This can be a controversial subject because there are those who believe you should NEVER wear a weight belt and there are those who walk into the gym with their belt on and don’t take it off. Also, there are some misconceptions on what purpose the weightlifting belt actually serves. There is no set-in-stone right time for starting to wear a weight belt, but I’ll help you decide when the time is right for you.
The Benefits of Wearing a Weightlifting Belt
The first thing most people think a weight belt is supposed to do is protect your back. While this is true to an extent, that is not the main function of a weightlifting belt. The primary function is to increase performance.
The idea is to increase performance in a safe manner.
Weight belts increase performance by allowing you to create more intra-abdominal pressure, not by keeping your spine from snapping. A belt can’t keep you from snapping your spine right in half. It’s up to you to use the belt to create intra-abdominal pressure that results in a protected spine.
To use a belt properly:
- It should be around your abs and lower back, not your waist.
- It should be tight enough to build up that pressure in your core, but not so tight that you can’t breathe.
- You should breathe in, press your abs out against the belt and maintain that intra-abdominal pressure throughout the lift. This is what keeps your spine in the proper position and helps prevent injuries. This pressure also increases your strength output.
- You should only wear it on heavy lifts where you NEED it. If you wear it on every lift your core will never get stronger on its own.
If you use the belt as a crutch, you will end up in crutches. You should have a strong core before considering adding a belt into the mix. Remember, the point is to increase performance safely. That brings us to the main point of the article.
When to Start Using a Weight Belt?
The short answer is: wait as long as possible. You want to build up a strong core. All of the primary compound movements like squat, deadlift, overhead press and even bench press require a strong core for optimal performance.
The good thing is that doing all of these exercises will build a stronger core. However, there comes a time when your legs could squat more weight, but your core can’t stay stable under more weight and you fail the lift. When you put on a weight belt, giving you a boost in core strength, you can increase the weight and keep progressing. However, in many cases people have a severely underdeveloped core and they should really work on that before increasing the weight.
How do you know which scenario you are in? Look at the weight relative to your bodyweight.
If you weigh 190 lbs and your lower back is getting very sore from squatting 135 lbs, there’s a problem. Most likely you are using bad form, but that’s another topic. In many cases people have very weak cores and just need to develop some strength.
Most people who start working out don’t know what they’re doing. They go to the gym and head straight to the bench press. Follow that up with some curls and a few crunches and that’s it. Well your core is a lot more than just your upper abs so crunches aren’t really that effective for strengthening your core.
My general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t wear a belt for squats or deadlifts until you are lifting more weight than your own bodyweight.
If you are following a good routine and recovering correctly you should be able to lift well past your bodyweight without needing a belt. This is the case for most people, but not everyone.
My exception to this rule is with overhead press. This is one of the toughest exercises to progress on and it’s common to use a belt while pressing a weight that’s less than your bodyweight. I still think you should wait until you’ve stalled a few times before adding the belt because the OHP is a great exercise for building core strength.
Once you’ve started using a belt you still want to be tactful about when you use it. I only wear a weight belt on heavy working sets, not on warm-up sets. My theory is that over time as my working weight increases and my warm-up weights increase, my core will still have to keep getting stronger.
I don’t ALWAYS wear a belt on heavy working sets, but when I wear a weight belt it is always on heavy working sets.
Not only is building a strong core important for structural integrity and performance, but also for safety. If you injure your back while wearing a belt, the injury will usually be much worse than if you weren’t wearing one – according to Stuart Hill. (Hill has a PHD in back studies and is considered the authority on lower back problems. Check out one of his books here if you want to learn more.)
Unless you have an existing back problem, weightlifting belts don’t offer much safety benefit. The goal of a weight belt is to increase performance in a safe manner. Focus on building a strong core. When the time is right, start using a belt to help you increase your lifts – be sure to use it properly by maintaining intra-abdominal pressure throughout the lift by pressing your abs outwards.
What are your thoughts on weight belts, do you guys use them? Let me know in the comments.
Until Next Time,
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