Belt It Out

JYM_Training_Image_BeltItOutBack in the day, almost everyone who lifted weights in some shape or form used a weightlifting belt. Mr. T even made a weight belt part of his street wardrobe!

These days, few if any guys and girls in the gym use a belt. In fact, the most recent study on weightlifting belt usage trends was done in 2003. The researchers reported that only 27% of gym members questioned used a belt. In the dozen-plus years that have passed since then, I’d say that number has grown even smaller. This is likely due to the fact that there is much confusion over whether belts are harmful to progress or helpful. Without a doubt, lifting belts are extremely helpful for a variety of reasons. Here’s a breakdown of the many benefits belts have to offer:

Belt Benefit #1: Increased Core Strength

Many “experts” on training have made the erroneous claim that using a belt is a crutch than can lead to reduced strength of the lower back muscles (erector spinae) and “core” strength in general. That’s completely false information.

Most people think that weightlifting belts act like a brace to support your torso so that your core muscles don’t have to. But that’s NOT how weight belts work. Belts can actually help you increase the use of the abs and lower back muscles. Research on weightlifting belts has shown that for the erector spinae muscles, wearing a belt while lifting will either have little effect on the use of these muscles or will actually increase their use by up to 25%.

Studies have also shown a solid increase in the muscle activity of the rectus abdominis (the abs). These data suggest that wearing a belt may increase core development, not hinder it as many believe. This is one of the main ways that weightlifting belts help to stabilize the spine and reduce compressive forces on it. And when you’re squatting or deadlifting several hundred pounds, I highly suggest you try any means possible to increase stability of the spine and reduce the compressive forces on it.

Belt Benefit #2: Increased Intra-Abdominal Pressure

Another way that belts help to stabilize the spine and reduce the stress on it is by increasing pressure in the abdominal cavity. Some studies have confirmed that wearing a belt during weight lifting increases intra-abdominal pressure by up to 40%, while one study reported that compression of the intervertebral discs were reduced by 50% when subjects wore a belt while lifting. And why is this important? Here’s why…

Increasing intra-abdominal pressure is similar to inflating a balloon inside your abdominal cavity – the inside pressure in the abdominal cavity pushes on the spine to support it from the inside while the core muscles in the abdominal wall and lower back push on the spine from the outside. This inside and outside pressure acts to stabilize the spine and reduce the stress it receives when lifting heavy weights. And this is how lifting belts can help to protect against back injuries during lifting. It’s NOT due to the belt supplying the support; it’s due to the way the body reacts to the belt that supplies the spinal support.

Belt Benefit #3: Improved Biomechanics When Lifting

Yet another way that belts may help reduce back injuries is due to the change in biomechanics it causes. Research shows that when lifting boxes, wearing a lifting belt reduces the amount of spinal flexion (forward bend at the spine), spinal extension (bending back of the spine) and lateral flexion of the spine (bending side to side) while increasing the amount of flexion at the hips and knees. In other words, it forces you to lift more with your legs than you back, which is precisely the biomechanics you want to use when lifting something from the ground. This is also the biomechanics you want to use during deadlifts and squats with a barbell.

Belt Benefit #4: More Power, Strength and Size

So what about performance when wearing a belt? Will wearing a belt actually increase your power, strength or muscle growth? Yes! According to some research, wearing a belt can help to increase all of the above, at least for lower body exercises like the squat. If you combed through the scientific journals for weightlifting belt studies, you might be surprised to find that there are no studies looking at the effect of wearing a belt on one-rep max strength. So I decided to do such a study myself back when I was running the Weider Research Group. We had 12 trained lifters (who had been consistently doing squats for at least 5 years) perform a one-rep max squat with and without a belt on two separate occasions in the lab. The belt they wore was a powerlifing-style belt that was 4 inches all the way around. We found that the belt allowed the subjects to squat an average of about 10 pounds more than when they weren’t wearing the belt.

Other studies have reported that the speed of the reps performed on the squat were about 10% faster when subjects wore belts versus when they didn’t wear a belt. This was especially true during the later reps of the set. This suggests that belts may help to increase muscle power and help to better maintain muscle power throughout the set. Even more research has shown that wearing a lifting belt during squats increases the muscle activity of the quadriceps and hamstrings muscles. Having greater muscle activity during an exercise can help to better promote muscle growth in the long run.

Bottom Line on Belts

I have to wear a belt on many exercises due to the fact that I have a hemivertebra – basically, one of my vertebrae has a large section of bone missing. So I take advantage of any equipment, like a belt, that can help to increase spine stability during heavy lifts. But I highly recommend everyone use a belt specifically for exercises like squats and deadlifts. A belt can also help on exercises where you’re bent over, such as barbell bent-over rows. The belt can help to support the spine to help decrease the risk of back injury and also help to increase muscle power, strength and even muscle activity of the leg muscles, as well as the lower back and abdominal muscles.

Your best bet is to use a powerlifting belt that’s the same width all the way around, front and back. Depending on your height, a 3-4-inch inch belt is best. This will provide the best pressure on the abdominal wall, which will help to increase abdominal activity to help provide better spinal support.

However, you may find that these style belts are very uncomfortable to wear, even for just one or two reps. And they can be difficult to get on properly for many. Personally, I find that due to my structure and low body-fat levels, a powerlifitng style belt is very uncomfortable even for short periods. The top of the belt catches on the underside of my ribcage and the bottom catches on the top of my hips.

I instead use a tapered Cardillo belt that’s 4 inches in the back and 2.5 inches in the front (which is the minimal size width you want in the front). Give the tapered belt a try if you have similar issues with powerlifting-style belts; just make sure it’s at least 2.5-3 inches in the front. Here’s a video where I discuss my belt preference: http://www.jimstoppani.com/home/videos/using-a-weightlifting-belt.

Check out my custom JYM Cardillo belts here: JYM Training Belt link.

You can also check out Cardillo’s full line of belts here: http://www.cardillousa.com/

Use the belt for exercises like squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches and bent-over rows. You may also want to use it on overhead pressing exercises, especially with standing movements like military presses and push presses. Definitely use the belt on heavy near-max attempts where the reps are as low as 1-3 reps, but feel free to use it on any working set of these exercises.

Fasten Your Weight Belt Properly

Last but certainly not least, you must use the belt properly. Here are three tips on how to do that:

  1. First, make sure you have the right-sized belt. The Cardillo website explains how to accurately measure yourself for a belt.
  2. Once you have the right size belt, you must put it on properly. The belt should be quite tight, but not so tight that you can barely breath or move or that it’s very uncomfortable.
  3. Once you have the belt on, breath properly with it during the exercise. To do this on the squat, stand with the loaded bar on your back. Just before you get ready to descend down into the squat, take a deep breath and hold it while pushing your abs against the belt and lower into the squat. Exhale forcefully with a closed glottis as you drive up out of the squat. This is known as the Valsalva maneuver and means that you’re attempting to forcefully exhale, but your wind pipe is closed. You should be familiar with this technique when you bear down to have a bowel movement. (Yes, it’s the same thing during a heavy lift!) Without performing the Valsalva maneuver, the belt will provide little benefit. Once you’ve reached the top of the squat, you can exhale.

 

References:

Finnie, S. B., et al. Weightlifting belt use patterns among a population of health club members. J. Strength Cond. Res. 17:498–502, 2003.

Zink, A. J., et al. The effect of a weight belt on trunk and leg mus- cle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise. J. Strength Cond. Res. 15:235–240, 2001.

Bauer, J. A., et al. The use of lumbar-supporting weight belts while performing squats: Erector spinae electromyo- graphic activity. J. Strength Cond. Res. 13:384–388, 1999.

Harman, E. A., et al. Effects of a belt on intra-abdominal pressure during weightlifting. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 21:186–190, 1989.

Lander, J. E. The effectiveness of weight belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 24:603–609, 1992.

Bourne, N. D. and Reilly, T. Effect of a weightlifting belt on spinal shrinkage. Br. J. Sports Med. 25:209–212, 1991.

Reilly, T. and Davies, S. Effects of a weightlifting belt on spinal loading during performance of the dead lift. J. Sports Sci. 13:433, 1995.

Kingma, I., et al. Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting. Spine 31(22):E833-839. 2006.

Giorcelli, R. J., et al. The effect of wearing a back belt on spine kinematics during asymmetric lifting of large and small boxes. Spine. 26:1794–1798, 2001.

Lander, J. E., et. al. The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990 Feb;22(1):117-26.

Renfro, G. J. and Ebben, W. P. A Review of the Use of Lifting Belts. Strength and Conditioning Journal 28 (1): 68–74, 2006.