling forcefully with a closed throat pushes your belly out into the belt, thus increasing the pressure build-up around your midsection which allows you to lift heavier.

Practicing this technique is a great way to maximize the use of a lifting belt, but so does wearing it properly. Remember that a good belt is designed to increase intra-abdominal pressure in order to stabilize your midsection. That pressure is created when you contract your abs against the belt, so although weight belts are best worn tightly, you want to leave a bit of space in order to create that pressure.

A good rule of thumb is to wear it one hole looser than as tight as it can go, so there should be a little bit of room in between your stomach and the belt, but not enough that your hand fits in between it. You want it loose enough to allow for abdominal bracing and expansion. If it’s too tight, it can hinder your ability to brace your abdominals and limit breathing. As for the positioning, that’s a matter of personal preference, but you should try to place it in a position that covers the majority of the abdominals and erectors to allow for maximal intra-abdominal pressure. Don’t place it too low or high, it can cause pinching and discomfort. Place it an inch or two above your pelvis, making sure that it covers your abdominal wall.

Supplemental Breathing and Bracing Exercises

Below are five supplemental breathing and bracing exercises lifters and coaches can use to establish proper pelvic alignment and bracing strategies to help support healthier, stronger positioning both with and without a weightlifting belt.

Isometric Dead Bug

The isometric dead bug is a personal favorite of mine because you can really ramp up the intensity and make this a suitable bracing exercise for a beginner and world-class strength athlete. Start by lying on your back with the knees bent at 90 degrees and place a foam roller across the legs horizontally. With your forearms, pressing into the foam roller and meet that resistance with your thighs pushing into the foam roller. This should create immense amounts of tension in the lower abs, obliques, and lats (focus on scapular depression as well. Try doing this for 20-30 seconds as you learn to increase intensity while still breathing into the core.

Suitcase Carry

Suitcase carries are a great way to increase lateral compression of the core and reinforce proper oblique firing strategies. This helps establish proprioception of the spine to non-compressive and rotation forces, further enhancing a lifter’s awareness of proper positioning.

Weighted Side Plank

The weighted side plank (which can also be done without weight) is another way to increase lateral compression (stability), yet done so in a more static environment (as opposed to the suitcase carry). Place a dumbbell on the lateral aspect of the hip, lift upwards, and think about contracting the oblique facing the floor so that the iliac crest moves toward the armpit.

Lying Pelvic Tilt

This is a foundational exercise that many individuals mess up. When done properly, it can be a basis for more advanced progressions and even max effort isometrics. By lying on the floor, you offer immediate feedback to the lifter, who needs to focus on pushing their lower backs down into the floor, assuming a neutral pelvic positioning. You can do this with the knees bent, legs straight, or legs lifted.

Hip Raise with Neutral Pelvic Tilt

Once the lifter has established knowledge on how to brace the core and stabilize the pelvis properly, they can begin to allow movement at the hip joint via hip extension using the glutes. Most individuals who have lower back pain fail to maintain rigidity in the core and lose their bracing strength as they try to lift the hips. By placing a foam roller between the thighs and locking down the pelvic region (lying pelvic drills), lifters can then work on lifting the hips while not allowing the pelvis to anteriorly or posteriorly tilt through the hip.

How to Brace While Wearing a Belt

Whether a lifter chooses to use a belt or not, they need to learn to develop proper bracing and breathing mechanics for submaximal and maximal lifting attempts. Without proper bracing and breathing abilities, a belt will serve only as a band-aid rather than an effective supplemental training tool. Here’s how to brace for any lift — belt or no belt.

  • Pretend You’re Getting Punched in the Gut. If someone were to ever wind up and send a knuckle sandwich into your bread basket, you’d flex every muscle in your stomach, right? This is the first step to achieving a secure and stable back. 
  • Breathe Into the Core. While you are preparing to take a (fake) hit in the gut, think about breathing into the abdomen. The tension should develop with each breath you take. Try to visualize the ribcage getting pulled into the body and the pelvis stacked perfectly underneath the ribcage. Be sure to stay uptight and focus on bringing your ribcage into the body.
  • Flex Your Obliques. The obliques are key to maintaining pelvic alignment and stability while minimizing rotational forces at the hips and spine during loaded movement. Try to think about puffing them outwards as you breathe into the core, almost as if you were puffing your cheeks (face) out. 

Should You Use A Weight Belt?

There are different opinion about whether the average lifter should wear a weight belt. On the one hand, Dr Stuart McGill points out that if we’re training merely to improve our health, not to gain as much muscle size and strength as possible, then there’s little reason to get a weight belt. After all, the myriad health benefits of strength training can be gotten with or without it (source).

Plus, even as we become intermediate and advanced lifters, there’s never a point where we need a weight belt to continue growing stronger, to continue building muscle, or to keep our workouts safe. We won’t ever be in a situation where we’re lifting so heavy that we need a lifting belt to bolster our lower back. If we decide against getting a lifting belt, our lower back may just limit our strength a little earlier, and that’s all. There’s nothing stopping us from safely deadlifting five hundred pounds whether we get a lifting belt or not.

I eventually did decide to get a weight lifting belt, and I’ve grown to love using it. My back feels sturdier and stronger, and it no longer gets fatigued as easily. On the other hand, Marco still lifts without a belt despite having lifted for over a decade. Even when coaching college, professional, and Olympic athletes, weight belts are never a staple in his training. They’re completely optional.

And if we do have a bit of spinal flexion during our heaviest sets—which is probably fine—then we should at least keep it within the neutral range, like so:

Even with a weight lifting belt, we still need to

Even with a weight lifting belt, we still need to lift with proper technique. The belt doesn’t necessarily protect us, it just allows us to hold ourselves more rigid in the proper position.

If you decide not to wear a weight belt, rest assured that you can gain size, strength, and improve your health with or without a lifting belt.

The Cons Of Using A Weightlifting Belt

Now that we’ve been over the positives of lifting with a belt, let’s take a look at the other side of the argument.

Increases Blood Pressure

Lifting heavy weight is all well and good, but not at the expense of your overall health.

If you have high blood pressure, or suffer from other heart-related conditions, then you should be wary of using a weightlifting belt.

Studies have shown that wearing weightlifting belts can cause a spike in blood pressure, although notably only in diastolic, not systolic pressure.

To be clear, though, this only amounts to a temporary increase in blood pressure, which will return to normal after you finish using the belt.

Gives You A False Sense Of Security

A weightlifting belt can definitely give you an increased feeling of confidence.

You’re standing there with a big, bad ass belt strapped around your waist, so it’s easy to feel like a superhero ready to perform mighty feats of strength.

Sadly, you are not a superhero, even with the belt. This means that if you get overconfident, and try to lift more weight than you can actually lift safely, you will end up hurting yourself.

Limits Lower Back Development

Many people say that wearing a belt limits lower back development; however, I personally don’t find this to be true, and neither do the studies that have been done on this.

This comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use a weightlifting belt. Again, it is not a back brace, and your lower back still needs to be sufficiently strong to lift heavy weights – with or without a belt.

Trust me, if you gradually work up to squatting and deadlifting 400+ lbs with good form using a belt, you will not have a weak lower back. I can promise you that much.

Which Weight Lifting Belt is Best?

To summarize, when buying a lifting belt, go with a single-prong or lever belt. Good quality leather belts are generally best, and any thickness will do—even as thin as 6.5–10mm.

Here are the weight belts I personally like:

Both are top-of-the-line leather weightlifting belts, and both are made in America by General Leathercraft (aka Pioneer). I’ve had great experiences with both companies, and I’ve been seriously impressed by the quality and durability of their products.

Weight Lifting Belts Types

Weight lifting belts come in different types depending on the type of weight you are planning to lift. The weight also depends on your body weight. There are weight lifting belts for light, medium, and heavyweights of weight lifters.

There are also different types of weight lifting belts that can provide support to the back muscles. Depending on your body type, practice or training schedule, etc.

Main Types of Weight Lifting Belt

There are various types of weightlifting belts such as leather weight belts, velcro weight belts, suede weight belts, etc. A weightlifting belt also provides stability for the lower back.

  • Leather Weight Belt
  • Velcro Weight Belt
  • Suede weight Belt
  • Bodybuilding Belt
  • Power Lifting Belt
  • Dipping Belt

When you really benefit from a weightlifting belt

Quite simply, it all comes down to your performance goals. If you’re serious about lifting heavier and getting stronger, then wear a belt, plain and simple. If you regularly squat and deadlift very close to your maximum weight or want to break through a plateau, try wearing a belt.

When you throw on a belt and use it properly, the skies part, birds sing, and your deadlifts or squats (or both) get a noticeable boost. In this excellent analysis of weightlifting belts, Greg Nuckols writes that well-trained belt users can generally move 5-15% more weight for the same sets and reps, and are able to squeeze in an extra couple reps at the same weight or lift the same weight for the same number of reps with less effort. That’s pretty significant!

We can take this to suggest that over time, training with a belt will likely help you get you stronger than training without a belt. This makes sense, in the context of being able to do more overall “work” (i.e. lifting more weight and banging out more reps) and continuously push your body to improve, a process called progressive overload. In the long-term, you can gain more muscle size and strength.

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To wrap it up!

Weightlifting belts help protect the body from injuries while heavy weight lifting. They add stability and strength to back muscles but can also weaken your core strength or cause problems for people with blood pressure . Weightlifting belts are just a tool like any other tool & only it’s use can determine the effectiveness of the instrument. Lifting belts can add to your natural game as well as become a hindrance to your growth if they are not correctly used.

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