Walk into just about any weight room and you’ll see all sorts of lifting equipment and accessories, like gloves, wrist and knee sleeves, and, of course, the ever-glorified lifting belt.
Typically made out of leather or nylon, these wide belts make any lifter look pretty intense. But what exactly do they do, and who should really be using them? Here’s what top fitness experts had to say.
What Do Weightlifting Belts Do?
Designed to help gym-goers (men and women, alike) lift heavier and make gains, weight belts are wrapped around the core at the lower back to help take pressure off the spine as we lift. You see, the strain of lifting heavy can potentially lead to muscle or back injuries.
A belt novice might think that wearing a lifting belt works by physically supporting the back and core when they’re under tension (like during a barbell squat), but that’s not actually how it goes, explains Gabe Snow, C.P.T., strength and conditioning coach and trainer at Performix House in New York City. What’s really happening: The pressure of the belt around your core signals the muscles in your mid-section to exert force in response. “When this pressure is generated inside the abdominal wall, it takes a large amount of stress off the discs in the spine,” says Snow.
Generally, reducing pressure on the spine means reduced risk of injury and more efficient performance. Research backs this up, with one Japanese study finding that increasing pressure in the abdomen with a belt stabilizes the core and creates a safer environment for the spine during lifting. Other research shows that rocking a weightlifting belt during squats can increase muscle activity of the quadriceps and hamstrings, and promotes overall muscle growth long-term.
While some people might mistakenly think that lifting belts can also help shrink their waistline, this is a myth. “If anything, your core—especially your obliques—will grow because your abdominal muscles are constantly generating force,” says Snow.
When Should You Wear A Belt?
While belts can definitely help you advance your strength and power, that doesn’t mean you should wear them every time you lift.
Instead, reach for a belt when you’re doing power-lifting movements like squats, deadlifts, and power cleans in which you’re loading the spine with significant weight, suggests Alonzo Wilson, C.P.T., founder of Tone House in New York City. And even then, “only when the load is extremely heavy,” he says. “I recommend using the belt at weights you can lift for just five reps or less.” Reaching for a new personal best? A belt can help. Running through your usual three to four sets of 10 reps? Skip it.
Of course, before you can lift heavy enough to warrant using a belt, you have to have a solid foundation of strength and a firm grasp of proper movement patterns. “Form and technique must be mastered using light to moderate weight before ever attempting loads heavy enough that you have to wear a large leather belt to help ensure your safety,” says Snow. “Using a belt right out of the gate will just alter your form and keep you from learning where you may need to improve.”
Plus, since belts are somewhat restrictive, they shouldn’t be worn during any exercise other than heavy lifting. If you’re doing a high-intensity interval training workout and alternating between power cleans and burpees (which involve moving significantly different loads), for example, a belt will only get in the way. Just stick to a weight you feel comfortable lifting without a belt for the power cleans.
The Bottom Line
If you’re an experienced weightlifter working in the top of your range to focus on power or test your one-rep max, a lifting belt can help you perform and stay safe.