You get to the gym, warm up, do your mobility, grab your lifters, grab your belt, and start preparing for your lift for the day. But the next time you tighten your belt ask yourself, “Why do I wear a belt? Will it help me to lift heavier? Does it make me feel more stable? Is it preventing an injury? Do I wear it because everyone “good” wears one? Should I always wear one or just sometime?” Being that low back pain is by far one of the most common injuries I see at the gyms I treat out of, this is also a subject I get a lot of questions about. So when a gym owner asked me to write this article I saw the importance of an article explaining these things and more.
First you must understand the potential dangers of belting. Wearing a lifting belt can give you a false sense of stability and safety. If you don’t know how to properly wear a belt or think it is there to give you a stronger back, you are headed for a back injury. Belts can even weaken your “core”. When a belt is worn for each and every lift, your body becomes reliant on having the belt do the work your core should be doing. So doing everyday activities or a high intensity workout you can easily injure yourself when you no longer have the belt’s stability. Keep in mind your core has to be trained just as any other movement or lift has to be trained. Without a strong properly functioning core a weight belt is useless and likely harmful.
So…. Let’s talk about your “core”. True stabilization comes from your core or more specifically Intra Abdominal Pressure (IAP). I know this is starting to sound a little technical to some of you, but it is important you know how the body works so that you can know how a weight belt will work and help you. The quick and dirty explanation of IAP is, pressure in your belly that prevents your spine from flexing or rounding forward. To explain this with a little more depth, I want you to think about a propane tank. Visualize its shape and design; a cylinder rounded at both ends. Now think about its function. It contains an extreme amount of pressure. All this being said, it’d be pretty hard to bend one of these tanks in half wouldn’t it? Our abdominal cavity has a shape and function that almost identically mimics a propane tank. We have, at the top, a diaphragm. This is a dome shaped sheet of muscle that covers the top of this cavity like an umbrella. The bottom, a pelvic floor which is shaped like a bowl and the sides of the cylinder are the abdominal muscles, abs, obliques, etc. Look at the picture below. Notice how the muscular walls and boundaries are opposing forces to pressurize the abdomen securing the spine.
Now that you have had your anatomy lesson let’s tie it together. This is why you are supposed to take a deep breath into your stomach before the lift. What is happening here is the diaphragm is lowering when you inhale but it also pressurizes your abdomen. To increase the IAP your diaphragm contracts and lowers down pressing against all the contents of your abdomen (abdominal organs) forcing them down to the bottom of the bowl. Now when this pressure has no where else to go it gets pressed up against the walls of the abdomen and more importantly the front of the lumbar spine. As said before you can’t bend a propane tank in half so now you can’t bend the lumbar spine forward and injure your back. So when you wear a weight belt the function it serves is to provide a surface for your abdomen to push up against and increase, even more, your IAP.
Now let’s finally talk about when and how to use a weight belt. The use of a weight belt or any added equipment for that matter should reflect your fitness goals. That said if you are weight training to achieve general health and fitness, I would say a weight belt is not for you because you will not likely attempt max load lifts that would require the additional safety equipment. There are people that wear a belt due to a prior back injury. To this group I say ask a medical professional (preferably one that has knowledge on lifting) to help you and advise you in the best option for you specifically. Then there are the athletes that are more interested in performance and competition and the all mighty number. Here is where belts become useful and necessary. This doesn’t mean they are to be used with every rep. Belts are to be used when you are lifting around 90% of your 1 rep max. As far as proper placement, this is kind of a personal preference thing. However, it will not be useful if the belt is too high or too low. How I instruct lifters on belt placement is to take a deep breath in and feel for the apex or peak of your belly. That is where the middle of the belt should be which typically is right at the navel. Let’s also differentiate the various belts and when to use them. First of all when choosing a belt, the height of the belt should be pretty close to equal from the front to the back. It is so important to have a decent height in the front as this is the functional part of the belt. Now on to the belts. There is the thick bulky power lifting belts with either a one or two prong latch made of leather or suede. These are going to be your strongest belts for your strongest lifts such as squatting and dead lifting. The fabric belts typically with a Velcro latching system are better used for the Olympic lifts, the Clean & Jerk and Snatch. These belts allow for more flexibility during these complex movements. As you can see there is not much difficulty in selecting a proper belt you just need a little insight.
All in all belts are an amazing tool to help an athlete in this journey of fitness. When utilized within the boundaries of the design it will help athletes lift heavier weight and prevent injury on top of that. Just please understand that improper use can lead to negative results some even debilitating. My hope is that now you have a good piece of knowledge about how our innate protective pressure system works and especially works in conjunction with a weight belt you will see incredible gains and continue learning more and more and become the best you you can be.
Dr. Jordan Vickery, DC
Chiropractic Specialist, Inc.