Weight Lifting Belts: When and How To Use Them
Written by: Amy Lease
You watched the CrossFit Games on TV. You participated in a competition this summer and everyone else wore one. Is it time to go get a weight lifting belt yourself and wear it every workout? Probably not. Read on to find out why.
Weight lifting belts, like any other fitness "accessory", have their place. They can be beneficial in many situations, but can also hinder you if used improperly.
For a weight lifting belt to be used properly, the technique of the lifter must first be exceptional. An understanding of bracing, breath control, lifting technique, and body awareness must be addressed and practiced before adding accessory equipment.
Bracing the Core
Essential to lifting anything is bracing your core. By "core", we mean your abdominal muscles. Your rectus abdominis (think your classic "six pack" abs) are two large muscles that run vertically along your abdomen that help provide stability to your midsection, and in turn, your entire body. Whether or not you expose your abs through good nutrition and exercise, you still have abs!
In addition to your rectus abdominis, you also have transverse abdominis muscles that run transverse (horizontally in this case) across your abdominal cavity. You can hopefully see how the activity of both vertical and horizontal muscle fibers provide stability to your every move.
So how do we brace these muscles? Try this: stand up, and pretend you are facing someone who is about to punch you right in the stomach. What would you do? Brace for the hit and squeeze your core. Another way to visualize this is trying to get your belly button to touch your spine. Squeeze your core really hard to try and pull your belly button all the way in, sinking into your abdomen to touch your spine on the other side.
Now that you understand bracing your core, we need to figure out how to utilize our breath along with it.
When you tried bracing your core a second ago, did you find yourself having trouble breathing? This means you engaged your diaphragm. The key to mastering bracing your core is being able to perform a brace without holding your breath. See if you can try bracing your core again while reading this, and maintain a normal breathing pattern. Once you get really good at separating breathing from bracing muscles, you'll be able to have a full conversation while maintaining a braced core.
Pro tip: to strengthen your core muscles, try making it through an entire activity with a braced core. Ex. taking a shower, cooking breakfast, driving to work, having a conversation.
Once you can do this, only then can you move on to use your inhale and exhale properly. Before an experienced lifter picks up a weight, you'll likely see them take a deep breath and hold. This is called the Valsalva maneuver. Rather than merely holding their breath, the lifter is taking a deep breath in, closing their glottis (the opening in your larynx that allows air to pass), and increasing their intra-abdominal pressure by trying to forcibly exhale against the closed glottis. (You likely do this on a regular basis when passing a bowel movement.)
As the lifter moves through the attempt, they strategically release the pressure built up in the abdominal cavity by exhaling - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. For example, someone standing up a new back squat personal best may slowly release the air after the worst of the "sticking point" of the lift is over, as they continue to work through standing the weight up. A lifter may also release all of their air immediately to allow them to reset and begin a new repetition if performing quickly, as in a competition.
Being able to strategically use your inhale and exhale in combination with an above average understanding of controlling your abdominal muscles are critical to your success in lifting any object in life.
Before bringing a belt into the mix, an athlete must have sound technique. Without it, a belt will do you no good.
If you find yourself unable to maintain an upright torso in the squat, or feel your back rounding through a heavy deadlift, you must step back, take the weight down, and correct these issues before throwing a belt on and hoping for the best. Working one on one with a coach to identify the source of the issue and then taking weeks, or even months (depending on the seriousness of the flaw) to strengthen and correct it is critical to avoiding injury.
It cannot be overstated: poor technique will not be fixed with a weightlifting belt.
If you are thinking about buying a belt but know you have some technique flaws you need to correct, do yourself a favor and hold off on your purchase. Find a coach, spend some time one on one, and work up to heavy weight with great technique before you waste your money on an accessory.
So you can do all of this now; You've mastered bracing your core. You can perform a solid Valsalva maneuver. You've been working with a coach to correct your technique issues.
But can you do these things consistently, across all different kinds of movements, and have the body awareness to know when you are or are not doing them properly?
If you answered yes, and if you still feel the need to have a weight lifting belt, you are most likely ready to begin to incorporate one.
When To Use A Belt
After mastering all of the above techniques, you will probably find you don't need a lifting belt as much as you thought you did. So is it still worth it to buy one?
If you consider yourself an intermediate or advanced level athlete interested in competing, it would definitely be useful. If you just like to get your hour of fitness in at the gym a few times a week, there is very little need for you to spend your money.
For those of you interested in taking your fitness to the next level through competing, a belt is helpful during workouts that put heavy load on your core. For example, moving Strongman elements across a distance requires core stability while in motion. Most competitions also involve some sort of heavy 1RM (or 1 repetition max) lift - a belt can be very useful during a max effort single lift.
But there is a catch...
A lifting belt DOES NOT replace solid core stability and proper bracing!
The belt is merely a reminder to brace your core properly, and provides an external force for you to physically push against with your abdominal muscles. This pushing against the belt further increases the intra-abdominal pressure you've created with a proper brace and Valsalva maneuver.
How To Pick A Belt
Picking a belt is your final obstacle to using one properly. There are many different types of belts on the market, and knowing which will best suit you and why will help you avoid spending unnecessary amounts of money.
Any belt that is wider in the back than the front should be avoided. Not only does this limit your range of motion for explosive olympic lifts for example, but it is unnecessary. The belt is not there to support your back, as you have learned from this article.
A belt that is unusually thick can be prohibitive as well. Thick leather belts can be good for powerlifting, but will likely get in your way during an olympic lift. Polyester or other synthetic belts tend to hold up very well and flex better than leather, allowing you slightly more range of motion
You can also choose between velcro and a pin or buckle latch. This really comes down to personal preference. Velcro is easy to get on and off, making it advantageous for competition, but a buckle latch won't come undone during a lift.
Moral of the Story
If you only take away one thing from this whole article, hopefully it is this: no piece of training equipment can replace quality technique. Master the technique, then add the equipment to reinforce it.
Interested in learning more about Triangle CrossFit? Click here to check out our website!