To belt or not to belt
That is the question
A question that seems to be on many gym rats' minds is: should I wear a belt when training? And rightfully so, considering that it's probably the most commonly seen piece of gym gear. Most are aware of the fact that wearing a weightlifting belt will allow for more weight to be lifted, but it's not very clear what its long term implications are. Both performance and injury wise. In this article I'll explain the concept of belt wearing, and share my thoughts on how to best use it.
"Lifting becomes easier, but not 'lighter' on the vulnerable soft tissues of your back."
Let me start by explaining how a weightlifting belt works. During heavy lifting, you reflexively close your glottis (the space between your vocal chords) in order to keep air inside and increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). This is called the valsalva maneuver. What this trapped air does is form a balloon of pressure inside your abdominal cavity, which helps stabilize your back. The way to imagine this is, when you're leaning forward to lift something (like a heavy barbell), your spine is not only stabilized by muscles pulling from the back, but also by IAP that helps by pushing from the front. When you add a belt to the equation, bracing your abdominals against it allows for higher than normal IAP, making for an even 'stronger' or stable spine - hence the increased weight you can lift.
So, if wearing a belt adds in spinal stability, it must be easier on the back and help prevent injury then, right? Well, it's not that simple. While it does provide the equivalent of added strength in the abdominals, higher IAP actually increases compression on the spine - something which can be highly unfriendly to an already injured back. The takeaway here: lifting becomes easier, but not 'lighter' on the vulnerable soft tissues of your back. Also, a danger in thinking of a belt as a safety measure is that wearers tend to become careless, especially because the worse your technique is, the more the belt will actually help. I therefore advocate to only consider a weightlifting belt as a performance enhancing tool, and nothing else.
Regarding the performance aspect of belt use, I often hear concerns of it just being an illusion of added strength, providing little more than an artificial boost. I disagree. Increased spinal stability - whether due to stronger abdominal muscles or wearing a belt - allows for more weight to be lifted (as much as 10% in some cases), which will subsequently place more load on all bodily tissues. Since increased tissue loading is pretty much the essence of strength training, I'd say that any tool which helps do this will speed up achievement of such a goal.
"A danger in thinking of a belt as a safety measure is that wearers tend to become careless"
On to the practicalities. Before coming to my advice regarding its use, I'd like to address a few commonly made mistakes regarding belt use first. What often happens, is that people wear their belts either too tight or too loose. When a belt is worn too tightly, it causes you to hold in your stomach - which essentially narrows your base of support. This makes your back less stable. You therefore always want to have a wide base of support, and be able to comfortably push outward against the belt. Regarding wearing a belt too loose - this simply does not allow one to brace hard against the belt, which means IAP is not increased. Defining an optimal belt setting is however a bit difficult, but I'd say that in general a belt should be snug while wearing, while not being so tight that it impairs your breathing.
So, when to use a belt? My general advice always is: the belt is a tension enhancing tool, so use it when tension is a priority. In other words: wear it when doing very heavy lifting. I am personally not a fan of belt wearing while doing high repetitions, because weights are low, and the high amount of fatigue tends to pave the way for technical error and therefore risk of injury. Regarding training, I would therefore advocate using a belt when doing heavy lifting from 1 up to 5 reps, while not wearing one on lighter lifting or on exercises in which spinal stability is unlikely to be a limiting factor.