Every gym has that guy who keeps his belt on for the entire workout. He says it’s for back support, but it’s really to hold in his beer belly while he’s going for a rep max on bicep curls. I shouldn’t have to say it, but that’s not what belts are for.
So let’s actually discuss the merits of heavy lifting with and without a belt, and the real purpose of a belt other than holding in that beer gut.
Belts act as a tool to increase intra-abdominal pressure by giving your core muscles something to brace against as the abdominal wall expands. The stability belts provide explains why most lifters can lift more with one than without.
They’re primarily used for the squat, deadlift, and overhead lifts where athletes draw deep breaths for stronger bracing. However, belts also make it easier to keep the spine in a neutral position.
Honestly, it comes down to personal preference. Make sure the belt is positioned with your belly button in the center (or just about), and you’re pretty much good to go. How tight you cinch it is up to you.
Wearing a belt is like a football player wearing pads. Sure, a wide receiver in the offseason runs no-contact drills without pads, but when the season’s about to start? The pads come on. Why is that?
Since pads are used in the game, it’s important to get used to wearing them.
In powerlifting, we’re allowed to wear belts at official meets, so when nearing meet-day levels of intensity, it’s time to put on the belt.
First, a belt alone won’t protect your back, despite what your high school P.E. teacher may have told you. First, you need to know how to create a proper brace.
Second, you need a proper belt. If you want one you can bring to a powerlifting meet, you’ll need a leather one about 10mm or 13mm thick. But I’d recommend these for general use too.
Okay, so belted training mimics a meet and you understand when you should wear one. But when shouldn’t you use a belt? Let’s discuss the benefits of beltless strength training.
For powerlifters, beltless training is going to have the greatest application on the squat and the deadlift as our goal on both of these lifts is to limit lumbar extension, something a belt assists with greatly.
I’d still argue that a belt has a place in the training of those of you who are not looking to compete but rather simply better your health or increase muscle mass, albeit a lesser one.
It’s also going to be incredibly difficult to grow your legs with weights that your quads, hamstrings, and glutes can easily handle but your unbelted core cannot.
Don’t skip out on your core work in favor of wearing a belt full-time, but too great of a disparity between leg strength and unbelted core strength makes progressive overload nearly impossible on the squat and deadlift and therefore can limit your progress greatly.
A belt isn’t going to be nearly as important without the intention of competing, but it can still allow you to use heavier weights resulting in a greater strain on the legs and therefore greater strength and size results over time.
Belts are great, but they can sometimes make it difficult for coaches to spot improper bracing or for you to feel the difference between a good brace and a poor brace.
Conversely, beltless training makes it nearly impossible to lift any decent load without a good brace. This is why we often teach beginners to lift without a belt and will then add a belt once they’ve shown that they understand proper bracing technique.
It’s also why we don’t recommend using a belt for your lighter warm-up sets as this will allow you to get your bracing in check before the bar is loaded too heavy.
I also do NOT recommend using a belt for 99% of accessory work as there is almost never enough load to warrant its use. To go back to my earlier metaphor, this is akin to a football player wearing full pads to do a light jog on the treadmill.
Even if the core is decently loaded during an accessory movement, this is a great opportunity to practice your bracing.
Oftentimes you may be tempted to chase numbers, trying to beat old PRs and instead forcing early deloads. The self-limiting nature of beltless training forces you to look outside of this, as you probably have a smaller frame of reference for beltless training and cannot compare their numbers to past blocks.
Even if you’ve done a good amount of beltless training previously, the PRs usually are less important to you, making it less tempting to go off program. Beltless training also may allow you to train the movement with greater frequency or greater volume as the lesser loads associated with it can be easier to recover from.
This makes beltless training an excellent way for lifters who train a movement multiple times per week to have a “lighter day” that is still functional.
These considerations make beltless training a great offseason option for lifters looking to work on improving their bracing or increase their work capacity without having to use crazy high and unsustainable loads.
The risks of beltless training vary between competitive and non-competitive powerlifters. For those of you competing, the biggest risk factor comes from not using a belt during the weeks leading up to competition. Remember: you don’t want any surprises on meet day. If you’re going to have a belt at the meet, make sure you spend a few weeks getting comfortable with the belt you intend to use.
As you can see, whether or not you should use a belt depends on a ton of factors including experience, relative weaknesses, fatigue levels, goals, proximity to a meet, and technique, but hopefully the above information can help you make a more informed decision on when to use a belt in your own training. If you’re still a bit unsure or would rather simply take the guesswork out of your training, reach out to us about coaching today.