Weightlifting belts are a staple in most gyms and fitness centers. You’ve may have seen people wearing them, but you’re still not sure what the big deal is all about. Should you start using one? The answer will depend on who you ask. You can get an emphatic ‘yes’ or a contemptuous ‘no’. Powerlifters religiously use specially designed weight belts while crossfitters rarely ever do. Bodybuilders and other gym rats tend to have contrasting opinions, some believing that the belts are important for performance and safety while others believe that prolonged use of these types of belts heightens the risk of injury over time. Regardless of who you believe, are a few important things that need to be considered before you make the decision to buy a weightlifting belt. In this article we’ll cover everything you need to look for when buying as well as best practices for correctly using it so you can minimize risk of injury.
How a Weightlifting Belt Works
To begin with, the belt has nothing to do with supporting your back, directly. Its main function is to provide support to your abdominal area. This may sound backwards, but here’s why: when you lift a heavy load, you take a deep breath and take in a huge amount of air. This pushes out your belly and puts a lot of pressure on your abdomen while you hold your breath, a phenomenon called Valsalva Maneuver.
The pressure is subsequently transferred to the back extensors. While these muscles contract and provide support to the spine, the increased abdominal pressure supports the back from the front. In essence, the belt acts as a wall where the abs can push against for added support, thereby forming a rigid torso and a sturdy foundation for overhead lifts. The belt boosts your lifting efficiency so you can bang out more weight than you would without using one. This is assuming that you know how to properly lift and have sound technique. In the end, you lift a little more weight and get more stability in your torso.
The Pros and Cons
For years, the weightlifting belt has been widely used in the powerlifting and strongman circuit, and it is growing in popularity in other fields as well. But as aforementioned, there is a tremendous amount of conflicting opinion and research on whether athletes should use this equipment when it must be used, or if it should be shunned altogether.
The following are some of the advantages/benefits of using a weight belt:
Weightlifting belts stabilize the spine and reduce stress on it. Studies have shown that using a belt during weightlifting can increase intra-abdominal pressure by as much as 40% while reducing compression of intervertebral discs by up to 50%. The pressure in the abdominal cavity exerts a push on the spine from the inside, while the core muscles in the abdomen and lower back exerts a push on the spine from the outside. The combination of the inside-outside pressure stabilizes the spine and minimizes the stress imposed on it when lifting heavy loads.
Weightlifting belts foster better body mechanics. Research confirms that when lifting heavy objects, wearing a belt reduces the degree of spinal flexion, extension, and lateral flexion while increasing the degree of flexion at the hips and knees. This means the belt makes you lift more with your lower extremity than your back, which is the ideal biomechanical position when doing deadlifts and squats.
Weightlifting belts promote better performance. Some studies proved that wearing a belt will increase power and strength. Others have confirmed that wearing a weight belt during squats will increase the activity of the quadriceps and hamstrings. This is significant because having greater muscle activity during workouts can help promote muscle growth over time.
But powerlifting belts aren’t a magic bullet. The following are potential drawbacks of using a belt:
Affects motor learning. Some experts argue that the belt will affect your
experience of ‘learning’ how to properly squeeze and contract your abs, especially if you are a newbie lifter. What happens is that the weight belt serves as a crutch given that it increases intra-abdominal pressure. This will actually weaken your abdominal muscles. Moreover, when weight belts are used improperly, they discourage the use of your abs and core muscles which are necessary to help protect your spine.
Masks or aggravates potential injuries. Weightlifting belts are no substitute for appropriate weight and proper form. Simply because you are wearing one that enables you to lift 10 lbs more than your personal best does not mean you can forgo the mechanics of movement. That’s precisely how injuries come about.
Other potential drawbacks include the following: prolonged use may hinder the development of trunk stabilizer muscles; may give you a false sense of security and let you exceed safe lifting limits; stabilizes lumbar vertebrae while exposing other spinal segments located above and below the belt to higher forces.
Leather vs Fabric: What are the Differences?
Of all weightlifting belt variations there are two base materials used: leather and fabric, the latter being mostly nylon. There are several material combinations and foam inserts but the base always falls back to either leather or fabric. Having said that, there are three main differences that we need to take into consideration: construction, buckling systems and who uses the belts.
In terms of construction, leather belts are thicker and provide more rigidity for the trunk. Weight belts made of fabric are noticeably thinner and more flexible compared to their leather counterparts. They have varying stitching patterns which depend on the belt style. As for the buckling systems, leather belts use three different options including single-prong, double-prong and levers. The end of the belt has pre-made holes, similar to those on regular belts you wear. Buckles and levers are crafted from metal, usually stainless steel to ensure durability. Fabric belts also use stainless steel buckles but only on the fastening section. The strap is typically made of a cloth blend or pure nylon, and can be adjusted to fit the trunk as tight as needed.
Leather belts are often used by weightlifters, powerlifters and strongman competitors. These are belts that provide the trunk with the most stability, so lifters doing maximal lifts will benefit the most. Fabric belts are versatile so they often benefit CrossFit, recreational lifters and functional fitness athletes. They provide support and offer maneuverability through a wide range of movements. This feature also makes fabric weight belts more suitable for beginners.
The Top 5 Best Powerlifting Belts
My trainers and I all use and recommend the use of powerlifting belts for anyone doing heavy compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, or cleans. Below you will find our top 5 favorites:
The velcro strap system isn’t only easy, but it provides your back with ample compression for great support and a wide range of adjust-ability. The material this belt is made out of is lightweight and ergonomic, making workouts comfortable to execute. Perform squats, dead lifts, and so much more with the help of this belt. Whether you are power lifting or doing Olympic lifting, this is one of the best belts to use to give your back the support it needs. Not only that, but do your weightlifting in style and feel confident!
The Good:Functionality is the most important thing about a weightlifting belt, and the Fire Team Fit Weightlifting Belt can do it all. Besides that, some of the pros about this belt include:
- A sleek, ergonomic design that is not only effective, but very stylish
- Made to suit both men and women when it comes to style and sizing
- Several color choices are a nice perk to suit any style and personality
- Very lightweight, it barely feels like it’s there!
- Provides back support for all kinds of workouts
The Bad:There are many things to love about this belt, but there may be a few downsides that you might want to know before choosing this to be your weightlifting belt. You should consider going a size down if you find yourself on the border of two sizes. This is because the belt happens to run a little small. Another thing is that the material is more fabric, so if you’re looking for a stiffer support belt, you might want to go with leather instead. Aside from that, we have very few complaints about this belt.
This weightlifting belt was made to be used for a variety of workouts, including dead lifts, squats, cleans, snatches, jerks, and (of course) traditional weightlifting. With a structure that features a “stiff” back, you can be sure this belt will provide you with a good amount of support and compression on your back. Unlike many other belts, the Bear KompleX is great at maintaining it’s support for your back and core over long periods of time.
The Good:It’s easy to see why so many people love this belt. Some of the best features about it include: Velcro secure system that offers complete flexibility and a strong hold Firm back for extra support that really lasts through your workout, as well as from workout session to workout session The design being made to be used for a variety of workouts, making it a universal gym accessory for many Many users of this belt praise it’s hefty construction and durability, making it a reliable go-to weightlifting belt for anyone
The Bad:Surprisingly, there really hasn’t been many negatives when it comes to the typical customer review on this belt. In fact, everyone seems to be extremely pleased with their Bear KompleX Weightlifting Belt. The only thing that may bother you is how stiff it is; but this should become less of a problem as it is used more. Keep in mind that the belt also runs a little small, so if you find yourself in between, then opt for the larger size.
- Made from REAL and reinforced leather
- Easy to put on, take off and adjust to size
- Great size for effortless storage and travel
- Lifetime replacement guarantee
The Bad:A negative implication of wearing a powerlifting belt is not well known but can be quite serious. Using these types of belts may inhibit motor learning in the abdominal muscles, making it difficult for you to lift without one over time. This isn’t always the case, but is something to be aware of. Another effect is that these belts may damage the lower back and cause injuries if not worn properly and if someone doesn’t know their own limits. Remember to meet with a trainer for a consultation before you go into wearing one of these belts for the first time.
The Verdict:This genuine leather pro weight lifting belt is built especially for both men and women. It has been carefully designed and keeps into consideration both body types and statures. Made from patented leather, the belt is extremely durable, premium reinforced and long lasting. You don’t have to worry about it wearing out like other belts made from fake leather, plastic or nylon.
Another great feature about this belt is the fact that despite being made of reinforced leather, this belt is extremely comfortable and surprisingly doesn’t feel bulky on your body. It always stays in place when in use, meaning it won’t dig into a person’s sides, ribs or hips. To make it all the more comfortable and to keep it secure, the belt comes with heavy duty metal buckles and adjustment holes for a great fitting.
The Genuine Leather Pro is super compact and lightweight, with only 1.5lbs weight, feels completely weightless and also doesn’t even take up much space. Bringing it along with you when you travel will never be a problem. Dark Iron Fitness (the belt provider) also ensures the quality of the belt and provides a guarantee that if the belt ever fails, they promise to send you another belt.
The Good:The best and the most obvious effect of weight lifting belts is that they ensure better performance. These belts provide a lot of support to a lifter’s back. It typically provides a better performance capability due to this enhanced support. Another benefit of these belts is that they are very useful for preventing injuries which may arise due to heavy lifting (muscle pulls, for example).
Some of the key features of the Valeo 6-inch VLP s:
- Comfortable foam core
- Waterproof to help resist sweat absorption while you work out
- Soft edges to prevent belt from digging uncomfortably
- Easy to hand wash and air-dry
- Super lightweight and portable
The Bad:Although there are marked benefits of using a weightlifting belt, there are also negative implications that can happen depending on the person who is wearing the belt. First and foremost, by wearing a belt can numb the feeling and circulation to your core, masking any potential injuries you can experience during any weightlifting exercise.
Wearing a weightlifting belt may also aggravate whatever minor injury your back or body may be suffering from. It is always suggested to consult with a doctor before wearing a weightlifting belt on a regular basis.
Here are some of the downsides of the Valeo 6-inch belt:
- The lack of velcro on the main belt makes it move while in use
- Sizing runs slightly small
The Verdict:The Valeo 6-inch VLP Performance Low Profile Belt is a stylish and different kind of weight lifting belt. The Valeo belt has a 6” wide foam core that is waterproof and a torque ring closure that makes it very flexible. Another great thing about this super affordable belt is that it is hand washable and can be easily air dried.
To make the belt comfortable for wearing, it has a brushed tricot lining and has soft and comfortable edges as well. You’ll never experience any discomfort when performing exercises with this on. The fact that this is a Velcro belt makes it extremely convenient to put on and take off. Made of comfortable and stretchable material, this is a great option for any lifter.
With 6 inches of width, this Harbinger brand belt offers great stability for your back as well as your core. Not only does it provide stabilizing compression, but it also is a great posture support. The genuine leather also does well in providing the necessary support your back needs to stay in good condition. Sizing is available from 23 inches, all the way up to 48 inches, meaning it can be used by people of many sizes. Both men and women, as well as adults and those who are younger, will be able to wear this belt.
The Good:The Harbinger Padded Leather Weightlifting Belt is favored by many for the most part. Some of the best things about the belt include:
- Being made of real, genuine leather that is durable
- A belt buckle made of steel for durability
- Padded suede interior for a luxurious and comfortable fit
- Wide, 6 inch back support
The Bad:With all great things, there are usually some downsides. While for most people this belt has been pretty reliable, there are many complaints regarding the belt being too thin and tearing easily. We didn't have this problem, but we also didn't get to test it over the long term.
Another thing is that the sizing tends to run small. So keep in mind that if you are on the larger end of the size you plan on getting, you may want to go a size up. Aside from that, we were genuinely pleased with this belt.
What to Look for When Buying a Powerlifting Belt
Powerlifting belts that are well made out of quality leather are highly suggested. Because it will last decades, a price tag of up to $100 Is well worth it, especially if you’re a serious bodybuilder, powerlifter or just a strength addict. You generally don’t want to invest in something you will need to replace in a matter of 2 years. Let’s take a look at the other things you should think about when buying a powerlifting belt.
1) Width and Thickness
A belt width of 10 cm is typically the max-width that a powerlifting belt can be worn between the ribs and hip-bone. If you aren’t familiar with the powerlifting federations, their maximum allowed width is 10 cm. It’s definitely better to go with less width if you find that 10 cm isn’t comfortable for you. Some people even like to have 2 different belts so that each one is dedicated for either dead lifting or squatting.
To determine the thickness your belt should be, you should make sure it stays in place while you exercise. Thicker belts can go up to 13mm, also the maximum thickness as determined by the powerlifting federations.
2) Secure Method
Powerlifting belts have two different securing mechanisms they normally come with: the single prong, the double prong or the lever. Usually, it is suggested that you getting something fairly easy to put on so your focus is more on your workout performance. This is why the double prong belt is advised against being used. On the other hand, the more expensive belts use a lever which is secured in a simple movement. While this is convenient, it is still suggested that the single prong may currently be the best choice.
It’s important that your weightlifting belt is made of super high quality leather. Top grain leather is most commonly used as the fibers are more durable. Like mentioned earlier, the better the leather, the longer the belt will last.
The fit has is one of the most important parts of buying a powerlifting belt. Your belt needs to be tight, while not being too tight, and it also needs to be correctly positioned. A trick is to put on the belt just tight enough so it stays in place, then squat, and wherever the belt ends up is where you should place it. dead lifting may require you to position the belt sightly higher, just so it doesn’t move around
It’s possible to put your belt on too tight, which is not good and your abs will have restricted movement. In fact, it would be better to have no belt at all than one that is too tight. You’re going to need to try out a few different belts in order to find that “perfect-fit” for you. A method of figuring out if a fit is too tight or not is if you can still take a full breath or not. You want to be able to inhale a good breath without lifting your shoulders when you are wearing your belt. Don’t worry though, it’s well worth your time and effort since this is an investment in your powerlifting hobby or career.
The Final Say
A powerlifting belt helps limit the expansion of your abdomen when you take in a deep breath. Surprisingly, the restriction the belt provides increases spinal stabilization by increasing the intra-abdominal pressure. With this increased stabilization, the legs and hips are able to contract harder. Your squat will be more stable and you’ll be able to lift heavier loads. The risk of injury is also supposedly lowered, though it is important to know there isn’t that much extensive research on the claim.
There is a common misconception that wearing a powerlifting belt might make your core weaker. This is actually not true because the muscles are still able to activate during exercise wearing one. The activation happens so deep within the core that a belt couldn’t really affect it. Because powerlifting belts are typically worn for squats and deadlifts, it’s not really worth worrying about if it will affect your core strength. This is simply because the exercises aren’t geared towards the core.
Ultimately, whether you should use a weightlifting belt depends on the kind of training and how much weight you intend to lift. You will benefit from the belt for intense workouts or workouts that involve near maximum or maximum loads like deadlifts and squats. Note, however, that doing workouts with a weightlifting belt won’t ensure that you’ll prevent injury to your lower back.