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All About Lifting Belts

This week we got a great question from one of our members: When should you wear a lifting belt?

As with any piece of optional equipment, the answer to the question “Should I use it?” is…it depends! 

We’ll start off with the basics. A lifting belt is a wide adjustable belt, usually made from leather or nylon. Some use notches like a regular belt, while others use velcro or a latch to stay secure. 

A common misconception is that lifting belts are used as some sort of support for the low back. This is partially true, but not in the way you might think. The point of as lifting belt is to give our abdominal muscles something to brace against while we lift. It increases intra-abdominal pressure inside the body, which in turn helps support proper spine position while lifting. The belt itself isn’t providing support to the spine, but our bodies’ reaction to the belt does. Some studies have shown that wearing a lifting belt increases intra-abdominal pressure by up to 40%, while also reducing disc compression in the spine by up to 50%. 

Research has also shown that lifters wearing a belt tend to have less spinal flexion and more flexion at the hips and knees while lifting. In other words — they’re using their legs, not their lower back to move the weight.

In terms of performance, many athletes report an increase in top-end strength on their lifts while wearing a belt. In other words, a belt may help you lift a little bit more weight on your heaviest lifts.

You can think of it like two different lifts, with two different PRs. Your max lift with a belt, and without a belt. Many athletes have a 5-10lb difference. 

Like any piece of equipment, the efficacy of a lifting belt depends on proper use. The belt should be worn quite tight. If it’s too loose, it won’t provide support. You should still be able to breathe and move of course.  You’ll also need to make sure you’re breathing properly during your heavy lifts, so you’re exerting pressure into the belt as you lift. 

A belt can be nice to have, but like any performance aid or speciality gear, we don’t want it to become a crutch. I recommend that newer lifters learn to lift properly without a belt. A belt is not a substitute for a strong core, or proper technique. 

Personally, I use a belt sparingly.  I’ll break it out if I’m getting close to maximal effort on deadlifts, squats, or clean & jerks. I can’t stand wearing it for snatches — it just feels weird. Generally I’ll put it on if I’m lifting about 90% or so, but not always. Just depends on how I’m feeling that day! 

As someone who is training for longevity and for fun, personally I get more overall benefit from lifting without a belt. I want to rely on my own body to perform the lifts well. I want the additional core work that comes from lifting without a belt. If I were in a competition trying to max out, then I’d probably use it.

If your goal is to lift the most possible weight, a belt is probably going to help. Some people just like the way it feels. For others, it might just be a placebo effect or confidence booster. You won’t really know until you try it. 

If you’ve got a buddy who has a belt, it might be best to try theirs out before you buy one (assuming you’re roughly the same size around the waist). Solid quality belts can be had from places like Bear Komplex for about $50. 

Good luck and happy lifting!

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