by Robert Maxwell
Q: Weight lifting belt – should I wear one or not ? Working on a farm since my childhood, I've been always lifting weight without a belt and have no issues. A few times a week, I go to a nearby gym and see lifters with and without belt. I hear negative comments about belts making your lower back wimpy. Do you recommend wearing one? If yes, why and what kind ? (leather or velcro). On top of deadlifting, I do front and back squat, overhead squat, etc. Thank you for your comments.
A: Thanks for your question. It's a good one.
Contrary to popular belief, using a lifting belt is not cheating. It doesn't make squatting any easier for your leg muscles, or lighten the weight you pull up to your waist when deadlifting. Belts do not make the lower back wimpy. Used properly, they provide a solid surface to brace your core muscles against. In fact, studies have shown the core muscles are more fully activated in lifters wearing belts than those without. A properly worn belt allows more pressure to be placed on your spine by your spinal erectors and abdominal muscles. More pressure means more rigidity in your trunk, which means more weight can be lifted.
Belts get a bad rap because some lifters believe they're designed to take the place of your core muscles, doing the work for them when you lift a heavy barbell. This is false. A belt won't save your back if you're not breathing and bracing properly. It simply provides a cue to brace hard and push your core muscles against its rigid surface. Of course, you should always brace your core under a heavy barbell whether you're lifting with or without a belt. But belts allow this bracing to be harder and more effective. For this reason belts can improve core strength considerably. Lifting with a belt won't make you weak when you lift without one. Getting stronger with a belt means getting stronger without one, too.
That said, I do think belts can be too heavily relied upon. If you're progressing well in your lifts without a belt and experiencing no pain, I wouldn't necessarily start using one. At least not right away, or for every lift. They can allow you to lift a bit more, but using them sparingly is a good policy. I use a belt for all deadlifting, but only belt up for squats and press when I'm going very heavy – max sets of 1, 3 or 5 reps. For sets of 8 or 10, you probably don't need one. There is a danger of becoming too dependent on equipment like belts, knee and wrist straps, and even squat suits and bench shirts. I prefer old school lifting – as simple as possible. Use a belt if it helps you, but you should never become uncomfortable lifting without one. Finding yourself on the road with access to a gym but no belt in your suitcase shouldn't stop you from training. There are plenty of lifters who can squat 500 pounds without a belt. If they lift heavy without assistance, so can you.
As for belt type, I recommend thick leather with a heavy duty metal buckle. I've never trusted fabric belts that fasten with velcro. It seems to me they're more likely to fail under extreme stress. The best leather belts I've seen are very thick and stiff, composed of two or three layers of leather factory glued and stitched together. The standard width of such belts is 4 inches, but if you're very tall with a long torso, 6 inch belts are available. I prefer belts that buckle with two prongs and two sets of holes. I find they feel more secure than the one-prong variety. Make sure you choose a belt of the correct size for your waist – not too big and not too small. This is easy if you're at a store trying belts on, but if you're buying online it's harder than you might think. Belts are usually sold as small, medium and large, and which one you need depends on your waist size in inches. Trouble is, sometimes the online store's size calculator is wrong. I once entered my waist size of around 34 inches and was told I needed the large sized belt. I ordered it, and found when it arrived it is was much too big. I got it exchanged for the medium size, which fit perfectly. Be aware of this challenge when ordering a belt online, and choose a size that allows room for your waist to both shrink and grow without the belt becoming useless.