If you aren’t using a lifting belt properly, it will not keep you safe from injury. In fact, the false sense of security a belt provides can increase your risk of injury (Siewe et al. 2011). This belief that one can push past their ability has actually shown an increase in the number of lumbar spine injuries. So, although you may feel like it’s supporting your low back, it is not unless you are creating intra-abdominal pressure.
Let’s talk about this for a second.
When the diaphragm and deep torso muscles contract it generates pressure. Think of it this way – the abdomen is mainly fluid and is virtually incompressible. The fluids and tissues under pressure can significantly support the vertebral column during training.
Training belts (like weightlifting belts or deadlifting belts) give the abdominals something to push against. This helps increase intra abdominal pressure to support the lumbar vertebrae from the anterior side (Harman et al; 1989).
Practicing creating this tension within the core musculature, can help increase compressive forces between the lumbar vertebrae. This should be done on heavy lifts as well as lighter work. Doing this will stiffen the lumbar spine, create stability and keep the lifter safe. Lifters should practice diaphragmatic breathing and use abdominal bracing exercises activate deeper local core muscles. A typical bracing exercise is performed by pushing the abdomen out and holding for a period of time. For primary lifts (like the squat and deadlift) that use heavy resistance, it’s important to focus on the breath and not simply rely on your belt. So for example: Once you step out of the rack, inhale as much air as possible to brace your abdominals, neck and back. As you hold your breath through the lift you can slowly exhale when you are nearly finished. By pushing into a belt (or imaginary belt), this will keep your trunk stacked and in a tight safe position.
When it’s Appropriate to Wear a Belt
Many people wear belts for exercises that aren’t related to low back stress situations. Many people also wear belts for lighter squats, deadlifts as an effort to reduce stress on the low back. When looking at electromyographic activity, the lumbar extensor musculature had higher percentages when lifters wore a belt with only 60% of 1RMs compared to not wearing a belt. This data demonstrates that when using lighter weights, a belt does not reduce stress on the low back (Bauer, 1999). It is recommended that belts should not be worn during exercises that don’t need torso support or when using light to moderate resistance (think anything lower than a 6RM).
It has also been advised that if an athlete performs exercises with a belt when not necessary, then you may not be giving your torso enough training to develop optimally. Beltless sets allow deep abdominal muscles to develop properly, which can in turn increase better intra-abdominal pressure. So, keep this in mind when choosing to wear one.
I use an Inzer Lever Belt (13MM, size XS) for heavy sets while squatting or doing deadlifts (90-100%) or my custom pioneer belt for rep work (85-90%) since it’s not as thick. Both are effective to help with the intra-abdominal pressure that will stabilize your spine and core. If you are doing a meet, check your federations rules before you purchase these things to see if they are approved.
A belt should never be used in place of poor technique caused by weak low back or abdominals. If exercises are placing a great deal of stress on your low back, or if you have pain or tightness when you squat or deadlift, then you need exercises to strengthen your low back and abdominal regions – a belt will not fix it.
Happy Training Friends!
Bauer, T., Thayer, R.E., and Baras, G. (1990). Comparison of training modalities for power development in the lower extremity. Journal of Applied Science and Research. 4:115-121.
Harman, E.A., Rosenstein, R., Frykman., P., and Nigro, G. (1989). Effects of a belt on intraabdominal pressure during weightlifting. Medicine and Science in Sport Exercise 21: 186-190..
Siewe, J., Rudat, J., Rollinghoff, M., Schlegal, U.J., Eysel, P., and Michael, J.W. (2011). Injuries and overuse syndromes in powerlifting. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 32:703-711.