It's common practice in the strength and conditioning world to bash the use of a belt. The common argument is wearing a belt limits or doesn't allow the person to learn how to stabilize their core and instead relies on the belt to do so.
Wearing a belt "cheats" and allows an athlete with a weaker torso to lift more weight. Coaches state they want their athletes to develop a strong torso, and not using a belt ensures them to develop trunk strength. Plus athletes don't wear a belt on the field, so they shouldn't in the weight room.
I've heard recommendations from coaches ranging from never allowing a belt, to only on max limits, to only on lifts above 80%; all-in-all the trend seems to point to limiting belt usage to heavier loads.
So the question begs, is there any validity to these recommendations; more so, is wearing a belt bad and why do certain coaches resist using belts?
Let's take a look at an old study out of Auburn University back in 1992 (3). This was one of the first studies looking at the effects of a weight-belt had during the back squat. This study was also very useful because the participants could actually move a respectable amount of weight.
To qualify for the study, subjects either had to move 277lbs for 8 reps or have an 8RM of at least 1.6x body weight. While these may not be eye-opening numbers, we can all agree moving 1.6x body weight for 8-reps is pretty strong and by all means they aren't newbies, which can be rare to see in most S&C studies.
The researchers measured force output via a force plate, intra-abdominal pressure, muscle activation, and time of each phase of the lift.
A couple of interesting things the researchers found
- Intra-abdominal pressure was shown to be 25-40% higher in the belted group
- EMG Data Found...
- No difference in spinal erector activity between groups
- Vastus Lateralis activity was much higher with belt than without
- Biceps Femoris activity was also much higher with belt than without
- No different in external oblique activity between groups
- No difference was found between groups in terms of ground forces
These findings shed some light on a few things. Most people wear a belt to take load off the midsection, well this study showed that there was no difference between the belted and un-belted group in spinal erector and external oblique EMG activity. All the while increasing intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), which increases spinal stability and reduces shear forces on the spine.
IAP helps to stabilizes the pelvis, helping it resist excessive pelvic tilt (both anterior and posterior). So wearing a belt increased intra-abdominal pressure, which was expected and others studies have also shown this (1,2,4,5), but it did not reduce core activation levels, which is contrary to most people theorize.
Wearing a belt increased activation levels of both the biceps femoris and vastus laterals. So at the same weight, wearing a belt increased the activation levels in quads and hammies; this sounds like a win-win for the belt. A possible reason for this (only a theory) is that since the lumbo-pelvic region was more stable due to the increased IAP while maintaining muscle activation levels of this region, this allowed more work to be done by the prime movers instead of being wasted on stability.
Overall, this study showed that lifting with a belt allows you to lift heavier weights or maintain current weight load and still increase muscle activation. When you break it down in this manner, it almost seems like NOT wearing a belt would be counterproductive.
The great thing about this study is the group they studied. The subjects clearly have experience lifting and they used pretty respectable loads. Many studies that look at belts look at them in different settings, mainly manual labor settings. Many people have taken the results of these studies on manual labor workers and tried to carry over the results to the strength and conditioning world. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
Renfro & Ebben (2006) summed it up well... "sport science evidence suggests that lifting belts may be beneficial in reducing spinal compression, stabilizing the spine, increasing motor unit recruitment in prime movers, and increasing exercise velocity as our meta analysis showed 5 of the 8 sport science and strength and conditioning studies supported it's used. Two of the 8 sport science and strength and conditioning studies showed mixed results and only 1 of the 8 studies showed no positive effect" (5).
Different Ways To Implement A Belt
- Teach Breathing Mechanics During Different Lifts - Our favorite way to use a belt is to help teach proper breathing technique during lifts. The belt gives feedback for the athlete to feel what creating intra-abdominal pressure feels like and how to correctly stabilize the spine. We teach to feel pressure in all parts of the belts - forward, side, backward - almost like filling up a balloon. Many coach just putting pressure just into the front, but this leads to increase in excessive lumbar extension - so always teach push into the belt in all directions.
- Increase Activation of Prime Movers - Wearing belt allows the prime movers to do their job because the pelvis and spine are more stable. This is great for adding intensity and strength to the lifts. We like to throw on belts during max effort movements and during max velocity movements to ensure maximum output from the prime movers.
- Just Use It - Honestly, just breaking out a belt every once in a while can be a good mix up and give athletes a different stimulus and feedback when lifting. It's great for teaching, reinforcing, and cementing quality movement patterns, and a valuable tool that doesn't deserve the bad love it receives by many.
1. Bauer, J. A., FRX, A., & Carter, C. (1999). The Use of Lumbar-Supporting Weight Belts While Performing Squats: Erector Spinae Electromyographic Activity. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 13(4), 384-388.
2. Lander, J. E., Simonton, R. L., & Giacobbe, J. K. (1990). The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 22(1), 117-126.
3. Lander, J. E., Hundley, J. R., & Simonton, R. L. (1992). The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 24(5), 603-609.
4. Miyamoto, K., Iinuma, N., Maeda, M., Wada, E., & Shimizu, K. (1999). Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intramuscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Clinical Biomechanics, 14(2), 79-87.
5. Renfro, G. J., & Ebben, W. P. (2006). A Review of the Use of Lifting Belts.Strength & Conditioning Journal, 28(1), 68-74.