The question of beltless training, specifically for the deadlift, is a pretty great topic in strength training. Everyone has an idea that beltless deadlift training can be beneficial for their gains, whether it be from a muscular or strength point of view, but why and how exactly should this training style be used?
We’ve written about beltless squat training before and the benefits it yields, but we’ve neglected the deadlift, aka the best compound movement ever in the wide array of barbell training. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been an insane amount of research done on this topic, although, there have been plenty of suggestions made by athletes and coaches who use this training style, so assessing others’ experience with an objective approach will be our best bet with this topic.
In this article, we will objectively take a look at the [related] research on this topic, the why, when, and how others think of and use beltless deadlift training.
Lifting Belt Basics
Why Do We Wear a Belt?
Across all strength sports, there tend to be three major reasons why athletes reach for a belt. Are these three always the case? Of course not, and there may be reasons outside of the three listed below, but these tend to be the biggest reasons as to why.
- Bracing & Training With High Intensities: This point can be easily misconstrued, but a belt can allow us to lift at higher intensities for longer periods of time. It helps us create active stability through bracing and helps us produce more intra-abdominal pressure, which will allow us to produce more force at heavier loads, along with displacing external force on the body caused by weight.
- Safety & Cueing: This is another point that can be easily misconstrued, or interpreted, but a belt can be a great way to ensure spinal safety. Often times, athletes will use a belt to not only keep their torso in a healthy [see neutral] position by increasing intra-abdominal pressure, but also as a cueing mechanism for actively engaging their abdominal pressure even more.
- Specificity: Competitive strength athletes that compete with the use of belts will always benefit with training in one. This is due to the law of specificity, aka to become really great at a specific skill/movement, one must practice said skill in a precise and intentional manner [competition style focused training].
Can a Belt Hinder Progress?
A belt itself will not hinder lifting progress, but misuse/overuse can. For example, all three of the above points can be easily abused if not objectively looked at from time-to-time, aka having a coach assess your progress and lifting here and there. A belt should not act as a crutch for training at high intensities, especially when form could be considerably breaking without belt use, and the same goes for pushing past strength limits due to wearing a belt alone, we’ve all seen videos on social media of this.
Lifting Belt Focused Research
What Research Has Suggested
In terms of research specifically looking at the differences between belt use and non-use for the deadlift, studies are far and in-between. With that in mind, there has been some research published on belt and non-belt differences for the compounds, which we’ll look at below. From the limited research, we can somewhat make a couple of inferences for the deadlift based on what is suggested, but again, these are practical observations, and can be interpreted as you see fit.
The first and possibly most relevant study in respects to belt and non-belt use is from this research originally published in 1992. To keep it short, researchers analyzed individuals who were split into two groups that performed a back squat for multiple repetitions with and without a belt. They assessed multiple characteristics of the sets, which included: Ground reaction forces, intra-abdominal pressure, and mean electromyography (mEMG) for the external oblique, erector spinae, vastus lateralis, and bicep femoris muscle.
Upon the completion of the researchers’ analysis, they noted that the belt wearing group demonstrated greater speeds under the bar, more specifically during the later reps. In addition, the belt wearing group had increased levels of vastus lateralis and bicep femoris mEMG levels compared to those who trained without it. Lastly, the belt wearing group had higher levels of intra-abdominal pressure.
The final study we’ll look at in this article comes from 1989, and the focus was on lifting belts and their relationship with intra-abdominal pressure. In this study, researchers had nine subjects deadlift with and without a belt at 90% of their 1-RM to assess levels of intra-abdominal pressure throughout the movement.
From their suggestions, authors point out that intra-abdominal pressure rose at a higher rate with belt use compared to the non-belt users. In addition, they noted that intra-abdominal pressure dropped off slightly quicker with those wearing the belt, which makes sense when you consider that a lack of belt will require more active stability throughout the whole lift (my interpretation, there’s no reliance on the modality upon movement completion). All-in-all, authors suggested that a belt can be a useful tool for potentially increasing lifting safety, along with limiting spinal disc compression.
Research Practical Takeaways
The research above doesn’t exactly nail the topic of this article on the head, but there were a couple practical takeaways that could be useful when considering training beltless. From the first study, belt use increased intra-abdominal pressure, along with multiple muscle groups mEMG, but there was no difference seen in the erector spinae and external obliques between the two. Often times, when you train deadlifts without a belt these are two muscle groups left very sore/fatigued, so with that in mind, it would be interesting to see if there are any long-term benefits in beltless deadlifts and these specific muscle group’s mEMG.
In the second study, intra-abdominal pressure rose higher and faster in the belt wearing group, but it was sustained longer in the group without. This brings up an interesting point about maintaining intra-abdominal pressure for an extended period of time in training. From what their research suggests, beltless training could be useful for trying to sustain pressure in the torso throughout the deadlift, aka could help with toros position at lockout.
Benefits of Beltless Deadlifts
1. Self-Created Intra-Abdominal Pressure
Yes, training with a belt increases intra-abdominal pressure, this isn’t trying to say otherwise. Although, training a cycle or a lift every so often without a belt can be a useful tool for ensuring that there’s proper cueing of the torso’s pressure during the deadlift, aka bracing techniques are on point. For example, it could be useful for over emphasizing the mental and active thought of applying pressure into the obliques, rectus abdominus, and diaphragm may have carry over to when a belt is present.
The reality of the situation is that a belt typically helps us cue and maintain this pressure [brace], but without it, could we still do the same, or have we relapsed back to relying on the belt to do so? That considered, beltless deadlifts could be useful to check yourself when it comes to creating intra-abdominal pressure and bracing from time-to-time.
2. Greater Muscle Gains?
This point is dicey, and honestly, I wish I had more research to link here. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or elite level athlete, beltless training could be one way to potentially facilitate greater muscle growth. Although, that’s not to say that beltless training will facilitate equal levels of growth for each level athlete. Realistically, one way to look at this is with an inverse relationship.
- Beginner: Less muscular base, more beltless training. This can allow for a better building of foundational strength and musculature, which a belt could inhibit at a healthy normal rate, cue newbie gains. This is one reason why coaches recommend newer athletes to just train compared to worrying about what gear to grab and use.
- Intermediate: Some muscular base, some beltless training. This is the most nuanced group because intermediate strength athletes can have a wide range of strength and musculature levels. In this respect, it’s best to gauge beltess training on one’s goals, weaknesses, and so forth. For example, if your erector spinae are lagging, then more beltless could be beneficial.
- Elite: Great muscular base, less beltless training. An elite level athlete will have a solid amount of strength and muscle built, so more than likely their intensities will not only require a belt for safety, but for effective training. This is especially true for athletes who compete and need specific training adaptations. Beltless training during high volume, lower intensity blocks could be one way to alter a training attribute without fully restructuring a program.
3. Core Strength Development
A strong core will equal strong lifts — no matter what sport you compete in. The core musculature has an incredibly important role on the body. Outside of looking great on the beach, the core helps protect our spine from injury, along with provide support for a healthy posture.
In terms of core musculature, a lot times athletes will only think of the abs and obliques, but the core is much more than that. For example, in the 2013 study from Eunyoung Kim and Hanyong Lee, they describe the core as the “diaphragm, the multifidus muscle, the transverse muscle of abdomen, and the pelvic floor muscle.”
Intra-abdominal pressure and core strength are both pretty synonymous with one another, and our ability to produce a high amount of pressure and force in the torso will facilitate the best [and safest] lifting. Beltless deadlift training could be one way to help facilitate the core musculature’s growth to have carry over for higher intensity sessions when there’s use of a belt.
For example, this research from 2007 noted that deadlifts [and squats] created high levels of EMG for the upper and lower lumbar erector spinae, and there was no indication that the subjects wore belts when lifting at the prescribed 80% intensity (from what was written in the research). This could suggest that beltless deadlift training could be beneficial for focusing on core muscular growth with the use of compounds.
Practical Implications for Beltless Deadlift Training
Ways to Program and Use Beltless Deadlift Training
When it comes to using beltless deadlifts in your training, there are multiple ways to do so, and realistically, it’s going to come down to what you’re most comfortable with and what aligns with your goals. Below, I’ll touch on three methods for programming and using beltless deadlifts in your training that will assess the topic on a macro, meso, and micro level (programming play on words, lol).
- Macro: The first and most broad way in terms of programming the use of beltless deadlifts comes in the form of using them for a full training block. For a full block, you can experiment with leaving the belt at home for deadlift days, or all training for that matter. I’d recommend doing so for a block that’s lower intensity and higher volume, as higher intensities could lead to a quicker rate of cumulative fatigue/form breakdown/chance on injury.
- Meso: The next way to work beltless deadlifts into your training is with a more focused outlook on prescribed intensities. This method will use both a little auto-regulation and calculation. For example, test out various training intensities per your 1-RM with different rep schemes to see what is feasible for safe beltless deadlift training. From there, you can then create rules for training that is reasonable to be completed without a belt. Such as working beltless if weight is 80%> of your 1-RM strength.
- Micro: The final beltless deadlift method is going to be focused on individual training sessions. Other coaches and athletes use this method as well, so by no means am I claiming this concept to be new, but one way to work in more beltless deadlift work without programming set days for it is to stay beltless on deadlifts until your last warm-up set. A belt will slightly shift your form, so waiting until your last warm-up can be a great way to accumulate more beltless work, while not sacrificing changes in form, aka missing working sets due to misgrooves.
It’s important to note that the above information shines light on only three methods for incorporating more beltless deadlift work. And by no means are the above three methods the definitive ways to begin doing more beltless work — and you may have a better method of doing so, and what’s always most important is finding what works with your body and training style best.
Taking the Belt Off
At the end of the day, belts can be incredibly important for strength athletes. This article isn’t intended to sway you away from your belt or current training methods, but to provoke an objective view on beltless training. The benefits above can be subjective per every athlete, so it’s best to find what works best for you and to apply the methods accordingly in a smart and calculated manner.
If you choose to starting using more beltless deadlift work, then I’d challenge you to really focus on the act of bracing, aka creating the intra-abdominal pressure naturally, as this could have great carry over for your higher intensity belted lifts.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.