Some think lifting belts are a pointless extravagance but others think they are a necessity. Does a belt rob your muscles of the work, allow you to lift more or alter your chance of getting an injury? And how do you use a belt if you want to get the most out of it?

I recommend using a lifting belt during heavier sets of squats and deadlifts. A lifting belt raises intra-abdominal pressure, stabilises the spine and potentially makes the exercises safer. I can’t simply quote a percentage or a set weight in which you should use a belt, but it certainly doesn’t need to be worn on every exercise or for every set. If the load is particularly light, or it is an exercise that does not stress the musculature of the trunk then you will not need a belt. 

Some people have an unfounded concern that the belt steals some of the work. In fact the belt allows you to both lift more and increases the muscle activity of the trunk.

Beware complacency–a belt is worthless without correct breathing and bracing technique (more on this shortly) and the false sense of security it provides might lead the unwary to attempt dangerous weights and injury. Wearing a belt for general day to day tasks may do very little to protect against injury, so it should not become some kind of security blanket. Once you realise that by itself it provides no protection it will give about as much comfort as a mother’s penis.

You may see some powerlifters wearing a belt during the bench press. Although it is allowed, the only time this would be appropriate or an advantage is if the lifter is wearing a ‘bench shirt’ that needs to be held in place by the belt.

The belt does not turn the exercise into a modification, variation or a different lift, so you don’t need to worry about logging belted and beltless lifts in your training diary. If the weight was heavy enough, belt use should just be assumed.

The lifting belt comes in a few shapes, sizes and styles. A weightlifting belt is thicker on the back than it is on the front, and as the name suggests this is designed for weightlifting (the snatch and clean and jerk). 

A powerlifting belt is the same width all the way around and will favour squats and deadlifts. This is the type of belt I discuss here. A good quality belt will not need to be replaced very often (if at all). If you are planning on competing then double check if there are any restrictions on brand, style or dimensions.

Powerlifting belts are usually 10mm thick. You can get thicker 13mm belts, which are stiffer, but less comfortable and take longer to ‘break in’. This extra stiffness is unnecessary for the less squidgy or anyone under 100kg, who would do better with the 10mm option as it will conform to their body shape.

The next choice is lever or prong. The prong is the traditional style and comes with single or double prongs. I don’t see the advantage of two prongs and find them awkward. Further, the single prong allows a lifter to adjust the belt easily from set to set or exercise to exercise. This can be handy, as people often have their belt slightly looser and higher during deadlifts than they would on a squat. It is also convenient for those whose weight often fluctuates. The downside to the prong is that it is not always easy to get it on or off without a fight. 

Personally, I prefer the lever style belt as it is far easier to get on and off. However, it comes with a few drawbacks. Firstly these belts generally need adjusting with a screw driver. Not the end of the world, especially if you do not need to change it regularly, but enough to put you off if you do.

Secondly the loose excess part of the belt overlaps around the inside on a lever belt. This can leave the corners poking you in the ribs, but if that’s the most discomfort you feel during a lift then perhaps you should swap the broom handle for a bar and maybe one day put some plates on.

Finally, I have heard the lever belt can pop open but with correct use, I’ve never seen this happen in close to twenty years. I have however seen a few levers snap off when people drop the belt so that’s worth bearing in mind before you throw it around the gym.

How to use the belt.

To get proper support, you will need to put the belt on to cover as much of your abdominal wall as you can. For most people this will be higher than where a normal trouser belt will sit, but that depends on your belly and where you position your trousers. The size of your torso will also create individual differences.

You will try to breath out sideways, using our three dimensional breath pattern (see here). The lats, ribs and the belly will press outwards (although the latter remains relatively flat).

In order to be able to breath out and still be able to push into the belt, you will need to find the Goldilocks zone of not too tight and not too loose.

It is not a corset and you should not look like you are going to a fancy dress party dressed as a wasp. Put the belt on too tightly and you will not be able to expand your trunk with the three dimensional breath.

Put the belt on too loose and you will not be able to press your sides against the belt to create the tension required. For most people it is a case of the belt being in position whilst you are relaxed and being able to get at least two fingers under the belt.

References:

Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles.

Miyamoto K, Iinuma N, Maeda M, Wada E, Shimizu K.

Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1999 Feb;14(2):79-87.

Effects of a belt on intra-abdominal pressure during weight lifting.

Harman EA, Rosenstein RM, Frykman PN, Nigro GA.

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1989 Apr;21(2):186-90.

Weight lifting belt use patterns among a population of health club members.

Finnie SB, Wheeldon TJ, Hensrud DD, Dahm DL, Smith J.

J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Aug;17(3):498-502.

Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting.

Kingma I, Faber GS, Suwarganda EK, Bruijnen TB, Peters RJ, van Dieën JH.

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2006 Oct 15;31(22):E833-9.

Back belt use for prevention of occupational low back pain: a systematic review.

Ammendolia C, Kerr MS, Bombardier C.

J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2005 Feb;28(2):128-34. Review.

Use of back belts in occupational settings.

Minor SD.

Phys Ther. 1996 Apr;76(4):403-8. Review.

Use of back belts to prevent occupational low-back pain. Recommendation statement from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care.

Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care.

CMAJ. 2003 Aug 5;169(3):213-4.