How, When, and Why to Use a Weight Belt
If you’ve spent any time around the gym, chances are that you’ve seen someone using a weight belt. However, if you’re unfamiliar with how, when, or why it works, you’re not alone. In fact, many experts and coaches would agree that it is one of the most misunderstood items in the gym. Read on to discover what weight belts do, why they work, and whether you should use one.
What is a Weight Belt?
A weight belt is not a complicated piece of equipment. In fact, it is pretty straightforward — a thick belt, traditionally made of leather (but available in a few other materials), usually fastened by velcro or an old-fashioned metal belt buckle. It is often between 3 and 6 inches wide (and can be wider). Belts can be dressed up with a number of additional features or components. These might include easy-release clasps, additional padding or support on the lower back, various adjustment mechanisms, reinforced stitching or layers, and more. However, at the end of the day, a weight belt is a thick belt that is worn during heavy lifting.
Why is a Weight Belt Important?
As we dive into the purpose and correct usage of a weight belt, things get a bit more complicated. In fact, much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the use of weight belts is arguably wrong or misguided. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, many fitness enthusiasts incorrectly utilize weight belts. For example, many think weight belts are worn to protect the lower back. However, this is not directly the case. Our Fit Farm powerlifting coach Eric Caudillo sums up the purpose of a weight belt this way: “The [weight] belt is a tool to help perform above what the body can do on [its] own.”
Purposes of a Weight Belt
– A weight belt does allow a lifter who is already using correct form to generally increase their performance by as much as 5-15% over their unbelted performance (read this self-proclaimed Belt Bible article for more statistics) when he or she is accustomed to using one. It can also potentially increase the number of reps he or she may be able to complete in a given set, as well as help increase his or her bar speed (which increases performance).
– A weight belt does require practice in order to use effectively. Just like learning proper lifting form, utilizing a weight belt requires a bit of a learning curve.
– A weight belt does not prevent accidents or injuries caused by incorrect form, overloading, or incorrect abdominal use.
– A weight belt does not guarantee immediate gains. This can occasionally be the case, but for most lifters using a belt is a learning process and provides results over time.
– A weight belt does not “protect your lower back,” as is often the assumption. Implementing a weight belt correctly is critical to achieving safe results. More information on how and why a belt actually works below.
The Secret: How a Weight Belt Actually Works
World champion powerlifter and trainer Greg Nuckols expressed the core purpose of a weight belt this way: “The major effect of wearing a [weight] belt is increased intraabdominal pressure.” A weight belt provides the wearer with an external surface against which their contracted abs can create additional pressure than otherwise. When combined with proper lifting techniques (contracting abdominal muscles and Valsalva breathing), a weight belt increases the amount of pressure exerted on the spine during the lift and allows it to bear more weight without buckling or compromising its shape. In essence, the belt provides external pressure against which the abdominal muscles can work.
When a Weight Belt is Necessary
Under the following conditions, a weight belt can be beneficial to your strength training:
– You perform olympic or powerlifting movements — deadlifts, squats, jerks, snatches, cleans, or pressing — at a significant percentage of your 1-rep max. A good rule of thumb is 80% or more. The weight we’re describing would only be moved in high-weight, low-repetition sets.
– You can already perform these lifts without a belt with good form. If you have to ask what good form means, get a coach to help you develop your form before increasing your weight (and before buying a weight belt). Form must come first.
– You are able to incorporate correct breathing and abdominal contraction during your lifts.
– You are interested in increasing your weight capacity (making gains).
When a Weight Belt is Unnecessary
In many cases, weight belts are unnecessary and sometimes even detrimental. If any of the following apply to you, talk to an experienced coach about whether or not you need a weight belt.
– You are brand new to lifting.
– You have not yet learned correct form for performing olympic or powerlifting movements — deadlifts, squats, jerks, snatches, cleans, or pressing. If this is the case, learn the form first before attempting heavy weight or thinking a belt is going to help you.
– You don’t perform olympic or powerlifting movements at a significant percentage of your 1-rep max. If you perform these movements but in a low-weight, high-rep capacity, a weight belt may hinder more than help.
– You’re warming up or lifting below 80% of your 1-rep max. Trust us, you don’t need to wear a weight belt to curl an empty barbell.
Using a Weight Belt
Stephanie Lee, experienced lifter, includes in her helpful article detailing weight belt use the following tip: “Belts should feel snug enough that they’ll stay place, but not so tight that you’re cutting off circulation. You should still be able to breathe properly when it’s strapped on.”
Remember that using a weight belt takes getting used to. Additionally, remember that weight belts are just one of many tools that can aid your strength training journey, and they aren’t helpful for every moment you spend in the gym. Don’t feel compelled to wear it during every lift. When you are warming up or performing lifts below that 80% or more weight amount, leave the weight belt off.
Choosing a Weight Belt
If using a weight belt is right for you, here are a few tips for choosing one.
– Many reputable fitness companies make weight belts. Our coaches at Fit Farm recommend 2Pood or Inzer, but with a little research or guidance from your coach, you can find a plethora of resources available. The first time you buy a weight belt, it’s helpful to be able to try them on first. This way you can choose one that fits well and won’t be uncomfortable during your lifts.
– Fabric belts are great for beginners as they take less getting used to. Leather belts are stiffer and take more time to break in. They may be uncomfortable at first, but over time they will become more supple and better fitting.
– Velcro belts also work great for beginners. They are quick and easy to get on, tighten up, and take off. More experienced lifters may prefer and recommend single or double prong or lever-release belts as they tend to be more secure.
Weight belts are often misunderstood and misused. However, when correctly applied to your workouts, they can provide significant impact and help elevate your strength training. Read up to decide whether your workout regimen could benefit from a weight belt. Lastly, speak with a coach who can help you safely and effectively incorporate a weight belt into your training.