Everything you could possibly want to know about the most used gear in the gym
Perhaps the most commonly used and abused implement in the gym is the good old fashioned weight belt. If you just sat back and observed some people working out, you would assume that their spine would fold in half if they didn’t keep their weight belt on at all times, no matter the movement or the load. Others sneer at the use of any external assistance and won’t touch a weight belt no matter how soft and spongy their core gets under heavy loads. Where is the proper place to be on this spectrum? Should you use a weight belt for every lift, or never at all? If you should use one, when? HOW? Why? What kind? That’s what I’m going to help you understand today.
Should you use a weight belt?
Probably. Any lifter with a couple months practice with the major lifts (squat, deadlift, and press) can benefit from the use of a weight belt. If you’re just starting out, you’re better off waiting (get it?) on the weight belt until you feel you have the mechanics of the movement down pat WITHOUT a belt. The same goes for wraps, straps, sleeves, and specialized shoes. They are all generally fine to use once you know how to perform the movements properly, but not until then. Learn the mechanics properly first, and keep the load and reps low enough that you don’t feel the need for any external supportive equipment while you’re in that initial learning phase. If you learn the movements correctly, you will have a very long and productive training lifespan with plenty of time for the cool gear later.
Every time you set foot in any building where physical intimidation is important to securing your position at the top of a dominance hierarchy. Just kidding. For the most part, you should limit the use of your belt to only those times when NOT using one will negatively impact your ability to train. What that means is, a belt is generally only need at maximal or near-maximal effort lifts that require core stabilization. Warm-up sets with an empty bar do not require a belt. Pull-ups do not require a belt. WODs that involve lifting where the major limiting factor to going fast is your cardio-respiratory endurance, technique, speed, or anything OTHER than your ability to brace your core also do not need a belt. Such workouts may actually be impeded by a belt, as they can negatively effect breathing mechanics during some movements. A simple and valid rule of thumb is to only put the belt on when you are squatting or deadlifting at or above 80% of your 1 rep max for that particular lift. That means any form or variation of those movements as well. To determine that simply multiply your 1 rep max by .8 and the number you will get is 80% of your 1 rep. If your back squat is 300lbs, then use a belt once the weight gets about 240. If your overhead squat is 200 use a belt once your weight gets above 160. If your deadlift is 400, use a belt once the weight gets above 320. You get the picture. If you don’t know your 1 rep max because you’ve never established one, then that is a good indication that you are likely not experienced enough yet with a lift to need a belt.
A weight belt is NOT a replacement for a spine. It is not a splint. It is not a Band-Aid. It is not meant to be worn around your hips, right where your back joins your pelvis, to act as a splint and keep you from rounding out your low back. Just putting one on does not confer super powers or make you immune to shitty lifting mechanics. Now, go back and read all that again. Seriously. Just do it.
Ok, now that we know how NOT to wear a weight belt let’s talk about the right way. The belt should go right around the level of your navel, in the space BETWEEN your iliac crest and your bottom ribs. If you’re of a respectable height like me, and not some 5ft 9in genetic mutant, this may mean a wider belt is TOO wide. Trust me, you don’t want to get to the bottom of a heavy squat and find your love-handles oblique’s pinched between half-inch thick leather and your 12th rib. Cinch it down tight, but not so tight that you need a pry bar and fulcrum to get it on or the Jaws of Life to get it off. Now that you have it on, you have to USE it. Actively. To do this, take a big breath in through your belly and then PRESS OUT against the belt. This is the opposite of sucking your tummy in to look good in your bikini. You want the big, intimidating “power belly.” The belt is simply there to give you something to press AGAINST. It’s a tactile cue—a reminder—more than a support. Again, the weight belt is NOT magical, even if it has sparkly sequins on it. YOU still have to do the work to get the benefit. When done properly, bracing in this manner creates an enormous amount of intraabdominal pressure which helps to stabilize your spine so you can transfer power from your legs, to the bar. If your core is like a wet pool-noodle you’re going to lift about as well as one. If it is strong like bear, so will you be. For most people, core stability/strength is the limiting factor in their lifts, NOT leg strength. The legs could do it, but they can’t transfer their strength through a wet-spaghetti core. A weight-belt doesn’t solve this problem. A weight-belt HELPS YOU solve this problem. This may lead you to ask…
Does using a belt limit my ability to strengthen my core?
This is actually a somewhat complicated question. It hinges on the definition of strength. If you define strength as something like “contractile potential” or the ability of your muscles to generate force, then the answer is no. In fact, studies have shown that using a belt engages MORE core musculature than not using one. Thus, training with a belt properly over extended periods of time means you should develop more core strength than you would without a belt. But I think that’s a weak definition of strength. I like CrossFit’s definition much better. “The productive application of force.” Productive is the key word there. Who cares if I hook your biceps up to an electromyogram and find that you have enormous contractile potential if you can only curl the purple padded dumbbells? Who cares if your hamstrings have higher contractile potential than mine when measured in a lab if I can deadlift more than you? The function of the strength—to apply force—is more important in all real world applications, than the potential of strength. All that to say, yes, you can indeed become somewhat dependent on a weight belt, even when you’re only using it for maximal lifts. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. For starters, when in the real world are you going to be asked to back squat twice your body weight WITHOUT a belt? If your job requires you to routinely lift enormous loads without the option of utilizing a weight belt while you do it, then you have a seriously badass job. I’d like to apply. The fact is, that just doesn’t happen. Maybe you are dependent on your weight belt when you have to clean and jerk more than 300lbs. And? I guess you’ll use a belt then. Should you stop lifting that much and wait for your core to develop the ability to stabilize such loads on its own? Why? If you were training for a competition where no belts were allowed then obviously you would train how you fight, so to speak. But you can wear your belt at the Olympics. Even “Raw” powerlifting divisions and federations allow weight belts. As far as I know, there are no sport organizations that DON’T allow a belt, but I freely admit that I don’t know them all. There’s like 50 different powerlifting federations and I don’t know them all. As studies have shown, you can still continue to develop your core strength with a belt, so it’s not as if you’re going to end up with legs like Hafthor Bjornsson but abs like Seth Rogan. There’s always a small and pretentious group of people who will proudly hashtag their Instagram selfie videos with #nobelt like it’s a badge of honor. Cool story, bro. I’d advise you to ignore those kinds of people. One last point before I move on: the potential dependence you may develop is likely more psychological than physiological. That doesn’t make it any less of a dependence, but it does mean that you can learn how to squat or deadlift heavy loads rather quickly by simply practicing without a belt. The musculature needed is there, you just have to learn how to use it.
Mostly this has already been addressed, so I’ll just reiterate. Using a belt can help you to properly brace your core which allows you to transfer force from your legs to a load more efficiently. This means you can achieve greater training stimulus for your legs and hips than you would be able to otherwise. That’s a good thing. You can get very strong without a belt and you can get very strong with one. If you like the sensation of using a belt then go ahead. If you don’t, then don’t. That’s a good enough reason to go either way. It won’t make or break your athletic career. A BAD reason to use a belt is to compensate for an injury. If you’ve hurt your back from lifting improperly, a weight belt is not a band-aid to make the hurt go away. Another good rule of thumb: if you can buy it a Dick’s, it’s probably not a medical cure for any injury or ailment (I’m looking at you Ace-Wrap.) You can’t just strap it on and continue to lift like an asshole. You have to do it right, belt or no belt. The cure is correcting what caused the problem in the first place. NOT simply masking the symptoms of the problem.
Personal preference is key here, but there are practical considerations to make. I prefer a cheap, leather, o-lift belt with a metal buckle, a narrow front and a wider back. Caroline uses a nylon belt with Velcro fastening. A leather belt has the benefit of being ultra-secure. Velcro belts sometimes (albeit very rarely) wear out or simply don’t fasten well enough to stand a LOT of pressure. They may pop off at the bottom of a heavy clean or in the middle of a deadlift. That would be enough for me to lose my mind and set my belt on fire, probably because catching a heavy clean in the bottom of a squat is a rare, and thus precious thing for me. The narrower front means I can wear my belt when I clean or squat with minimal interference. But the leather belts are slow to get in and out of which makes them less than ideal for lifts mid-WOD. Also, if you happen to be just the right circumference that one buckle-hole is too loose but the next is too tight, and you’re really particular about having it just right you basically have to go buy a new belt. Velcro fastening belts are much faster to fasten and unfasten, which makes them ideal for use in WODs that involve movements when you might want to remove your belt. They are also infinitely adjustable, so you can always get the fit just right. Leather belts are typically more expensive, but also tend to last longer. I would recommend borrowing a friends or one of the gyms belts for a week or two of training and trying a variety of styles before you decide which is right for you.
I hope this has answered all of your weight-belt questions. There’s no quiz, but I do expect to never again be asked about weight-belts in the gym. Just a hundred or so more articles like this and no one will ever have to speak to me again. Just kidding, I revel in any opportunity to look intelligent by answering simple questions in a complicated way. Seriously though, if you have any questions at all after reading this, just ask myself or one of the coaches and we will be happy to help you out.