If you lift — or have lifted — heavy weights, then chances are that you’ve worn a lifting belt. You secure it around your waist and then flex your stomach against it to brace and create intense tension in the torso. This makes your back more rigid, improving lifting form and keeping one’s back safe.
Lifting belts are a necessity, but they’re worth learning how to use. In this article, we will cover a lot of information about weightlifting belts and how to start incorporating them into your training:
- How to Wear a Weightlifting Belt
- How to Brace While Wearing a Weightlifting Belt
- Benefits of Wearing a Weightlifting Belt
- Who Should Wear a Weightlifting Belt
- Why You Should Master Beltless Training Before Wearing a Belt?
- Why Weightlifting Belt Thickness Matters
- How Tight Should Your Weightlifting Belt Be?
- Breathing and Bracing Exercises
- Frequently Asked Questions
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You can’t just strap a belt on and expect it to work wonders. In other words: You can’t just wear a belt. You need to use the belt. And like any skill worth learning, it takes practice. Here’s the right way to use a lifting belt.
Step 1 — Place the Belt Around Your Waist
Ideally, the weightlifting belt should sit just above your hip bone so that it can have full contact across the back, sides, and front of the torso.
Pro Tip: If you find the weightlifting belt is restrictive or pinching in some areas, there is a strong chance it is not set in the right position. If this still happens, then you may need to look at using a different belt thickness or adjust the tightness (see below sections)
Step 2 — Inhale Slightly and Tighten Belt
The belt should be tight, but not to the point you feel like you will explode. You want to leave enough room for your stomach to expand so you can create tension and brace. Your belt should be tight and snug but will be filled out once you begin to brace.
Pro Tip: You should be able to stick your index finger down the back of the belt. Any more than that, and the belt may be too loose or not placed properly.
Step 3 — Breathe and Expand Into the Belt
The point of a weightlifting belt is to make your back more stable. Your first line of defense against a weak back is your core. Brace your core muscles, and you should be tight. The belt allows you to brace more aggressively, is all. To do so, you need to take a deep breath into your belly and flex your abs and lower back. Then, hold this position for the duration of the lift.
Pro Tip: A weightlifting belt is not a band-aid for poor bracing mechanics and breathing patterns. It is a performance enhancer for those who already know how to brace themselves and breathe under load. Be sure to review and master some of the bracing and breathing techniques discussed in later sections.
Whether a lifter chooses to use a belt or not, they need to learn to develop proper bracing and breathing mechanics for submaximal and maximal lifting attempts. Without proper bracing and breathing abilities, a belt will serve only as a band-aid rather than an effective supplemental training tool. Here’s how to brace for any lift — belt or no belt.
- Pretend You’re Getting Punched in the Gut. If someone were to ever wind up and send a knuckle sandwich into your bread basket, you’d flex every muscle in your stomach, right? This is the first step to achieving a secure and stable back.
- Breathe Into the Core. While you are preparing to take a (fake) hit in the gut, think about breathing into the abdomen. The tension should develop with each breath you take. Try to visualize the ribcage getting pulled into the body and the pelvis stacked perfectly underneath the ribcage. Be sure to stay uptight and focus on bringing your ribcage into the body.
- Flex Your Obliques. The obliques are key to maintaining pelvic alignment and stability while minimizing rotational forces at the hips and spine during loaded movement. Try to think about puffing them outwards as you breathe into the core, almost as if you were puffing your cheeks (face) out.
Below are three reasons to wear a weightlifting belt. It is important to recognize that these benefits are inherent to proper bracing and breathing mechanics without wearing a weightlifting belt. It is key that a lifter can support themselves both beltless and with a belt for optimal bracing technique.
Increased Spinal Stability
A weightlifting belt can be used to increase intra-abdominal pressure and aid a lifter in stabilizing the spine during lifts. (1) Much like a lifter bracing correctly, a lifting belt can add additional support in such events that require maximal rigidity and tension in the torso. It is important to note that a weightlifting belt does not replace or protect against poor technique and improper bracing during a lift.
Can Minimize Lumbar Extension
A weightlifting belt can offer some support and feedback against excessive arching of the lower back, especially in overhead lifts. Many people will struggle to maintain a neutral spine during overhead lifts, and pressing weight overhead with an arched back can lead to injury.
It Can Help Teach You How to Brace Properly
It’s important to clarify again: A weightlifting belt is not a substitute for poor bracing mechanics. However, having the tangible belt wrapped around you to press against can help build awareness. (It’s similar to looping a mini band around your knees when you squat to force them outward.) A weightlifting belt offers an individual an immediate physical response and feedback, helping them determine if they are actively expanding into the belt or not.
Choosing the right weightlifting belt for you based on your goals, sport-specific movements, and regulations (for some organizations and sports, see below) is important. A weightlifting belt that is too rigid, too thick, or not sanctioned can significantly impact maximal strength and power performance. Below we have listed various types of strength and power athletes who may benefit from using weightlifting belts.
Strongmen and Strongwomen
Strongman athletes often may vary weightlifting belts based on the specific event/movements performed. The sport of strongman requires an athlete to be strong, such as in the deadlift or overhead pressing events, and be strong while moving, such as in events like carries, stone lifts, and throws. For events requiring less movement, some athletes may opt for a thicker belt, less pliable, and can offer slightly more support. Some lifters may want a more pliable yet still supportive weightlifting belt option for more strength and movement-based events.
Powerlifting is a sport in which maximal strength is tested using the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Unlike Olympic weightlifting and strongman, the need for a more pliable weightlifting belt is decreased as the ranges of motion are often less. Due to that distinct difference in the sporting movements, weightlifting belts used in powerlifting tend to be thicker, sometimes wider, and more rigid.
Olympic weightlifters need a combination of both a strong and rigid belt to aid in heavy lifts and belts that are more pliable and less thick than those found in powerlifting. Due to the increased ranges of hip flexion and mobility needed in the snatch and clean & jerk, some lifters may want to opt for a more supportive nylon belt. Some lifters prefer a more rigid leather belt, which can provide some added rigidity and movement to find leather belts with a more tapered belt design.
General Fitness and Weight Training
For general weight training and fitness, belt training may not be necessary unless you experiment with more maximal effort training. Too often, beginners and intermediate lifters use weightlifting belts as a crutch, developing poor bracing and breathing techniques under load and creating a dependency on a belt. This can result in a false sense of rigidity and support that could leave a less experienced lifter (in this instance, one who doesn’t know how to brace and breathe) pushes themselves towards potential injury.
To reiterate the importance of not wearing weightlifting belts for general training, one study concluded that many of the study’s participants who wore belts did so for protective purposes rather than to increase performance (2).
This is critical as the study also concluded that many of the individuals wearing belts (aged 20-72 in this study, which surveyed 300+ members at a health and fitness center) wore weightlifting belts at times when they should not have been (meaning, they should have learned how to lift, breathe, and brace properly).
Oftentimes, lifters rely too much on belts in their training, neglecting their body’s natural ability to create and harness intra-abdominal pressure. However, in the event a lifter is competing, such as in powerlifting or weightlifting, wearing a weightlifting belt can significantly increase one’s performance provided they have taken the time to develop sound bracing and breathing mechanics while training beltless.
Additionally, if a lifter is concerned about spinal integrity due to a previous injury, a belt may be a good option. (Also, another option is not to lift a weight that you can’t move without a belt.)
For days when you’re using loads under 85% of one’s one-rep max or so, train without a belt to develop bracing mechanics. Generally speaking, use a belt when maximal strength, power, and/or loading above 85% of a one-rep max is the primary focus.
Weightlifting belts come in all shapes and sizes, materials, and thicknesses. When choosing a belt, you should focus on two points: the thickness of the belt and your training style is. The thickness of a belt refers to how thick the belt is from the aerial view, while the width refers to how “tall” the belt is on your torso.
Often, a thicker belt will offer more rigidity of the spine, which could be beneficial for heavier, less dynamic lifts, such as squats and deadlifts. In turn, a very thick and rigid belt may interfere with more dynamic lifts like the clean & jerk. A belt’s width should be fit to an individual’s torso, with it resting over the abdominals and lower back, still allowing movement of the upper torso. If the belt is too wide or too skinny, a lifter may get pinching and/or rubbing the skin, affecting maximal comfort during a lift. Coaches and athletes should experiment with a wide array of weightlifting belts to determine what width and thickness are ideal for their situation.
Generally speaking, a lifter should tighten the belt so that they cannot stick their hand between the belt and the skin, yet loose enough to allow for abdominal bracing and expansion. In the event, a lifter wears the belt too tight, it may impede their ability to brace their abdominals and limit breathing, which can weaken the training effect of a belt. Conversely, if worn too loose, the belt may move around and/or off not enough support, negating why it was used in the first place.
Below are five supplemental breathing and bracing exercises lifters and coaches can use to establish proper pelvic alignment and bracing strategies to help support healthier, stronger positioning both with and without a weightlifting belt.
Isometric Dead Bug
The isometric dead bug is a personal favorite of mine because you can really ramp up the intensity and make this a suitable bracing exercise for a beginner and world-class strength athlete. Start by lying on your back with the knees bent at 90 degrees and place a foam roller across the legs horizontally. With your forearms, pressing into the foam roller and meet that resistance with your thighs pushing into the foam roller. This should create immense amounts of tension in the lower abs, obliques, and lats (focus on scapular depression as well. Try doing this for 20-30 seconds as you learn to increase intensity while still breathing into the core.
Suitcase carries are a great way to increase lateral compression of the core and reinforce proper oblique firing strategies. This helps establish proprioception of the spine to non-compressive and rotation forces, further enhancing a lifter’s awareness of proper positioning.
Weighted Side Plank
The weighted side plank (which can also be done without weight) is another way to increase lateral compression (stability), yet done so in a more static environment (as opposed to the suitcase carry). Place a dumbbell on the lateral aspect of the hip, lift upwards, and think about contracting the oblique facing the floor so that the iliac crest moves toward the armpit.
Lying Pelvic Tilt
This is a foundational exercise that many individuals mess up. When done properly, it can be a basis for more advanced progressions and even max effort isometrics. By lying on the floor, you offer immediate feedback to the lifter, who needs to focus on pushing their lower backs down into the floor, assuming a neutral pelvic positioning. You can do this with the knees bent, legs straight, or legs lifted.
Hip Raise with Neutral Pelvic Tilt
Once the lifter has established knowledge on how to brace the core and stabilize the pelvis properly, they can begin to allow movement at the hip joint via hip extension using the glutes. Most individuals who have lower back pain fail to maintain rigidity in the core and lose their bracing strength as they try to lift the hips. By placing a foam roller between the thighs and locking down the pelvic region (lying pelvic drills), lifters can then work on lifting the hips while not allowing the pelvis to anteriorly or posteriorly tilt through the hip.
What is the best type of weightlifting belt?
There’s no one best belt. There are a plethora of styles of lifting belts. Styles can range from material used, structure, rigidity levels, and sport-specific types.
For Olympic weightlifting, you want a belt that’s thicker in the back but thinner in the front for more mobility during the snatch and clean & jerk. Powerlifters and strongmen want a power belt, which is the same thickness and width for more intense bracing. There are also different styles to consider. Some feel that a buckle is more secure than a lever, but it’s generally harder to secure and fasten. There are also velcro belts, which everyday gym-goers may enjoy since they’re easier to use and not as stiff.
When should you wear a weightlifting belt?
Generally speaking, most lifters who wear weightlifting belts do so when loads get above 80% of their one-rep max. Depending on the skill level of the lifter and loads being lifted, this may vary. It is important to note that lifting with a belt does require some awareness and skill, so it is important to train in a belt from time to time if you are planning on competing in a lifting sport.
That said, most lifters who train and compete in weightlifting belts will also go through training blocks where they will not use a belt, which can be helpful to develop better foundational core strength and address weaknesses that may be masked when using a belt.
What exercises should you wear a weightlifting belt for?
Nearly any exercise can be done with a weightlifting belt. However, it is reserved for compound lifts like squats, presses (bench and overhead), deadlifts, and accessory movements.
If you find yourself using a weighting belt for things like walking lunges, calf raises, and biceps curls, for example, there is a strong chance you are not even using a weighting belt properly, should learn how to brace without a weightlifting belt, and might be recovering from lower back issues. In that case, you should ask yourself if you should be training the way you are training right now.
How can I break my belt in?
If you just bought a heavy-duty power belt, then you’ll notice it’s really stiff. Here’ a simple trick: Turn on your favorite show, sit down with your belt in front of you on the floor, and roll it tightly up and then unroll it for the duration of the show. Eventually, it’ll get warm and begin to loosen. This will ensure it’s comfortable to wear, and then over time, it’ll soften up a bit more.
- Miyamoto, K., Iinuma, N., Maeda, M., Wada, E., & Shimizu, K. (1999). Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intramuscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Clinical Biomechanics, 14(2), 79-87. doi:10.1016/s0268-0033(98)00070-9
- Finnie, S. B., Wheeldon, T. J., Hensrud, D. D., Dahm, D. L., & Smith, J. (2003). Weight Lifting Belt Use Patterns Among a Population of Health Club Members. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(3), 498-502. doi:10.1519/00124278-200308000-00012
- Lander, J., Simonton, R., & Giacobbe, J. (1990). The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 22(1), 117-126. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
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