Weightlifting belts are a form of fitness equipment whose primary goal is to stabilize certain areas of your body – particularly your core and spine – which in turn makes them less vulnerable to injury. During the early phase of the fitness revolution, more weight trainers used belts compared to what is seen today. In fact, an American survey of gym goers conducted in 2003 revealed that only 27% of subjects stated that they use a belt. This was 16 years ago, and it doesn’t take a survey to appreciate that there has been a steady decline in their usage and this low percentage is even lower nowadays.
There is much scientific merit behind the use of weightlifting belts; this much has not changed. Let’s take a look at what science has to say about the effects of using them and then you can decide for yourself if wearing a belt will deliver the results you desire.
Spinal Support Comes From the Way the Body Reacts to the Belt
You may be surprised to learn that the broad concept of “support” for your spine from using a belt is not directly from the belt itself. To give you a better understanding of this, it’s beneficial to first consider that belts increase your intra-abdominal pressure significantly. Studies have shown that by wearing a belt you can increase the pressure within your core by approximately 30-40%. Think of a balloon in which you can pack the air inside with significantly more density. Other studies have suggested that belts can produce up to a 50% reduction on the compression within your spinal vertebrae. Less pressure means less pain and less fatigue.
In short, there is a balancing act between the pressure from within the abdominal cavity and the force from the muscles in the lower back and abdominal wall. In the middle of these forces is your spine, which becomes nicely stabilized and secure. This is the way that belts can significantly reduce your risk of injury, especially if you like to ramp up the heavy weights. Again, the spinal support is not a direct function of the belt; it’s rather the way in which your body reacts to wearing one. The winner here is you and your spine.
Improved Technique, Especially for Squats and Deadlifts
Wearing a weightlifting belt when you’re picking up anything that’s on the ground causes a reduction in spinal flexion, extension, and lateral flexion. These are the respective terms applied to the movements of bending forward with the spine, bending backward, and moving side to side. Because of this reduction, an individual is forced to use more flexion in their hips and knees. The result is the easy-to-understand principle of “lifting with your legs”, which is the correct method for performing deadlifts and squats. You want to avoid any pulling motion with your arms if your back is not in a straight and stable position. Therefore, belts play a very big role in improving your lifting technique which you can apply to many different movements.
Weightlifting Belts do not Make You Dependent on Them
There’s a popular myth which claims that the more you use a belt, the more dependent you become on it. Also, that you’ll have a drastic reduction in strength once you stop using it, particularly in your lower back muscles and your core. In reality, studies have proven that there is no decrease in core engagement when using a weightlifting belt; in some cases, subjects were shown to have activated their core by up to 25% more compared to when they didn’t use a belt. Belts may actually help you develop more strength in your lower back and core, which you can apply either to continued use of the belt, or even to when you don’t use it.
The bottom line is that it’s your choice whether to use a belt or not. If your goals pertain to strength increases, then there’s no question you can benefit from using a belt. We discussed above about how your lower back is strengthened from the reduction in compression of the vertebrae. Your core is also involved, stimulated, and strengthened. And any sports athlete will know that maximum force – be it throwing a track and field implement, or slapping a hockey puck, etc. – can be greatly enhanced from strong core involvement.
If you’re not into strength and don’t play any sports, you can still benefit from using a belt because it will not only improve your technique but also allow you to perform many more reps than you otherwise would.Although they may not be as popular now as they once were, we still believe in the benefits of using a weightlifting belt.