We get asked this all the time. There are two commonly cited reasons for wearing a weightlifting belt. The belt supports your trunk when lifting, decreasing the chances of injury. Studies have suggested that weight lifting belts reduce the compressive stresses on your spine when lifting heavy.
When you lift with a belt you (should) brace your abs against it. The belt acts to support and enhance your core muscles, meaning you can lift more. Weightlifting belts can increase your range of motion in a lift as well as increase the volume of power generated. It usually manifests itself in a faster lift. That’s the second reason.
When to use a weightlifting belt
The obvious candidates for belting up are clearly deadlifts and squats. Advanced lifters often reach for the belt when performing Olympic lifts. More often than not, lifters will reach for the weightlifting belt around the 70% one rep max level, hoping to lift safely, lift harder, or both.
Lifters do not often use a weight lifting belt for other exercises, but I do know people who use them when performing upper body exercises like the bench press. We will touch on this later, but there is a strong belief that regular use of a lifting belt reduces reliance on abdominal muscles. I have met bodybuilders that use a belt to keep their abs in check, while pushing other upper body muscle groups - in search of that classic ‘V’ body shape.
Belts do not necessarily weaken your abdominal muscles, but since they are purported to reduce the workload on your abs then it follows that you should avoid a weightlifting belt when directly working these core muscles. Sit-ups with a belt just do not make any sense.
With that nice gentle introduction to weightlifting belts out of the way, it’s time to get technical.
Do weightlifting belts increase safety?
You might not associate those guys who throw weight around with bulging veins as proponents of safety, but the best lifters lift safely every time. A good lifter knows when to push their boundaries and when to hold back. They recognise their weaknesses and work on them individually, reducing the chances of that weakness causing a catastrophic failure when they next attempt a personal best. There is strong evidence that a good weightlifting belt significantly increases safety.
There is an often-quoted study into Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), specifically looking at deadlifting with and without lifting belts. It investigated the effects on IAP and vertical ground reaction force - ie the downward pressure exerted through your feet when you lift.
As you might imagine, IAP rose sharply immediately on lifting the barbell from the floor. IAP then plateaus or declines, reflecting the reduced use of your abdominal muscles over the course of a deadlift. Normally at the top you’ll be activating your glutes, quads and hamstrings as you finish the lift.
The major find was that IAP increased with the use of a belt. Increased IAP reduces disc compressive force on the spine and, therefore, improves lifting safety.
The study suggested that IAP increased by 15% when deadlifting with a belt. Other studies have exhibited even greater increases in IAP when squatting with a belt. Interestingly, the squat study suggests that the choice of belt type is irrelevant, but we’ll touch on that later. It has also been found that the belt has a greater impact at higher weight levels - ie when attempting a PB.
Do weight lifting belts improve lift mechanics?
A very interesting paper in 2001 studied the effect of lifting belts when squatting - looking at muscle activity and joint kinematics. Squats were completed significantly faster with a lifting belt than without. The vertical and horizontal velocity of the barbell was greater in both the upward and downward phases of the squat.
Essentially, a lifting belt was shown to increase the explosive power when squatting. To measure the impact on lifting dynamics, the authors measured the myoelectric activity of various muscle groups and also joint angles by videotape - it was 2001 after all. There were no significant differences recorded on either when squatting with or without a belt. This suggests that squatting with a weightlifting belt does not compromise technique or the overall joint range of motion. In fact they found that a lifting belt increases the vertical distance that the barbell travels.
Negatives of a weightlifting belt
Most studies extol the benefits of weightlifting belt or at the very least argue that there is little difference. I have yet to read a paper strongly arguing against a belt. It is a good sign, but there are a few negative arguments that are certainly worth considering.
Lifting more is not necessarily a good thing
As I mentioned, good lifters understands their weaknesses. Increased IAP may reduce pressure on your spine, but it is not generally regarded as a healthy feature. IAP spikes blood pressure. I recently read an article about the effect of increased IAP on dogs. The title says it all - “Chronically increased IAP produces systemic hypertension in dogs.” Hypertension is a state of great psychological stress and an abnormally high blood pressure. I feel for the dogs in this study as it sounds like they were subjected to some not-very-nice experiments! But moving on, higher IAP may spike blood pressure, and if you have existing blood pressure problems then perhaps avoid weight lifting belts altogether.
Belts might undermine the effects of heavy squatting
The authors of the squat study above actually suggest that weight belts might best be avoided despite producing a more explosive squat. Greater squat speed is not necessarily a good thing. Slow and controlled heavy lifting is useful for hitting the full range of muscle fibres that can be activated when squatting. Controlled lifting is a good thing - and you might not want the enhanced-speed effects of squatting with a belt.
Belts aren’t very comfortable
It might be a relatively minor downside, but breaking in a lifting belt, especially a leather belt, can be a pretty uncomfortable experience. Bruises are not uncommon, since the belt has to be worn very tightly to have any impact. The effect is greater on individuals with a smaller midriff. Not a major problem, but worth considering.
How to wear a weightlifting belt
Inhale and hold your breath. Wrap the belt into position and brace your abdominal muscles. Tighten the weightlifting belt enough to press against your braced abs. Lock in and load on the weights!
Sounds simple enough but it is easy to get this bit wrong. There are also variations that you should be aware of.
The belt should be positioned against your abdominal muscles to take advantage of their effect on IAP. However, there are some lifters that lift with the belt much higher – even around their ribcage. I am somewhat sceptical of whether this has any meaningful benefits but as far as I know there have been no studies to determine the best position of a belt so perhaps it is worth a try. But it certainly will not support your abdominal muscles if you wear it extremely high up your torso.
If you are lifting with a partner you might want to try wearing the belt backwards. You will need someone to buckle you in and you might get a few strange looks but at least the buckle will not jab into your ribs – useful when deadlifting or perhaps deficit deadlifting.
If you decide to invest and try a weightlifting belt then there is no harm in trying a few variations to see what works best for you. It makes sense to invest most of your efforts into the standard – over-abs – positioning.
Finding the right balance between tightness and comfort is important when wearing a weightlifting belt. You need enough space to be able to contract your abdominal wall, with your muscles braced up against the belt when you are lifting. Any looser and there’s just no point in lifting, any tighter and you will not be able to contract your abs properly. As an alternative to the technique above, you can try inhaling and tightening the belt, then contract your abdominal muscles. Then try inhaling again and tightening the belt just a little bit further to achieve optimal tightness.
What types of weightlifting belt should you try?
There are three two types of weightlifting belt material and three fastening options. Price can vary but a decent quality weightlifting belt will last a lifetime.
Lifting belts normally come in leather or neoprene. Leather belts are more expensive and most sources recommend leather belts, but as I previously touched on, studies have shown that different types of belt have a marginal impact. While leather clearly has slightly less flexibility than neoprene, as you brace against a neoprene belt it will tighten to a similar level of rigidity as leather. In addition to being cheaper, neoprene belts are usually far more comfortable too.
There are a few options when it comes to fastening – most neoprene belts come with Velcro while leather belts tend to be secured using buckles or levers. Velcro is ideal for a customised fit. Lever belts are also great for a bespoke fit, as long as your midriff does not fluctuate in size too often (otherwise you’ll need to adjust the belt regularly).
The traditional belt buckle fastening is also a great choice, and perhaps the most common too. It can be a problem, however, if your perfect level of tightness is in between buckle holes. That can be a little frustrating. In such a scenario you may need to put up with a slightly tighter fit until the leather yields a little.
Arguably Velcro is the least secure fastening of the lot, but if you are bracing so hard against your belt that you are popping out of a Velcro strap, then perhaps you are wearing your belt a little too tight. For the same reason a double-pronged belt buckle is probably a little excessive. One prong really should be enough.
The last variable is the width of the belt. If the purpose of a weightlifting belt is to provide a bracing point for your abdominal muscles, then it makes sense to wear a belt that covers as much of these muscles as possible. A four-inch belt is the most common choice. Anything less will not provide an effective wall against your abs, anything more might be a little uncomfortable, especially when deadlifting.
So what's the answer?
No study has really been large enough or carried out over a significant period of time to definitively prove the benefits of weight lifting belts. However, there is plenty of practical evidence to support the use of lifting belts. Many lifters wear them and many competitive athletes wear them (not all, but many).
It is also possible that some of the studies are wrong, and that the impact of a weightlifting belt is marginal. Keep in mind that the humans that take part in these studies are fully aware that they are wearing a weightlifting belt. Perhaps the increase in IAP and the overall improvement in vertical distance is brought about by the psychological boost created by strapping these individuals into a weightlifting belt. In short, perhaps a weightlifting belt is a placebo.
Even if the studies are wrong, and the effect of a lifting belt is psychological, then does it not achieve the same thing? If this is true, then the biggest danger is the possibility of over extending your body, due to the potential for over-confidence when wearing a weightlifting belt.
Should I wear a weightlifting belt?
The million-dollar question - and my answer is that weightlifting belts are worth a try. If you have read this far, then you are probably serious enough about weightlifting and eager to become even better. Under the following scenarios I would certainly recommend trying weightlifting belts:
You have reached seriously high levels of weight and are a little worried about protecting your trunk.
You are plateauing in your lifting strategy and want something to help you break new ground.
You simply want to lift heavier.
The choice and effectiveness of a weightlifting belt really does seem to be determined by the person wearing the belt. Try borrowing a belt from a friend, or if this is not possible then keep in mind that you can always return a belt if you do not want it!