The Mysteries of the Lifting Belt and When to Use It
The belt, a mystical tool used at the gym. But to do what exactly — Will it help us lift more? Will it protect us from injury? Is it the ultimate accessory to proclaim that we are the strongest beings to strut around this sweaty room?
The answer to all of these questions is — maybe.
For a new gym-goer who is dabbling in heavy weightlifting, the belt can prove to be mind boggling. This is especially true when, like me, you see fellow gym aficionados wearing a belt while doing lat pull downs, bicep curls, or even biking! I will attempt to clear up this misleading behaviour by addressing why, how, and when to use the belt.
Although it may seem simple, especially when watching weightlifters at the Olympics tightening their belts and making it look like that is the tool that makes them invincible, this implement needs to be used with proper care and technique to achieve its purpose.
Why and how do we use the belt?
The belt is used when performing heavy compound lifts in tandem with a breathing technique called the Valsalva manoeuvre (VM). VM occurs when you forcibly breathe out against a closed airway. In other words, you take a deep breath in, you close your airways and you go through the motion of breathing out, but without letting any air out. If you have ever watched a lifting or Strongman event and seen the athletes get puffy-faced in the middle of a lift while holding their breath, then they were performing the VM.
This manoeuvre helps to stabilise and protect the lower back and the spine. It may seem strange that you can protect your back from flexion and injury through breathing — but bear with me and it will become evident.
To perform the VM you must first inhale, which increases pressure in the thoracic cavity, then you must flex your abs, which further increases that pressure on the anterior (front) side of the spine. The pressure you created will protect you from the weight crashing down on your body and injuring you during a squat, for example. The VM can, and should, be used whenever you lift because a spinal injury can also occur when using lighter weights. It is crucial to note that the VM is contraindicated for individuals with blood pressure problems, it is best to steer away from it or to discuss it with a doctor before attempting it due to the potential adverse effects it can have on these individuals’ health.
Where does the belt fit into this scenario?
Not to worry, it slots right into the narrative of the VM. The belt helps give you a barrier to push against when flexing the abs and exhaling against a closed glottis. Adding the belt helps increase the anterior pressure on the spine to create a rigid torso and a stable foundation.
The conclusion here is that the belt does not do much on its own, it is you doing the breathing and abdominal flexion that protects your spine, the belt is providing a wall to push against for added pressure.
How do we wear the belt?
Some manufacturers make belts that are inappropriate and that will not provide the needed support, so when shopping for one be critical and do not believe all belts are useful. I have made this mistake before and thought that the belt should be thicker from the back than the front, a false belief that was supported by the seller. After trying to use it, it became apparent very quickly that it sits too uncomfortably between the hips and the ribs and was flaring out too much at the top due to how ill-fitting it was, which made it obsolete and a waste of money.
A better belt would be of a three to four-inch thickness all around.
Once you have the right belt, tighten it correctly — but only tighten it when you are about to lift heavy. It definitely should not be loose, but it also cannot be so tight that you are unable to contract your abdominal muscles, which would defeat its purpose.
A good way to make sure it is tight enough is to flex the abs then close the belt around yourself pulling it in enough that it slightly restricts your braced abs. Believe me, you will not want to keep it on for more than one second after your lift is done, but it will make all the difference in protecting you during near-maximal lifts.
When should we use the belt?
We have all witnessed our fellow gym rats strutting about the room in their bulky lifting belts, and then heading to cable machine machine to do some tricep extensions with their belt tightened. But should they have done that? The answer is no.
The belt can seem daunting at first, but it should not be. Its purpose is to help you protect your lower back while lifting heavy. When I say heavy, I mean almost as heavy as you are capable of. Lifting belts should not be worn and tightened for every exercise or for every lift.
The belt should be used for near maximal effort during compound lifts such as the front or back squat, the deadlift, Olympic weightlifting, i.e. snatch and clean and jerk, Strongman movements, i.e. yolk carry, Atlas stones, etc. This list is not exhaustive, but it should give you a good idea of the types of exercises that require the support of a belt. These movements put significant strain on the body and the lower back, which is why a belt can prove useful.
When performing a light lift, you will not need the belt because you must be able to protect your lower back through proper positioning and technique, including the VM mentioned above. The added support of the belt will be needed only when hitting weights close to your 1 Rep Max, meaning around 80–90% of that number. For example, if your heaviest deadlift is 100 kg then once you start hitting weights around the 80 kg mark, the belt can be tightened around your waist.
In my view, it is important to provide your body with the strength and ability to stabilise and protect itself with lighter loads, and count on added support when coming close to the body’s maximum capacity.