Weightlifting belts were once the domain of hardcore bodybuilders. These snug-fitting waist wraps were more of “guy thing,” belts that men wore to show they lifted heavy. But, as more women gravitate toward high resistance weight training, gals are wearing them too. Lifting belts are typically made of leather, suede, or Velcro with suede being the most durable of the three materials. The idea behind wearing one is that the stiff fabric supports the spine during a lift. When you lift a heavy weight, the pressure inside your abdominal cavity increases. This increase in intra-abdominal pressure pushes back on the spine and helps support the back and spine during lifting.
Weightlifting belts increase the amount of pressure inside the abdominal cavity during a lift. They work best when you take a deep breath and hold it as you lift. The combination of the belt and a deep breath creates added support for the spine when you lift. You can typically work with more weight when doing exercises like squats when you’re wearing a belt. That’s because the added pressure in the abdominal cavity reduces the force the erector spinae muscles have to generate when you lift. You can typically lift 10 to 12% more weight while wearing a lifting belt than you can without one.
Can a weightlifting belt protect against injury? Possibly. Some studies show wearing one reduces the compressive force placed on your spine when you lift a heavy weight. Compressive forces are forces that push down on or compress the bones. It’s this type of force that can cause certain injuries, including fractures, to the vertebrae, the bones in the spinal column. Compressive forces can also damage the discs that lie between the vertebrae and help to cushion and protect the bones from shock.
Should You Wear a Weightlifting Belt?
Whether you should wear a belt depends on how much resistance you use when you lift. Weightlifting belts are primarily a performance tool. They can help you lift a bit heavier because they provide extra support when you’re using heavy resistance. Wearing a belt is best reserved for exercises like deadlifts and squats when you’re working with a heavy barbell or dumbbells, 80% of your one-rep max or greater. Wearing one for light, high-repetition workouts offers no substantial benefits. Also, don’t use a lifting belt for exercises where you’re lying on a mat.
One potential downside that women face when wearing a belt is the impact the increased abdominal pressure has on the pelvic floor. The pelvic floor is made up of the muscles, nerves, and ligaments that support the organs in the pelvis, including the uterus, bladder, and rectum. After a few pregnancies, some women have a weakened floor anyway and wearing a weightlifting belt may worsen it by increasing intraabdominal pressure. The added pressure pushes down on the ligaments and muscles and can further weaken them. The floor of the pelvis can become so weak that it can’t adequately support the bladder. Some women suffer from stress urinary incontinence as a result and leak a few drops of urine when they laugh, cough, or sneeze.
The pelvic floor further weakens further with age, although you can strengthen it by doing Kegel exercises. The pressure on the pelvic floor is also greater if you’re overweight or obese. If you have a history of pelvic floor weakness or have just given birth, avoid using a weightlifting belt, as it may do more harm than good. Also, if you’re post-menopausal, be aware that your pelvic floor may already be in a weakened state and wearing a belt could make it worse. At the very least, talk to your physician about whether you should wear a belt that constricts your tummy if you have pelvic floor problems.
Some fitness trainers believe that using a weightlifting belt can lead to “lazy” abdominal muscles. When you’re wearing a belt, you focus less on activating your abdominal and core muscles and these muscles can weaken over time. Some experts also believe that wearing a belt alters how you move when you do an exercise. Even when you take the weight belt off, you run the risk of using improper biomechanics when you do the movement as the habit becomes ingrained.
If you use a weight built improperly, it discourages the use of your own core and abdominal muscles, muscles that are necessary to build and help protect your spine. When you use one as a crutch, it can actually weaken your abdominal muscles. You can also become too dependent on the support a weightlifting belt offers. If you use a weightlifting belt, it’s best not to use it every time you train. Only use it on days you’re lifting heavy (80% of one-rep max or greater) and not sessions where you’re using lighter weights.
How to Choose a Weightlifting Belt
Look for a belt that’s not so tight that you can’t easily breathe in and out, yet it should be firm enough that you can’t slide your hand beneath the belt. There are actually two types of belts: weightlifting belts and powerlifting belts. Both are around 4 inches in width, but the weightlifting belt is thinner than 4 inches in the front because it tapers.
Both types of belts contain padding. You can choose from 10 millimeters of padding or 13 millimeters of padding. The 10 millimeter is your best bet. The extra padding the 13-millimeter offers doesn’t protect your back that much more and it’s more uncomfortable. In fact, it can be so tight and uncomfortable that it’s hard to do certain exercises. Some belts contain a one-prong buckle while others contain two. Most people prefer the one-prong buckle because it’s easier to take on and off. Of the three materials, leather, suede, and Velcro, leather has greater durability, although it costs more.
Be aware that a weightlifting belt is not the same as a back brace. A back brace greatly restricts the movement of the back whereas a weightlifting belt supports the spine when you move. Don’t assume you can use a back brace in place of a weightlifting belt. They’re two different entities.
The Bottom Line
There are pros and cons to wearing a weightlifting belt. If you’re trying to lift heavier on compound movements like the deadlift and squat, wearing a belt can help you improve your performance. But, don’t wear it when you’re lifting lighter. Also, be aware that it may be harmful if you have pelvic floor problems.
LifeHacker.com. “How to Choose Your Weightlifting Belt”
Applied Ergonomics. Volume 23, Issue 5, October 1992, Pages 319-329
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