Imagine 100 years ago, when people picked up huge bales of hay. Or Ancient Greece, when wrestler Milo of Croton started strength training by carrying a calf on his back every day until it was fully grown. In the midst of this carrying and lifting, did you ever think these people would say to themselves, “I really wish I had a lifting belt right now to help me lift this weight.” No, they probably never thought of something so strange. However, now that strength training has evolved and we now know that a lifting belt is necessary in certain situations, it needs to be discussed thoughtfully.
What is a Lifting Belt?
Most people have probably seen a lifting belt and know what it is, but for lifters who don’t, I almost praise you for not knowing, because at least you’re not the lifter who’s using one unnecessarily. A lifting belt is simply a piece of equipment competitive lifters typically use, but it’s something that recreational lifters should occasionally use. This leads me to my next point.
Why Use a Lifting Belt?
All lifters primarily use a lifting belt for the same reason—to help brace their spine during lifting. Long ago, people found that wearing a belt helped to support their back and, in turn, help them lift heavier weight. Some people wear one strictly to help them lift heavier weights, while others only wear it to protect their back. Generally, the lifting belt helps with both jobs.
You might see people in the gym who seem to wear some piece of equipment for anything they do. You might also see a lot of people who generally don’t wear any equipment and might not even do so much as even change into a new pair of shoes when they get to the gym. This might explain why using a lifting belt might be confusing to the untrained eye of an observer. Do you wear one to just lift heavy weights? Do you wear one all the time so that your back doesn’t get injured? Or is it strictly a fashion statement?
These are all relevant questions. I’ll explain our philosophy at Force Barbell regarding wearing a lifting belt. And, more than likely, most strength coaches across the board will agree.
Wearing a lifting belt has one purpose—support. It’s made to support the spine and, more specifically, the lower back. Because it’s meant to provide support, you might think a lifting belt should be used all the time to avoid the risk of injuring the back and spine. However, the human musculature does this all the time. We have muscle chains that work together to support our entire body. This doesn’t change when talking about the spine. The spine has gotten a bad rap and has been the topic of a lot of fear mongering, because it’s commonly associated with lifting injuries. Most likely, this is due to the bad posture our culture encourages. However, in reality, the spine is no different from other parts of the body. It’s surrounded by muscles whose job it is to support the spine.
So, why use a lifting belt at all, then? Our philosophy at Force is to restrict lifting belts as much as possible when it comes to our field-sport athletes. They need to learn how to stabilize and support their spine by using proper movement mechanics and not rely on an external piece of equipment to achieve stabilization, because this is what’s going to translate into helping to make them the best athletes on the field. We typically use this philosophy with every one of our clients…until they reach a certain level of strength…which leads me to my final point.
When to Use a Lifting Belt
Circumstances exist when wearing a lifting belt is appropriate. However, they’re not often. First off, it’s a priority to get an athlete as strong as possible without relying on a belt so he or she can learn how to develop the strength to properly support their back and move external loads without one. Athletes or lifters should learn to do 90+% of the work using their own strength without relying on a lifting belt.
For middle-school, high-school, and almost all field-sport athletes, we at Force Barbell never allow them to wear a belt. This is because they derive little benefit from wearing one. Yes, an athlete would be able to lift more weight, but lifting more weight isn’t necessarily what they need. They would actually benefit more if they lifted less weight and continued to strengthen the necessary muscles that help support the back and use their entire kinetic chain efficiently and effectively.
The only type of athletes who could potentially benefit a little more from wearing a belt would be those where it becomes necessary for them to put a little more weight on the bar. These athletes might be football players, because they’re constantly stressed with heavy loads in games, and potentially throwers, because maximizing strength and power is a sure way to throw a shot or discus further.
The last group would be your general-fitness enthusiasts and competitive-strength athletes. In the case of your general-fitness enthusiast, it’s rare for them to need a belt, because the goal is to teach this population how to move more efficiently so they have the tools to live healthier, pain-free lives. Once in a while you might get someone who wants to go for a big PR (personal record), and I don’t see a reason to not let them wear one. Setting a new PR might be the best part of that person’s day/week, and it would be better for him or her to be safe and avoid injury than be sorry.
For competitive strength athletes, lifting belts and equipment are a strange phenomenon. Some lifters are strapped up like they’re going to war, and it seems like there’s always a new brand of equipment out that everyone’s raving about. This would be the population that I generally don’t have the strongest opinion on their using lifting belts. The sole purpose of strength sports is to lift as much weight as possible, and a lifting belt is going to help you do that, while keeping you safe in the process. However, I still stand behind the idea that you should get as strong as possible without a belt, and that’ll actually make you stronger in the long run, rather than relying on a belt for every single set.
With most things in life, it’s appropriate to keep a rational mindset when it comes to wearing a lifting belt. Know that your body has its own built-in musculature to help keep things protected and stable. And you should strive to get as strong as you can, using this technique first. If you’re lifting heavy loads that you’ve never lifted before and have a slight worry about getting injured, that’s when it’s better to be safe than sorry. Just remember, the main purpose of a lifting belt is support. It shouldn’t be used as a tool to get stronger. That’s what consistency is for…not external equipment. Don’t be that person who can lift a lot of weight but who crumbles underneath a barbell without a belt.