Should I use a Weightlifting belt?
See that thing wrapped around the waist of elite Olympic Weightlifters? What do you think it’s for? Fashion? Although I am no fashionista, I think most of you would agree with me when I say it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing piece of equipment. And it also looks rather uncomfortable, as if we’re wearing a corset in preparation for a Bohemian themed dinner. Except we’re not about to have dinner. We’re about to lift maximal weights. That, my delightful readers, is a weightlifting belt.
What is a weightlifting belt and why should I wear one? The weightlifting belt is a piece of equipment that is supposed to help us lift heavier weights. This is achieved by increasing the pressure in your abdominal region (we call this intra-abdominal pressure). If you take a deep breath and hold it, you’ll feel the pressure increase in your mid-section. Now, keeping that breath, try to bend over at the spine.
Feels a bit restricted doesn’t it?
That’s the goal of intra-abdominal bracing. By increasing the rigidity of our ‘core’, the spine is less likely to bend. Now, imagine while you’re holding your breath, then someone comes around and squeezes you around the stomach as hard as they can. Feels even more restricted right? That’s what the weightlifting belt does for you.
In the context of Olympic Weightlifting, a rigid spine prevents us from rounding over when we lift the weight off the floor. There are many proposed benefits for this, but most obvious is that it’ll allow us to lift heavier load off the floor. Sounds great, right?
Before you click onto the next Facebook ad showing the weightlifting belt (because let’s face it, if you Googled this article then the 3rd party cookie is already embedded in your browser), let’s review whether you should use one.
The weightlifting belt increases intra-abdominal pressure which improves spinal rigidity, which in theory helps us lift heavier weight. Let’s dissect a couple of points in this statement that are important to consider.
- The increase in intra-abdominal is great for spinal rigidity. However, the increased pressure also affects your internal organs and structures. If you’ve ever seen a powerlifter vomit mid lift, this could be one of the reasons why. That’s a rather comical (but gross) take. In more worrying cases, it could exacerbate pelvic floor issues in both men and women, leading to involuntarily peeing and/or defecating.
- The belt theoretically helps us lift heavier weight. But how important is consistently heavier weight to you? What are your goals for training? If you are lifting purely for health reasons, chasing maximal weights is likely unnecessary. Furthermore, have you maximised your potential without a belt already? If you haven’t, it is not the time for a belt yet. However, if your goal is to be the most competitive weightlifter you can be, then you’d best learn how to use one.
- Increased stability means decreased movement. The weightlifting belt can hinder the performance of movements that require some movement at the spine. The most obvious one is the overhead squat. Unlike a front squat, the overhead squat may require some extension at the thoracic spine. If you use a tight belt, this can limit the amount of movement, leading to a compromised overhead squat or snatch.
As is required in any informed decision, we must weigh up the pros, cons, and then form any rebuttals.
If you have no history of pelvic floor trouble, and you would like to lift progressively heavier for as long as you can, then I do suggest you start learning how to use a belt. However, if you have a history of pelvic floor trouble, AND you’re not trying to be the strongest lifter you can be, then it probably isn’t necessary to use a belt.
In the context of movement, if you already have quite a stiff spine and you’d like to do movements that require some mobility at these regions, then you can delay belt use for as long as possible. Conversely, if you’re very mobile and need to be more stable at the spine, then a belt would be ideal.
As you can see, it all comes down to an individual case by case basis. A weightlifting belt can be a very useful or useless investment depending on your goals and health history.