Given the number of low back injuries we see in our clinic, I wanted to take a few minutes to address the topic of weight belt use during lifting, specifically during squatting and deadlifting.
Can a belt improve my performance?
22% of lifters say that they use a belt in order to improve performance. The reasoning behind these performance improvements is that the belt increases intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and increases your spinal stiffness under load resulting in more efficient effort. There is decent support for this as lab studies have found that bar speed during higher rep squats (8RM) and low rep squats is improved by use of a belt. Further, IAP is also higher with a belt (if you also perform a Valsalva , or breath lock against the belt), so you might benefit from using a belt during competition. However, if you’re focusing on building strength then you might benefit from more time under the bar, rather than less anyway.
However, if you’re focusing on building strength then you might benefit from more time under the bar, rather than less anyway.
Bringing it back into the real world, we know that elite powerlifters, strong(wo)men, and Olympic lifters find benefit in wearing belts during their heavier training and competitions. However, they also spend a significant portion of their training days belt-less, learning how to properly engage their core musculature as a “muscular belt”. I recommend that an average gym goer should do the same, training up their ability to increase spinal stiffness and stabilize loads without a belt until the loads are higher than 80-85% of a 1RM.
Remember: A belt won’t magically improve your form (contrary to the pictures below) so you still need to focus on proper setup and execution during all loaded movements!
Remember: A belt won’t magically improve your form.
Do belts prevent injury?
90% of lifters using a belt are using it to prevent back injury. Unfortunately, studies haven’t been able to confirm that belts are able to reduce injury rates. If you rely on your belt for proper form, that is a surefire way to lift your way through numbers that are too high for you to properly stabilize, resulting in muscular overuse (strain). The best way to prevent back injury is to use a progressive strengthening program so that you are never asking your body to stabilize or lift significantly more weight than it is used to. Keep in mind that your body’s daily capacity changes with your daily stress load and your level of recovery from your last workout(s), so your 1RM from 1 week ago might not be your 1RM for today.
How do I properly use a belt?
So let’s say that you’re working up in your 85% range for squats or deadlifts and you want to add a belt. If you’ve never used a belt before, you might want to put it on and test out a few bracing breaths before getting under the bar. To do this, inhale about 25% and wrap the belt tightly around your waist or hips, whichever is most comfortable for you. Once the belt is secure, practice bracing your core (tightening abs) then breathing into the belt by expanding your belly, back, and sides, using your breath to increase the pressure that the belt is exerting on you.
Once you’re under your bar (or set up for your deadlift), perform the same belly brace then inhalation to increase pressure on the belt, and hold that breath during your lift.
Train to properly create belt-less intra-abdominal pressure during your sub-maximal lifts, and only use a belt for lifts at 85% or above. Use the belt for a bracing cue, rather than a passive support, since a belt won’t reduce your chance for injury. Train intelligently and avoid sudden increases in training volume, even if you’re wearing a belt!
Use the belt for a bracing cue, rather than a passive support, since a belt won’t reduce your chance for injury.
A Review of the Efficacy of Weight Training Aids (2016). James B. Church, PhD, Tara N. Allen, MS, and Gregory W. Allen, MS. Department of Health, Physical Education, and Sports Sciences, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
As always, I hope this helps! If you have any questions or would like to read about certain topics, send us an email at TeamSP@SportsPerformancePT.com.
-Dr. Marissa Rescott, PT, DPT, CF-L1
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