Should you use a weight belt?

by Ryan Wagner

Every gym seems to have a handful of weight belts. Sometimes you have to hunt around for them, but they’re there. Some athletes will bring their own; as they grow older and the leather shows its age – a badge of honor.

We all feel like we should wear them when we lift heavy things, right? But why?

Many of you may be able to answer with the most common of responses: That it helps to keep your torso rigid and saves you from buckling under the load. But if I were to ask you “why” one more time, I think many of you would stare back at me and exclaim “because I should wear one when I lift heavy!”

So, this is the topic I want to tackle this week: Should you use a weight belt?

It may end up being a bit controversial, but let’s get the conversation going.

A little background

Here’s a fun experiment: Google “Weightlifting belts” and you’ll get plenty of hits for places to buy them, but none that directly explain what they are. Perhaps it’s because most people think that weight belts are rather self-explanatory. However, type in “should you wear a weightlifting belt” and you get a long list of interesting reads from many of the Muscle Meccas on the Internet.

At the risk of joining the bandwagon, I want to write on the same topic, but take a different approach.

I’m going to focus on the work of an expert, Dr. Stuart McGill. If you don’t know of Dr. McGill, you need to get yourself acquainted. He is a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and has built a bit of a business around back health, and rightfully so. He’s right up there alongside the likes of Gray Cook and Mike Boyle in terms of providing practical guidance, but being an MD, he often sheds some light on the biomechanics of some of our favorite movements.

That being said, Dr. McGill wrote an excellent summary of back belts (i.e. weightlifting belts) back in 2005 and it’s still very valid. You can read the full paper here and I encourage you to do so1.

What people think belts will do for them

A lot of big strong guys wear weightlifting belts in the gym during their squats and deadlifts and therefore other lifters assume that in order to be big and strong as well, they too must employ the use of these belts. So instead of putting in the time to groove good movement patterns and focus on technique, young lifters have a strong urge to just grab a weightlifting belt and pick up something really, really heavy, as opposed to understanding their movement and employing a safe and progressive program. Clinical studies have shown that lifters are more inclined to lift heavier with a belt (up to 19% heavier!) than without one 2.

The other reason lots of guys reach for the belt – and this is the one that’s troubling – is that they think it will cure a sore back. Let me ask you this: If lifting causes you back pain, do you really think that lifting more weight is going to help when the only difference is the equipment you’re using?!

If you have back pain, please make the smart move and see a doctor.

What a belt actually does for you

Here’s what you need to know: Weightlifting belts will stiffen your torso by increasing your intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure will, in turn, stiffen your back and allow you to transfer more load, i.e. lift more weight. However…

…The most interesting takeaway from McGill’s paper (in my opinion), is when he says that “…if a neutral spine is preserved throughout the lift this effect is minimal. In other words, to obtain the maximal effect from a belt, the lifter must lift poorly and in a way that exposed the back to a much higher risk of injury!”

What this means is that either you have poor lifting form and the belt helps to accommodate the load by making it easier for you to stiffen your back, or you are lifting so heavy that your back is beginning to round, thereby giving you that slightly sub-optimal form that is required for the belt to actually help you!

Serious lifters

Much of my readership at Motus falls into this category. If you’re a mover and an Ido Portal or Movnat practitioner, there’s a good chance you’re still spending time in the gym pulling deadlifts and bragging about your squat program.

So, what does McGill have to recommend to you folks?

He believes that if you are trying to lift a few more pounds, and you’re already a serious and experienced lifter, then wearing a belt may help to augment your form when you need it most.

However, if you are trying to train movement patterns and you’re not necessarily focused on hitting PRs, then you’re better off skipping the belt. Think about it: If you have poor movement patterns in your lifts, do you really think a belt is going to help you? The belt may be feeding your compensation, or in some cases masking the problem altogether. For instance, if a lifter doesn’t have a correct hip hinge pattern in place, then putting a belt on them may just encourage them to lift more! And we’re assuming that the belt is being properly worn, aren’t we? If a belt is worn too loose or too tight, then one will not gain the intended intra-abdominal pressure. So once again, a lifter may simply have the perception that they can lift more, when really, not much has changed from a physics standpoint.

McGill also reminds us that some of the best movers are masters at rapid force production followed by a rapid relaxation, and that wearing a belt may actually hinder the optimization of this technique.

Wrap up

I think the key takeaway is that a lifting belt is not a replacement for proper lifting technique and movement. In order to get better at deadlifting or squatting, you need to practice good form. Wearing a belt and automatically thinking that you can lift more weight may be setting yourself up for trouble down the road.

By Ryan Wagner

Further reading, Weightlifting belts: Should you use one? Pro and con.

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(2) McCoy, M.A., Congleton, J.J., Johnston, W.L., and Jiang, B.C. (1988) The role of lifting belts in manual lifting. Int. J. Ind. Ergonomics, 2: 259-266.

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