How Weight Lifting Belts Work
Once you’ve reached a certain point in your lifting career, you may realize it’s time for a weight lifting belt. This is especially true if you’ve become stronger and are now lifting heavy while doing compound exercises like squats or deadlifts.
The reason many people use weight lifting belts is because the belts help to stabilize the spine and decrease injury risk. Normally, when you lift without a belt, you’ll brace your core musculature. This helps stabilize your spine somewhat, as the pressure comes from the inside out.
However, using a weight lifting belt increases pressure from the outside in. This is because the belt wraps around your lower abdomen. The combination of outside-in pressure from the belt and inside-out pressure from your abdominal cavity helps keep your spine very stable.
While increasing spinal stability (and thereby reducing injury risk) is an important part of how these belts work, wearing a lifting belt can also improve your biomechanics. This is because lifting belts limit spinal motion, which forces you to engage your hips and knees more when lifting. This helps to decrease injury risk and also can help improve form, as many lifters are tempted to let their form deteriorate when pushing for one-rep maxes.
Because of the stability increase and reduced risk of injury, as well as the tendency to improve form, wearing a lifting belt can significantly improve your lifting performance while also reducing recovery time.
Types of Weight Lifting Belts
When choosing a weight lifting belt, there are a few variables to keep in mind. The type of material you choose and the method of closure are things to consider before making a purchase.
There are two main materials used to make commercial weight belts:
- Leather – Virtually all powerlifting belts are made of leather. While leather belts may be uncomfortable to begin with, the break in quickly, and they offer unparalleled support for heavy squats and deadlifts. They offer less mobility than polyester belts.
- Polyester – These belts offer less support but more mobility. Many people who choose these belts have a training protocol that emphasizes cleans, snatches, or other lifts that require more mobility.
Methods of closure are another thing to consider:
- Buckle closure – Many leather belts have buckle closures. These are economical and they stay put, but they may take more time to close than lever closures do.
- Lever closure – These closures are easier to adjust than buckle closures, and they are generally faster to adjust as well. They may be somewhat more expensive.
- Velcro closure – These closures are typically found on polyester belts. They tend to not stay put as well as buckle or lever closures, but they do allow greater mobility.
How to Select a Weight Lifting Belt
What type of belt you choose depends on your needs. First, you want to consider what discipline you’re in. If you prefer olympic lifting or crossfire, a belt that allows more mobility may be ideal.
If you’re a powerlifter, a sturdier leather belt is likely the best choice, as this discipline requires significant support and requires less mobility.
Belt width is important to consider as well. A wider belt will allow less mobility but provide more support. Generally speaking, a belt that is wide all around is good for squats, while a belt that tapers in the front is best for deadlifts.
It’s also good to consider your budget and methods of closure. If you have the money for a lever belt and want to be able to easily adjust, this may be a good choice for you.
If you want to save money but still want a belt to stay put, a buckle closure will still work well. Additionally, a well-made leather belt can last a decade or more, so material is also worth considering.
How to Use a Weight Lifting Belt
Generally speaking, you want a lifting belt to sit right above your iliac crests. Some lifter prefer belts a little higher or lower than others, and much of this comes down to personal preference.
You want the belt to be very tight for maximum support. However, if you are heaving trouble breathing, the belt is too tight. Many people prefer their belts tighter for squats than they do for deadlifts.
When you brace your core, you should feel the belt pressing against your back and abdomen. If you don’t, you may need to adjust it before lifting.
If you have a leather belt, it will take some time to break in. In the meantime, it may feel somewhat uncomfortable, and you may experience some mild bruising.