by Geoff Rand
Hopefully I’m not dating myself too much here, but the Saturday Night Live skit of Hans and Franz ranks as one of my all time favorites. These two meat heads hosted an informative exercise show where they would call people “girlie man” in their Schwarzenegger voices all while flexing and posing in their grey sweats and lifting belts, proclaiming “…and we are here to pump you up!”
While this may be the image many think of when looking at people wearing lifting belts, it’s not always the case. Just like any other piece of equipment, the belt is a tool, that when used properly in the right situations, can help prevent injury and increase the weight you can move in your lifts.
Let’s get some myths out the way here. The belt is NOT a brace that supports your torso so your core muscles don’t have to. And, it does NOT contribute to weakening of core muscles. In fact, the opposite is true.
Lifting belts should be adjusted so they are tight around the core, but not so tight you cannot breathe. When you inhale deeply, your abdominal muscles and lower back muscles attempt to push outward, but the belt limits them. The effect of the core attempting to push against the belt is that the forces pushing off the belt stabilize the spine. It is a combination of proper breathing and proper positioning of the belt that makes lifting belts effective, not the belt alone.
If you remember from several blog articles ago, we talked about the Valsalva maneuver as it pertains to breathing and lifts in this post. In short, the technique involves exhaling against a closed airway, which generates pressure in the core and stabilizes the spine. When you breathe this way, the belt actually amplifies the inward stabilizing pressure, making your lifts safer and more effective.
You need to position the belt properly so that it doesn’t get stuck in your hip crease when squatting or push up against your rib cage. For tightness, make it tight, but make it so you can still slide a hand between it and your body. Adjust as needed.
One tip with the belt is to wear the metal buckle slightly offset so you don’t scrape the bar against it during cleans or snatches.
I’ve noticed the belt also functions as sort of reminder to keep the core stabilized. You can’t inhale deeply without feeling your core push against it, and it just reminds me to focus on spinal stability, which I often neglect when thinking about all the other parts of a complex lift.
Belts can be worn for any lift that involves the need for spinal stability, which is pretty much all of them. However, you should be developing the ability to stabilize your core by itself, without the need for a belt, for all but your heaviest lifts. A rule of thumb is to keep the belt off until you get to about 85% of your one rep max. You should be increasing the weight you can lift without the belt over time, so this 85% number will need to be adjusted periodically.
So if you are noticing back pain in your lifts or have been stuck at a plateau weight for awhile, a lifting belt might be for you. Try one out and see if it helps to pump up your lifts. Grey sweats and fingerless gloves not required.