Weightlifting belts. Some people hate them. Some people love them.
“Don’t use them! You’ll become reliant on it… Your core will become weak!”
“If the belt lets you lift more weight, use it!… It’s more specific to your competition, so why would you avoid it?“
So there are lots of opinions, but let’s take a look at what the literature has found. Firstly we’ll take a quick look at what they are, then we will take a detailed look at what the literature says the do, and finally, my thoughts on using them.
- Belt use may alter muscle activation, but not “negatively”
- Performance appears to be positively influenced by the use of a belt
- If you find a belt beneficial then use it, if you don’t (after a trial period), then don’t use it
- Beltless training may have some place in a long term training plan
What is a Weightlifting Belt?
Quite simply, these are special belts that are used to aid in increasing intra-abdominal pressure when people lift. Some may claim to prevent injury or protect the spine. You may find similar belts out there for every day use, or perhaps for those in occupations that require heavy lifting.
Typically, they are made from thick, rigid materials – commonly leather. They are a few inches wide and a few millimeters thick. They are worn around the lower torso.
You will find models like the one above which are typically 10 cm width all the way around – these are common in the sport of Powerlifting. You will also find tapered versions, like the image below – these are more common in the sport of Weightlifting.
What do they do?
Weightlifting belts have typically been found to increase intra-abdominal pressure, by 25-40% (Lander et al., 1992), and thus may assist in stabilising the torso and protecting spinal structures.
Huh? But don’t they weaken your core?
Perhaps you’ve been told that, but it seems the evidence doesn’t agree. In fact, although they may alter muscle activation, they could be useful at enhancing the use of certain muscles – and enhancing your lifts.
So let’s take a look at a few specific areas…
EMG, or electromyography, is a way in which researchers obtain a measure of muscle activation. Several researchers have used EMG to better understand how muscle activation changes with and without the use of a belt.
Many studies have looked at occupational tasks – or light load repetitive movements. However, we’re going to focus on studies that used lifts such as the squat and deadlift at loads athletes might use for resistance training – as we want to keep focused on the applications for strength training. Furthermore, each of the studies in this section utilised a typical leather weightlifting belt with a thickness of 7-11 mm, and a width ranging from 10-12 cm.
Lander et al. (1990) had six strength trained males perform back squats at 70, 80 and 90% of 1RM. Participants had 1RM’s ranging from 1.5-2.4x body weight (BW). They measured EMG of the rectus abdominus (aka, the “six pack” muscles), external obliques and erector spinae. Results were only presented for the 90% condition. There were no statistically significant differences in EMG of the rectus abdominus, however, the EMG of the external obqliques and erector spinae showed statistically significantly lower values during the upwards phase when using a weightlifting belt in comparison to no belt.
Lander et al. (1992) had five strength trained males, with an 8RM back squat of 1.6x BW, perform eight repetitions of a squat using a weight corresponding to their pretesting 8RM (mean = 125.5 kg). They measured EMG for reps as pairs, as well as on the up and downward phases of the movement. So we won’t mention every statistically significant change individually, but rather indicate where these were found.
For the musculature of the trunk (external obliques as well as the erector spinae), no statistically significant changes in EMG were observed. However, statistically significant findings were observed in the thigh musculature. Specifically, the vastus lateralis (a quadricep muscle) showed increased EMG at several time points when using a belt vs without it. The biceps femoris (a hamstring muscle) also demonstrated this same change when using a belt.
Bauer et al. (1999) had 10 university-age males perform three repetitions of high bar back squats at 60% of 1RM with and without a weightlifting belt. Participants had a self-reported 1RM back squat of 165.91 ± 74.18 kg (mean ± standard deviation) at a BW of 84.91 ± 12.08 kg,. They measured EMG of the thoracic and lumbar regions of the erector spinae. The only statistically significant finding was increased EMG activity in the lumbar region when wearing a belt.
Zink et al. (2001) had 14 resistance trained males, BW of 87.6 ± 10.6 kg, perform back squats at 90% of 1RM with and without a belt. Participants 1RM squats were 156.0 ± 20.4 kg. They measured EMG activity of five muscles (erector spinae, gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, vastus lateralis and biceps femoris) during single repetitions at 90%, and found no statistically significant differences. Indicating similar muscle activation with and without a belt when back squatting with a 90% of 1RM load.
Escamilla et al. (2002) had 13 Division I-A football players perform sumo and conventional deadlifts, with and without a weightlifting belt. Deadlifts for all conditions were performed for four reps with a weight of 123.1 ± 18.6 kg. This load being approximately equal to their 12RM, and about 1.2x the average BW.
The only statistically significant differences for EMG were in the abdominal musculature. Specifically, Escamilla et al. (2002) found that when wearing a belt the EMG of the rectus abdominis was greater, while the EMG of the external obliques was less. There were no differences for muscles of the legs, including the glutes, or for para-spinals or upper-back musculature. So, with a moderate load deadlift, the only differences when using a belt were increased activation of rectus abdominis and decreased activation of the external obliques.
Muscle Activity Summary
What we’ve seen above, for both the back squat and deadlift, is that wearing a belt might result in small differences in muscle activation. Some muscles may be slightly more active and some slightly less, but no clear trend from study to study. This appears to indicate that using a belt won’t “turn off” your core – these muscles are still active, and some muscles more so.
We’ve looked at the relevant studies on muscle activity, now let’s look at what most athletes are interested in. Will the belt help my performance?
Lander et al. (1990) demonstrated some changes in performance related parameters. When wearing a belt, participants centre of pressure went forward to a greater extent that when not wearing a belt. In their later study, Lander et al. (1992) also investigated the influence of the weightlifting belt on temporal and kinematic parameters during the squat. While no changes were seen in how athletes moved with and without the belt (i.e. joint angles etc.), their results showed several statistically significant findings for the time taken to complete repetitions. This indicates a faster movement velocity was being achieved when utilising the belt.
Zink et al. (2001) showed similar findings in these areas. Statistically significant increases in anterior and vertical displacement of the barbell were observed when using a belt – a finding similar to Lander et al. (1990). Zink et al. (2001) also saw statistically significant decreases in the overall time to complete repetitions, and time to complete the upwards and downwards phases, when wearing a belt vs without. This shorter time period resulted in an increased vertical velocity of the barbell (by 15.5% in the upwards phase).
Thus it appears that wearing a belt may result in changes to how an athlete moves, but most importantly, a belts use may enhance an athletes performance as demonstrated by enhanced movement velocity.
Typically, I am not tied to any one side when it comes to use of a weightlifting belt.
When I was Powerlifting, I essentially always used a belt for my heavy squats and deadlifts. Now that I am Weightlifting, I haven’t used a belt for more than a year. This is because I find the belt affects my movement quality in the snatch, and I simply don’t clean weights near enough to my squat to feel like I would benefit from using a belt.
But if you find a belt helps you lift more weight, and makes you feel more confident, then I would say use it.
While if you find a belt is uncomfortable, affecting your ability to move well, then I would say don’t use it.
There is a bit more to it that that, but those are my general rules. However, it is important that you learn to use the belt properly. If you only use a belt once and find it affects your movement, perhaps give it a few sessions before you abandon it. As we saw above, these is some evidence to suggest they may be able to enhance lifting performance – you don’t want to miss out on that.
Also, don’t simply pull the belt as tight as you can and hope for the best. My advice when using a belt is to actually use it to increase abdominal pressure. Wear it firmly, but with enough slack that you can draw a deep breath and “push your belly into it” when bracing your core. This way you can get greater intra-abdominal pressure and stabilise the torso, rather than just cut yourself in half with the belt.
When should you put it on? Well that is really up to you, but if you plan to use it on your working sets (or attempts in competition), then at least use it on your final couple of warm up sets to dial in your technique with it.
Should you use your belt all the time? I think there might be some value to periods of training without a belt. By no means is this essential, but perhaps a training block here and there when beltless movements are included could have some potential benefits. As we saw, different muscles may be more active when belted vs beltless – so you might get some small benefit from that. In any case, it gives you another movement variation to train with.
Hopefully this article provided you with some new insights about weightlifting belts. There has been some interesting research in this area, although I would still like to see more studies using heavier loads – especially on the deadlift.
If you want to learn a bit more about weightlifting belts, then I suggest checking out Greg Nuckols article – “The Belt Bible“. That article covers several more areas than I covered here, so head over to the article linked above if you’re interested in learning more.
Bauer, J. A., Fry, A., & Carter, C. (1999). The use of lumbar-supporting weight belts while performing squats: Erector spinae electromyographic activity. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 13(4), 384-388.
Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. C., Kayes, A. V., Speer, K. P., & Moorman, C. T. (2002). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(4), 682-688.
Lander, J. E., Hundley, J. R., & Simonton, R. L. (1992). The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 24(5), 603-609.
Lander, J. E., Simonton, R. L., & Giacobbe, J. K. (1990). The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 22(1), 117-126.
Zink, A. J., Whiting, W. C., Vincent, W. J., & McLaine, A. J. (2001). The effects of a weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 15(2), 235-240.