One of the most commonly used pieces of lifting gear, the lifting belt is primarily used to improve performance and support the lower back during heavy lifting. But knowing when and how to use a belt is not as clear-cut as it may seem, and there are a few important factors to consider.
When worn across your mid-section, the lifting belt provides intra-abdominal pressure and core tension, which supports and protects the spine under heavy loads. This core tension translates into greater core strength and internal force, which helps you to lift heavier. Combined with a deep breath held throughout the lift, the belt gives the abdomen something to push against, creating pressure and tension throughout the mid-section, improving core strength and stability and providing support for the spine.
Worn properly, the belt should fit tight across your mid-section and cover your belly button in the front. If worn too low, the belt creates far less intra-abdominal pressure. Wrap the belt around the widest point of your waist. It should be snug but not uncomfortably tight.
A lifting belt is best used for heavy compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, bent over row and overhead press – lifts in which the lower back is involved in moving heavy loads or is under a lot of pressure to stabilize the body. As cool as it looks, the lifting belt should not be used in all your training; beyond these few compound lifts involving the lower back, the belt is often unnecessary, even counterproductive.
For beginners, too much reliance on a lifting belt can inhibit motor learning in the abdominal muscles and may lessen some of the core-strengthening benefits of compound lifts. For this reason, beginners may be better off not using a belt at all. Instead of focusing on lifting heavy weight, beginners should focus on engaging the core muscles during compound lifts like the deadlift and squat. This will help ensure you are developing true core strength as you learn to perform these lifts.
Once you have learned the proper mechanics and have gained strength in these lifts, start using a lifting belt as you incorporate heavy weight/low rep sets in your training. As you continue to progress, use the belt as needed for heavy lifting. To develop additional core strength, go without the belt for any sub-maximal or assistance work such as warm up sets, box squats, front squats, partial deadlifts or a 20-rep set of squats.
It is unlikely that using a lifting belt will negatively impact core and lower back strength in experienced lifters. If you are using the belt in order to challenge yourself and lift heavier weights, you will certainly engage and strengthen these muscles in the process.
Whether or not you should use a lifting belt also depends largely on your goals and your preferences. If core strength is your priority and you are not as concerned with big numbers or your 1RM, then training without a lifting belt may be right for you – though I still recommend using a belt for any max effort sets of 3 reps or less. If, however, you are focused on heavy lifting, using low rep sets, and increasing your 1RM, training with a belt will help. Just be sure not to over-rely on the belt. Include some assistance work that uses your core and lower back muscles, or include lifting days in your routine where you train without your belt, working with sub-maximal loads or trying to see how heavy you can go using your raw core-strength alone. Anyone concerned about lower back injury may want to use the lifting belt more liberally, but still only use it for compound lifts involving the lower back.
There are many styles of lifting belts out there, and it can be hard to choose one with confidence. My suggestion is to invest in a thick powerlifting belt. The thicker and wider, the better; and get one that is the same width and thickness throughout the length of the belt. This ensures the most surface area contact between your mid-section and the belt and will provide the most support and intra-abdominal tension.
Velcro belts and leather belts tend to be thinner and provide less tension, and contoured belts don’t provide equal support through your mid-section. Though powerlifting belts tend to be a bit more costly, they provide the most support and intra-abdominal pressure and are worth the investment. I’m no brand whore, and I’m not receiving any payout, but here is a link to a great lifting belt that I personally use and would recommend: http://www.inzernet.com/detail_belt.asp?PRODUCT_ID=FOREVERBELT_LEVER13
For more info on this topic, here are a few articles that break it all down:
* There are a few instances where specialty belts are used for attaching additional weights to body weight exercises like pull ups and dips. This article doesn’t cover those uses.