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Lessons In Weight Belts: How And Why To Use Them

Weight belts are an important piece of equipment in your training repertoire. Find out how and why to use them!

In the dark corner of my local gym, I recently spied a guy doing sit-ups ... while wearing a weight belt. The sight was like a swift punch to the crotch! While it's not the worst gym offense, or even an incredibly rare event, I realized that many trainees don't know what a lifting belt does, when to wear one, and why someone should.

Wearing a belt during sit-ups, for example, is actually contrary to the function of the belt. The whole point of a weight belt is to prevent spinal flexion; the whole point of doing a sit-up is to flex your spine by contracting your abs. See the problem here? I've also seen people belt up for biceps curls, lat pull-downs, and leg extensions. Clearly, some instruction on this common accessory is needed.

Belt-ology in Action ///

Most people think that weight belts support the back and can help prevent injury. That's generally true, but a better understanding of the mechanics will change how many people use their equipment. Even some weight belt manufacturers don't understand how a belt is supposed to work, which is revealed when they make the back of the belt wider than the front.

To talk about belts, we first have to talk about breathing. Most people are taught to inhale on the eccentric (negative) part of an exercise and to exhale during the concentric (positive). While you should definitely breathe, this isn't the method that works best when you need to produce a large amount of force. In the everyday world when you need to move something heavy—a couch or an Atlas stone—you take a big breath, push or pull while holding your breath, and only exhale after completing the movement.

We use this technique—known as the Valsalva Maneuver—when we're performing certain exercises at near-maximal effort. Holding your breath against a closed glottis while increasing you thoracic abdominal pressure braces you, and allows you to lift more weight. You'd never see a powerlifter squatting 600 pounds while slowly breathing out.

When you inhale, pressure increases in your thoracic cavity; this pressure is further increased when you flex your abs. In this regard, the muscles of your abdomen serve chiefly to apply pressure to the anterior side of your spine, attempting to balance the forces produced by the extensors on the backside. In other words, this pressure keeps you from being crushed by the weight when you squat.

The back muscles apply force, position and support to the spine from the back while the abdominal wall and increased abdominal pressure from a deep breath support it from the front. A weight belt's main function is to add support from the front by increasing abdominal pressure.

Belt It Real Good ///

In a nutshell, a lifting belt provides a wall for your abs to push against. The added force with limited space means increased anterior pressure for the spine, helping to stabilize it. This gives you a more rigid torso with better transmission of force from the hips to the bar, plus a more stable foundation for overhead lifts. The width in the back of the belt has absolutely nothing to do with a belt's function, as many people think.

Ideally, a belt between three-and-four-inches wide, all the way around, is sufficient. If it's much smaller than that, it won't provide much support. If it's much larger than that, it may not fit well between your ribs and hips. The material should be firm, typically leather/suede or something that won't stretch.

To Belt Or Not To Belt ///

There is no need to wear a belt all the time. There is a lot of discussion in the fitness community about whether you should wear a belt at all. Some people believe you should only rely on your own abilities to stabilize heavy loads. I don't intend to delve into that debate here, but I will say two things: first, under a heavy load, a belt can help reduce your odds of getting an orthopedic injury. Second, a belt will definitely aid in lifting performance.

In my opinion, a weight belt is only necessary during near the max attempts on compound lifts, definitely not when you're on a bicycle. You shouldn't wear a belt with loads that you can easily support—below 90% of your one rep max on big, barbell lifts.

Wear It Right ///

When wearing the belt, it should be positioned and tightened correctly. Many times I've seen lifters move the belt to a more comfortable position under their gut, even though that is contrary to what they've learned about belt usage. Obviously, the belt shouldn't be too loose, although many make the mistake of making it too tight. A belt so tight that you can't properly contract your abdominal wall will actually work against you. Take a breath (hold it), place the belt in position and brace the abdominal wall. Draw the belt just tight enough to slightly restrict your braced abdominal position to achieve maximum benefit.


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About The Author

Matt Biss is a training and nutrition specialist. He has studied exercise science and is a competitive strength athlete.

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jstanek

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jstanek

Good to know.

Oct 12, 2012 6:18pm | report
 
stud4848

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stud4848

does a belt help shrink your waist?

Oct 12, 2012 6:46pm | report
 
UtahRugger

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UtahRugger

Did you seriously just ask this...

Oct 13, 2012 12:57pm | report
malonjao

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malonjao

Ronnie Coleman used to wear a belt at all to keep his waist tighter

Oct 14, 2012 11:14am | report
kevlar1972

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kevlar1972

no a belt does not shrink you waist. Cardio and diet do

Oct 15, 2012 2:57pm | report
xosl

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xosl

Remember safety comes first and a belt protect your back mostly your spinal code.

Oct 19, 2012 9:52am | report
dslxic

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dslxic

Great article and good information; though I choose to not use a belt, there will be a day I hit a max weight I'll need to invest.

Oct 12, 2012 7:38pm | report
 
rossd152

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rossd152

@stud4848 for your waist to get smaller you would have to lose mass around your waist..ideally fat...there is no way a belt can do this. It simply stabalises you during lifts that is all it does

Oct 13, 2012 6:47am | report
 
TylerDurrden

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TylerDurrden

Good article...it says that people should wear a belt while doing bicep curls...I do however, only because i have a lower hernia and when i do lifts while standing up (bicep curls, rows, ect), just for the reason it supports my hernia from popping out lol

Oct 13, 2012 11:11am | report
 
doza808

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doza808

This is a very helpful article! Thanks.

Oct 13, 2012 1:01pm | report
 
gustaboyle

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gustaboyle

great info! thanks

Oct 13, 2012 9:00pm | report
 
dreambig1993

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dreambig1993

With lower back problems I tend to use mine for anything that can use my lower back for support. Good article

Oct 14, 2012 4:13pm | report
 
sxyfitmomwife

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sxyfitmomwife

Nice I had no idea

Oct 14, 2012 10:56pm | report
 
TonedJordan

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TonedJordan

"Even some weight belt manufacturers don't understand how a belt is supposed to work, which is revealed when they make the back of the belt wider than the front."

Only 1 of the belts in the "top 5" list is a universal width all the way round, all the rest have a wider back than the front. I find it hard to understand articles that contradict themselves. I am hoping the author didn't put that top 5 list at the end and that it was added afterwards.

Oct 15, 2012 8:16am | report
 
Muscle Mania Matt

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Muscle Mania Matt

Ahhh. Those were added afterwards. I am assuming they are the top five sellers on the site.

Oct 15, 2012 8:30am | report
TonedJordan

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TonedJordan

I had a feeling that might have been the case. Think that needs to be removed lol.

Oct 15, 2012 10:38am | report
codynebeker

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codynebeker

It is fixed.

Oct 15, 2012 11:04am | report
kevlar1972

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kevlar1972

INZER Belts!

Oct 15, 2012 2:59pm | report
 
iScarecrow

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iScarecrow

I noticed that some belts are wide in the back and also in the front. Sheik makes a belt like I described. What would be the specific reason for having the belt get wide in the front? I read above how a belt supports your abdominal wall but would being wider in the front be that much better?

Oct 15, 2012 9:48pm | report
 
bigdawgnc

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bigdawgnc

Being a newbie this is good to know Thanx....

Oct 19, 2012 7:54pm | report
 
Ememorph

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Ememorph

awesome! i had no idea thats what a belt is for! thanks!

Oct 24, 2012 3:45pm | report
 
mrlongisland1

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mrlongisland1

Good article. In Arnold's encyclopedia he says guys wear weight belts as gym fashion statements, which is not their intended use.

Oct 30, 2012 3:25pm | report
 
Bfridey

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Bfridey

Good info- thanks!

Article Rated:
May 11, 2013 12:14am | report
 
SheLiftsNZ

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SheLiftsNZ

Great article. Answered my question on when I should start using one in my workouts and then some.

Jul 7, 2013 11:47pm | report
 
chanujman

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chanujman

ahhh i was wanting to get a workout belt for me to do heavyy DIPS and all i dont see nothing on this :/ but great article tho

Feb 2, 2014 6:26pm | report
 
Showing 1 - 25 of 36 Comments

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