t’s always two extremes; either the old man with the pot belly, waddling around with a belt tightly cinched in for all exercises or the new school exercise guru who balks at the idea of wearing one. The science always lands somewhere in the middle. The journal Clinical Biomechanics found that wearing an abdominal belt increased pressure in the erector spinae muscles to stabilize the spine. That’s a win for belt-wearers but do you really need to wear it when you do bicep curls? Save it for those exercises that really tax your core with heavy loads such as deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses. There are many pros and cons to wearing or not wearing a belt.
-May help prevent injury to the low back during heavy lifts.
-Can increase performance.
-Might inhibit motor learning in the abdominal muscles.
-Lower Back might not get as strong
All of the positives to wearing a belt come down to the idea of intra-abdominal force or pressure. A study done byMiyamoto found that "Intra-muscular pressure of the erector spinae muscles increased significantly by wearing the abdominal belt during Valsalva maneuvers and during maximum isometric lifting exertions". In short, if you increase the pressure in the abdomen, then you better stabilize the whole area which makes for a safer environment for the spine and can increase your ability to lift heavier weights. Another study by Kingma showed that, "Wearing a tight and stiff back belt while inhaling before lifting reduces spine loading. This is caused by a moment generated by the belt rather than by the IAP (intra abdominal pressure)", which suggests that there may be even more reasons why belts are beneficial.
There are two major arguments against the use of a belt.
1. Belts Mess With Motor Learning
The first concern is the belt might inhibit proper motor learning. Many of the best exercises in the gym require a correct pattern of recruitment of the abdominals (including the obliques and transverse abdominals). With beginners, weight belts circumvent their learning of how to "squeeze" their abs tightly and in the right ways during a heavy lift. Instead the belt just takes over. This issue is easy to get around if you have a good coach or you are paying attention. You should NEVER use a belt in place of proper core work, stabilization, and technical learning.
2. Belts Make Your Lower Back Wimpy
The second concern is that wearing a weightlifting belt is going to cause your lower back to be weaker than it would have been without it. Why? Because it will take stress off the back and stress is what drives adaptation. The strongest deadlifters in the world nearly all wear belts all the time in training and competitions. Do you really think they have weak lower backs because of their obsessive use of a belt? Putting on a belt MIGHT lower the amount of stress on the low back by some amount, but that difference is more than made up for by the additional weight you will lift via a boost from internal pressure or even just the psychological boost you get when you feel safer (Nick Horton).
In the end the point is wearing a belt is a highly personal decision, but it shouldn't be taken too seriously. If you feel more confident wearing it, then wear it. If you find it awkward and uncomfortable, then don't. All that matters is that you never let someone ELSE decide for you.
Laurie Zerfass, CPT
With a Bachelor’s degree in Health, Behavior, and Exercise Sciences, Laurie graduated from the University of Delaware while concentrating on Fitness Management and Strength and Conditioning. Her passion for fitness and health stems from a background in sports, playing soccer at all levels including high school varsity, elite club teams, and at the collegiate level. Infusing her love for soccer into a career, Laurie has experience in sports conditioning, functional training, weight management, and nutrition.