The good news: weightlifting belts are regaining their popularity. The bad news: half of the people don’t use them correctly.
Weightlifting belts have been around for many decades, so you can’t say they are some trendy gym gadget you don’t really need to have. Although most people are convinced that weightlifting belts are supposed to help support the torso and back so that your core muscles work less, that’s not true. Wearing a belt actually increases the use of the abs and lower back muscles and stimulates core development. Whenever you’re squatting or deadlifting your heaviest, make sure to wear a belt – it will increase the stability of the spine and reduce the compressive forces on it, allowing for a safer and better performance.
How the weightlifting belt works
Wearing a weightlifting belt during heavy lifts will support your abdomen area by increasing the intra-abdominal pressure, which is incredibly important for maintaining a stable spine and rigid torso and preventing nasty back injuries. During lifting, when you breathe in and take a large amount of air into your belly, this applies a great pressure around your abdomen area. This intra-abdominal pressure pushes on the spine to support it from the inside, while the core and lower back muscles push on the spine from the outside, thereby stabilizing the spine. In other words, the belt acts as a supportive wall for the abdomen and the muscles can push against it for more supportive pressure, ultimately reducing the stress the spine receives when lifting heavy weights.
By providing spinal support, the belt reduces the amount of spinal flexion, spinal extension and lateral flexion of the spine, which puts the body in a more favorable biomechanical position for lifting with the legs getting a bigger part of the work than the back.
However, you don’t need to wear a belt all of the time – use it only for your heaviest squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches or standing overhead presses where the reps are in the lowest range, because otherwise you’d be missing out on opportunities to improve your abdominal strength.
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For maximum support, make sure to position and tighten it properly. The belt should fit you well and it should be tight enough to enable you to press you core against it but still allow you to breathe and move normally. A good rule of thumb is to always wear it one hole looser from the tightest position. Also, in order to reap the benefits of wearing a weightlifting belt, you have to breathe properly during heavy lifts – for example, when squatting, take a deep breath just before you descend and hold it until you reach the lowest point of the squat, then perform what is known as the Valsava maneuver (the technique you would use when trying to clear your ears with the help of exhaling) or forcefully exhaling against a closed airway. You can actually exhale once you reach the top of the squat.