Are weight belts necessary or might they even be harmful? How should personal trainers advise their heavy lifting clients?
As a former queen of “ab day”, having taught 30-minute abs-only classes and putting out a 30-minute video called “Ab Shredder”, I may have overestimated my abdominal muscles’ ability to adequately protect my spine on lifting days. (And have come to completely eliminate ab day from my routine…how philosophies can change!)
I’ll admit it, I would observe big dudes in weight belts at the gym and mutter to myself, “He just needs to engage properly.” I mistakenly believed that wearing a weight belt was kind of a cheat, doing the work for the abs instead of the abs doing the work harder.
Those were the days before I personally was putting barbells on my back, and when I still ascribed to breathing in on the way down and out on the way up for every lift indiscriminately. Turns out, there’s a very good reason why the Valsalva Maneuver has been used for eternity during heavy lifts—and we’re talking functional lifts, too—and why a weight belt only serves to reinforce that purpose.
The Valsalva Maneuver, which involves taking a deep breath in to your belly and holding it against a closed glottis, increases intra-abdominal pressure. The increased internal pressure forces the abdominal muscles just outside of it to contract harder. This added contraction of the rectus abdominus (where I went wrong was assuming TVA was strong enough to support my spine under heavy loads. Nope, nope, nope…) is what prevents spinal flexion from occurring under the force of heavy resistance.
Why Use a Belt?
The use of a properly designed weight belt simply provides an external surface for your contracted abdominals to push against, effectively increasing the abdominal pressure that both supports the spine and helps power through a heavy lift. Essentially, it forces your abs to contract even harder, which can only help when you’re trying to put your attention on driving through a heavy barbell squat or deadlift.
When Should You Use One?
If you’ve read this far, you understand that the weight belt’s ultimate purpose is to provide additional support to the spine. Therefore, you only need to use a belt when….the spine actually needs support. That means when you’re lifting heavy weight while vertical and you want to keep the spine stable by engaging the abs.
Squats, deadlifts, snatches, overhead press, etc….all of these are prime candidates for additional back support. You don’t need it while reclined doing a bench press, and you certainly don’t need it while running a 5k. I use one on a leg press machine, especially because I do have a back issue that is aggravated under heavy weight and I feel that spinal pressure on a leg press. Since the position is usually a 45-60 degree angle, the spine isn’t completely de-loaded.
A weight belt is really only necessary for most people when lifting at 80-90% of their 1RM for that particular lift. If someone is working in the 10-12 rep range with a healthy spine, they are probably good to go without one. But for powerlifting and heavy lifts up to four reps, then a weight belt might help.
How to Properly Wear One
The function of the weight belt is coming from the front not the back. An overly-wide band around the back will only be uncomfortable. The front of the belt where it buckles or connects (many are neoprene, hook and loop designs today) should fit width-wise between the ribs and the pelvis, and especially at the bottom of a squat.
There are models for women available (I bought this one and it fits around my short-waisted torso just fine) but they all seem to be a standard 4″ width anyhow. You must measure around your natural waistline (where it is narrowest) to select the right length.
The best way to put it on is by taking a deep breath and holding it while contracting the abs and then tightening the belt to its snuggest setting. That means, don’t force it, but it should be tight enough for your abs to push against. For someone wearing one for the first time, it will take some getting used to, and practicing the Valsalva Maneuver with the belt on and no weight may help make the connection. Do note, adding actual weight will make it easier to increase that intra-abdominal pressure.
(Note: those with bladder control issues, like people who have birthed babies, may find the use of a weight belt and increased pressure will make the problem worse)
If you’re a trainer working with athletes or clients who like to lift heavy, you may find their performance will improve with the addition of this piece of equipment. Certainly, any clients who complain of low back pain during their moderate lifting sessions may benefit from trying one, too.
In the end, it’s a sound investment for the heavy lifter and it certainly can’t hurt moderate lifters who need a boost in core strength to give it a try!