The Function of a Weight Lifting Belt for Strength Training.
First things first, a weight lifting belt is NOT a back brace. Seriously, if you have back pain or issues, finding a new weight belt is not the answer. Seeking professional help to find out why your back hurts is the answer. Ok now that I got that out of the way, let’s continue.
The history of weight belts go back to the very early days of strength training. Surprise!! It’s not some new trend that just came about due to the rise of fitness enthusiasts and Instagram, there was a reason for why belts go back farther than Arnold himself. Unfortunately, in today's culture a lot of people just wear belts because they saw someone else using a belt at their gym. Maybe that person they saw was super strong so they thought “hmmm, maybe if I wear a belt I’ll be strong?” Or the classic: “Rob wears a belt and he tells me how much it helps his back pain, I have back pain, I think I’ll order one on Amazon tonight….” yea good idea. NOT. The reason why belts have been used for so long and are currently used by the super strong folks is because they can increase performance but how?!? How does strapping a piece of leather or nylon around your waist enhance your performance?? How does a belt help relieve back pain and symptoms that makes some people swear by it??
How Does a Weight Lifting Belt Enhance Performance?
We’re going to dive right into this one head first. Now being a Doctor of Physical Therapy, an athlete, and a coach, I’m going to get a little “nerdy” for all you guys and gals reading this right now. Let’s think about breathing for a second. When you take a breath of air in, what happens? The belly expands. And if done correctly, the lower back and sides of the ribs will expand as well. This happens because the diaphragm (the large, breathing muscle which sits below the lungs at the base of the ribs, descends to allow an exchange of air into the lungs). So basically, the abdomen increases in pressure due to the air coming into the lungs and the diaphragm descending towards the abdominal area. This pressure is what facilitates (“activates”) stability at the spine and pelvic floor. Now where does the belt fit in? Well wearing a belt around the abdomen/base of the lower ribs, enhances that pressure. Since the diaphragm has to push down into the abdomen, the abdomen is going to have to push outwards. Wearing the belt allows the abdomen to “ brace” against it promoting an element of stability in strength training. Now certainly you could argue, well if you get your abdominals strong enough, you shouldn’t need a belt. True. In fact I would recommend training beltless for a good amount of your yearly training cycles. But when it comes down to lifting heavier weights, the belt will provide that extra circumferential stability to the abdomen even for the elite athlete who has great abdominal facilitation. And bingo, that extra stability reduces pain perception. So that guy Rob who states a belt helps his back pain is correct. But wearing a belt to mask the underlying issue (most likely poor movement patterns and abdominal facilitation) is where he’s messing up.
**Spoiler alert, the belt doesn’t have to be super thick or stiff. Certainly that can affect tactile (touch) feedback from those that are used to using such belt, but as long as you have something stable to push against, you accomplish the goal. Super heavy athletes may actually perform better with a thicker belt due to the increased body tissue but certainly not necessary. Example, I have a 250lb friend of mine deadlifting 750lbs in an Element 26 Self-Locking Weight Lifting Belt. Shameless plug for Element 26? You bet, but you know what? It works. Doesn’t have to be thick leather.
To Belt or Not to Belt?
In strength training, as I briefly alluded to above, wearing a weight lifting belt is not always recommended. Think about training experience. If you’re a novice lifter and have not mastered the basics of bracing using just your abdominals, take your time and master that. Proper form and proper bracing strategies lead you farther in the long term than just throwing a belt on to compensate for poor mechanics. Master the basics, get stronger, learn how to deal with setbacks and pain without compensatory mechanisms, then belt yourself. The belt is always the last thing to think about. Those Olympic Lifters and Crossfitters you see on Instagram have years upon years of training exposure and experience. They’ve mastered the basics and have earned the right to wear a belt. If you’re one of those elite athletes then a belt is right for you. If not, no worries! Just work on the bracing strategies with a coach and learn how to use the abdominals to stabilize first.
Why is an Element 26 belt right for you?
So you know how to brace the abdominals, have a great strength base, move well but now want to get your lifts up. It’s time to belt up. But what belt is right for your strength training? Remember a belt just increases abdominal pressure and it has to do so uniformly around the torso. Again it is NOT a back brace and thicker back portions on belts don’t work, that’s pure design (in fact the most pressure you provide would be on the thinner, front part anyways for those models).
To start, choosing a belt that’s comfortable and easy to use would be ideal. Something that folds easily, fits to the ribs/torso well, and can provide that extra stability without being too restrictive. Well we created that at Element 26. The design of the self-locking weight lifting belt is exactly that. It’s the same width around (4 inches), fits very well to your torso, and provides that ability to push into the belt. And if you’ve seen those horror stories where velcro-only belts “pop” open in the bottom of a squat or clean, it’s because all the force is on the velcro. With the Element 26 weight lifting belt, the force falls on the buckle not the velcro. The force during bracing creates that subsequential pull on the strap which is leveraged by the sliding pin that sits in the middle of the buckle. The harder you push, the more stable the strap is. This belt was designed not only for athletes making the jump from “bracing beltless” to “beginning to utilize a belt,” but also for advanced athletes looking for a belt that’s minimally restrictive while providing that stability. This built was designed for optimal stability and function. With that said, always remember to ask why you are using a piece of gear.
(In the video above, although hard to see from this angle, watch Jason take a deep breath in at the top of the squat before descending to build that pressure and stability.)
Dr. Phil Gauthier
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