I’m sure you’ve heard the famous tale of Milo of Croton. The 6th-century BC wrestler who built an impressive physique through the use of the progressive overload principle.
Milo would carry the same small calf up a hill every day. As each day passed, the calf would get a little heavier, and Milo would get a little stronger.
Eventually, as the little calf transformed into a full-grown cow, Milo’s muscle-building journey had been completed. He’d have built an impressive physique, and his companion, who was no longer needed, had been slaughtered and consumed.
But because of Milo’s nature of not letting anything go to waste, the ancient strongman is said to have fashioned a sort of crude belt from the cow’s hide – one that would be used by Milo on his journeys.
It is argued that this is the earliest known example of someone using what we now refer to as a weightlifting belt.
The Pros of weightlifting using a belt include boosting strength, improving posture and preventing injuries. The cons include a dangerously inflated confidence and possible changes in movement patterns.
What is the Purpose of Using a Lifting Belt?
Weightlifting belts are most notably used by strength enthusiasts to improve their performance and stay safe while lifting heavy weights (1, 2). Lifting belts have also been shown to decrease the time needed to complete a repetition (3). Since bar speed and percentage of one-repetition maximum are tightly correlated, we can assume that lifting belts help us exert a bit more force (4).
Some of the earliest known examples of athletes using lifting belts come from strongmen and Olympic competitors in the late nineteenth century.
Since that time, lifting belts have become increasingly popular, and these days, you can find at least one in every gym.
The subject of whether or not lifting belts should be used has also sparked a lot of arguments over the last couple of decades. On the one hand, people don’t like belts and argue that everyone should display their strength without external help (though this is highly subjective and we won’t dive into it). This is often coupled with the argument that a lifting belt leaves your core weak and underdeveloped.
On the other hand, people are wholeheartedly for belts, claiming that they help us out without presenting significant drawbacks.
But is there a middle ground here? Do belts help with performance and keep us safe? Let’s dive in and answer these questions, and more.
Which Exercises Can You Use Weightlifting Belts For?
Walk into most gyms today, and you’ll be met with individuals who wear lifting belts for virtually everything they do – from the first moments of warming up to the last couple of all-effort reps on the bicep curl.
But a lifting belt is a tool that, like any other, should be used under the right circumstances.
In the previous point, we discussed that lifting belts are used to improve performance on specific exercises, as well as help keep us safe (1, 2). So, it wouldn’t make much sense to use them on everything. First, that becomes tiresome too quickly, and second, you’re not reaping much (if any) benefit of using a belt all the time.
Oh, and third, if you’re using a gym belt, other people might also want to use it. So there’s that.
As far as the right exercises go, weightlifting belts have been shown to help improve our performance on compound movements like the big three (bench, squat, and deadlift), Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch, and overhead squat), and Strongman movements (loaded yoke walks, suitcase carries, and various pulling exercises).
What Makes For a Good Lifting Belt?
I’m sure you’ve come across those flimsy ‘bodybuilding’-type belts that are so common in most gyms. Those are usually quite thin, very unsupportive to the touch, and largely don’t do anything for us.
A good lifting belt is thick, solid, and somewhat broad. It can feel a bit uncomfortable at first before you break it in. But once you put it on, you feel the support and intra-abdominal pressure.
These belts usually range from 9 to 13 mm in thickness. The 9 mm belts tend to break in more quickly, but the thicker ones are more durable. Keep in mind that the belt you choose will likely last you for decades.
Belts also come in different widths with 10 cm ones being the most versatile for movements like squats and deadlifts.
Finally, there’s the consideration of latching – with levers or prongs. Prongs are a bit tougher to put on and take off (especially if your belt is a snug fit), but they offer multiple levels of tightness on the spot. Lever belts are easy to put on and take off but are locked in a single size, and most require a screwdriver for adjustment.
In any case, if your gym offers some belts, it’s worth experimenting a bit to find what works best for you before making a purchase.
When Should You Start Using a Lifting Belt?
Lifting belts sound fantastic, and you probably want to order yours from Amazon and test it out the next time you go squatting. But it may be better to wait a bit.
First, it’s essential to ask yourself, “What am I looking to get out of this?”
If your main goal in the gym isn’t to maximize your strength on a few particular movements, but instead train for muscular hypertrophy and overall athleticism, then you may not need a belt at all.
Second, it’s essential to evaluate your experience and movement proficiency with the lifts you want to use a belt for. If you’re still learning how to squat, bench, and deadlift without a belt, it will serve you better first to grab a firm hold of technique, build a solid strength foundation, and then introduce a belt to the equation.
As far as real-world time goes, I’d say that most lifters should train for at least a few months before ever considering the use of a belt.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that there is a learning curve to using a belt. While some lifters put on a belt and reap its benefits in the first workout, most folks need at least a few weeks before they can experience the performance-enhancing benefits of a lifting belt.
In one study from 1999, researchers found that folks who were brand new to belt use didn’t see any improvements in intra-abdominal pressure or force production (5).
Check out this video from Alan Thrall. He is someone I respect and gives some great advice on lifting belts.
How to Use A Weightlifting Belt Properly
Putting the belt on seems simple enough, but there are some details to consider:
The belt placement.
The most comfortable belt placement for people tends to be right atop the hip bone, just over the belly-button. This is especially important for folks with wider hips (particularly girls).
You should place the belt right at the top of the hip bone to maintain a tight and secure fit throughout the movement. There’s a risk of the belt slipping up to the more narrow part of your stomach if you place it directly over your hip bone.
You may also have to tweak the position and angling a bit based on the exercise you’re doing, but the most crucial consideration is a comfortable and snug fit.
The right tightness.
Now, this is an essential bit because too many people tighten their belts too much, which does more harm than good.
Your belt should feel tight but still allow for a full breath of air in your torso. If you can’t, or you have to elevate your shoulders to breathe deeply, your belt is too tight.
An excellent way to determine the correct belt tightness is to start a bit looser, and do lighter sets where you focus on your breath and intra-abdominal pressure (expand your belly into the belt). From there, tighten the belt notch by notch and take notice if it begins to obstruct your breathing.
On the squat, in particular, most people find it better to tighten the belt as much as possible while still being able to take deep belly breaths. On the deadlift, it’s often better to do it one notch looser, so the belt doesn’t obstruct your starting position.
In any case, experiment, experiment, experiment.
Getting used to it.
Ah, now comes the fun bit. You see, lifting belts (notably wider ones) tend to bruise us, especially around the top of the hip bone – it can be even more uncomfortable with a new belt before it’s broken in.
Well, there isn’t one. You have to get used to it, and as it gets broken in, the bruising will become progressively less noticeable.
If you get yourself a high-quality leather belt, you can repeatedly fold it in one direction and the opposite to loosen it up a bit faster. But I don’t recommend doing that with cheaper belts because they tend to crack and split. Been there, done that.
Do Weightlifting Belts Help Prevent Hernias And Other Types of Injuries?
If you were to go around a large gym and ask people why they are wearing a lifting or bodybuilding belt, most of them would probably tell you that it offers safety, support, and helps prevent injuries (6).
The performance-enhancing benefits are often an afterthought for people. So, do belts help prevent hernias and other types of injuries?
Despite this being a hot topic in the fitness world, we can’t honestly give a definitive answer (at least for now). There hasn’t been any research done on the topic because, frankly, it’s incredibly difficult to carry out such studies.
Some research carried out on folks with physically-demanding jobs hasn’t found injury-preventing benefits for people with no previous back issues (7). This paper primarily points out that belts can help prevent re-injury in workers with previous injuries.
But, it’s worth pointing out that lifting belts, when used properly, increase intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and some researchers suggest that it “may reduce disc compressive force and improve lifting safety” (8).
It’s also worth pointing out that the type of belt you use also matters for the increase in IAP. Solid powerlifting-style belts offer more support and a greater IAP when compared to the thin ‘bodybuilding’ ones.
Also, the exercise you perform matters, too. For example, some research suggests that using a lifting belt on the squat can increase IAP by as much as 35-40% (9). For the deadlift, the increase is more modest, at about 15% (10). This is also in-line with anecdotal evidence which suggests that most lifters tend to experience a more significant performance improvement from a belt on the squat, rather than on the deadlift.
Now, the good thing about the increased IAP is that it effectively counters shear force on the spine – a process where one vertebrae slides in relation to another. This could give us a bit of an insight into how a belt could help prevent hernias and other injuries because too much chronic shear pressure on the spine can eventually lead to problems.
Another factor worth looking at is spinal compression. Some research (though the subjects in it weren’t very strong) has found that lifting with a belt reduces spinal shrinkage (11). But, it’s worth pointing out that our spines are well-built for compressive force, anyway. Plus, these subjects were quite new to weight training. How these effects might change for stronger individuals is up for debate.
So, what’s the bottom line here?
Research hasn’t been able to give us a definitive answer yet. But if a lifting belt provides you with comfort, security, and a small performance boost, it would be better to use it for your compound movements.
In any case, always remember that practicing good form is going to be your best way of avoiding injuries. Even if a lifting belt helps prevent them, nothing can save you from poor training technique.
In the below video Larry Wheels, who holds multiple powerlifting records, discusses how to choose a weightlifting belt.
Can a Weightlifting Belt Help Keep Your Waist Small?
Some sources suggest that wearing a belt for the entirety of your workouts will help keep your waist small. So, how true is this?
To give an accurate answer here, we first need to understand what makes the waist expand in the first place.
To the best of my knowledge, I can think of two things that would expand the circumference of your waist – muscular development and fat accumulation. Well, there’s also organ enlargement, but I believe you are safe from this unless you’re ‘experimenting’ with growth hormone.
First, let’s break down the second one – fat accumulation. No amount of belt wearing is going to prevent fat gain or stop it from accumulating around your waist or within your abdominal cavity (visceral fat). There is simply no way for this to happen, even if you wear three belts at the same time. The only way to control this is by keeping your calories in check. So, we can scratch this off the list.
Second, we have the muscular development of your core (lower back, abs, obliques, and transverse abdominis). While some people suggest that wearing a belt leads to weak and underdeveloped core muscles, research respectfully disagrees (12). Plus, even if that were the case, I don’t imagine you would want this ‘benefit,’ even if that meant having a slimmer waist.
So, what’s the bottom line here?
If you want to use a lifting belt for the sole purpose of keeping your waist small, don’t expect much – your nutrition largely determines this.
Pros of Using a Weightlifting Belt
There are several solid reasons to use a lifting belt.
A belt boosts your performance by increasing intra-abdominal pressure.
This is the most obvious benefit of wearing a lifting belt, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a trainee who can lift more weight without a belt than with one. The increased intra-abdominal pressure makes your core more rigid and raises the total power output.
By most estimates, a lifting belt can add between 5 and 10% to your one-repetition-max.
A belt may help prevent injuries.
As we discussed earlier, lifting belts do a great job of increasing intra-abdominal pressure. Some researchers suggest that the increased IAP can help keep the spine in a more stable position and thus decrease the risk of hernias and other types of injuries (8).
A belt can help us maintain proper technique.
Having a coarse belt tightly around your waist limits not only the range of motion (and thus the potential of putting your spine in a compromised position) but also offers immediate feedback on different exercises.
Many lifters report more consistent technique on various exercises thanks to a weightlifting belt.
A belt offers peace of mind.
This is nothing more than a psychological benefit, but it matters a lot. Wearing a lifting belt offers peace of mind for many lifters, which enables them to safely train with heavier weights and make better progress in the gym.
Of course, the peace of mind can backfire, and we’ll look at the potential drawback in the following section.
Cons of Using a Weightlifting Belt
There are certain drawbacks of using a belt that should be mentioned.
Belts can give you too much confidence.
Much how a lifting belt can provide us with some peace of mind, it can also give some people too much confidence. This is especially true for people who don’t know what a belt can and can’t do.
As you can imagine, having too much confidence around heavy weights can be very dangerous. So, keep this in mind and remember that wearing a belt doesn’t give you a free pass to try and lift double of what you’re capable of.
Lifting belts can cause bruising, especially while they are new.
This drawback is often temporary, but it takes some time to get used to. If you get yourself a quality leather belt, expect some bruising at first.
One solution is to try and break it in more quickly by rolling it up repeatedly. This should soften it up, and you won’t have to deal with significant bruising after that.
You can become too dependent on a belt.
Lifting belts are great and should be used under the right circumstances. But wearing one too much (and on the majority of your sets) can make you dependent on it. If you solely rely on a belt to brace and lift heavy weights, you’ll have an incredibly tough time lifting without it.
So, establish some ground rules for when you should and shouldn’t use it.
Belts can alter movement patterns slightly.
This is not a huge factor, but it’s an important one, nonetheless. You see, the lifting belt provides support for the torso but it also slightly alters the movement patterns of the hips and back.
This is something that should be kept in mind, especially in the beginning, as you’re first getting used to lifting with a belt.
A belt can cause a spike in blood pressure.
The increase in intra-abdominal pressure can cause an acute spike in your blood pressure. If you don’t have issues with blood pressure, that shouldn’t be a problem. But if you suffer from high blood pressure, it may be better to train beltless.
There’s no doubt that lifting belts offer plenty of great benefits. But it’s worth pointing out that you should spend the first few months in the gym training beltless. Lock down proper technique and reliable bracing patterns before adding a belt to your practice.
After that, introduce belted training conservatively. Learn how to use it with lighter weights first, and then move on to wearing it on your heavy working sets.
For everyone else, if you’re interested in lifting as much weight as possible, and you don’t have any issues related to blood pressure, it’s worth investing in one. Almost any decent belt you buy is going to last you for many years.
Now, research is still debating on whether or not a belt can genuinely help prevent injuries, but the increase in intra-abdominal pressure and torso rigidity certainly seem to suggest so.
And finally, remember to use the belt when needed – don’t wear it for every set of every exercise. Also, follow the appropriate steps for wearing one, and always remember the potential drawbacks – bruising, false confidence, and slightly altered movement patterns.