Weight Belts: How and Why to use them
Weight belts are an important piece of equipment when lifting weights. Their main function is to provide lumbar support, in order to prevent the contraction of the spine. Hence it is useless in exercises like a sit-up (in which you flex your abs in order to contract your spine) and others like biceps curls and lat pull-downs in which your back does not move.
Why to use a weight belt?
Most people think that weight belts support the back and can help prevent injury. That’s generally true, but a better understanding of the mechanics will change how many people use their equipment.
To talk about belts, we first have to talk about breathing. Most people are taught to inhale on the eccentric (negative) part of an exercise and to exhale during the concentric (positive). While you should definitely breathe, this isn’t the method that works best when you need to produce a large amount of force. In the everyday world when you need to move something heavy—a couch or an Atlas stone—you take a big breath and only exhale after completing the movement.
We use this technique when we’re performing certain exercises at near-maximal effort. Holding your breath against a closed glottis while increasing you thoracic abdominal pressure braces you, and allows you to lift more weight.
When you inhale, pressure increases in your thoracic cavity; this pressure is further increased when you flex your abs. In this regard, the muscles of your abdomen serve chiefly to apply pressure to the anterior side of your spine, attempting to balance the forces produced by the extensors on the backside. In other words, this pressure keeps you from being crushed by the weight when you squat.
The back muscles apply force, position and support to the spine from the back while the abdominal wall and increased abdominal pressure from a deep breath support it from the front. A weight belt’s main function is to add support from the front by increasing abdominal pressure.
How to use a weight belt?
In a nutshell, a lifting belt provides a wall for your abs to push against. The added force with limited space means increased anterior pressure for the spine, helping to stabilise it. This gives you a more rigid torso with better transmission of force from the hips to the bar, plus a more stable foundation for overhead lifts. The width in the back of the belt has absolutely nothing to do with a belt’s function, as many people think.
Ideally, a belt between three-and-four-inches wide, all the way around, is sufficient. If it’s much smaller than that, it won’t provide much support. If it’s much larger than that, it may not fit well between your ribs and hips. The material should be firm, typically leather/suede or something that won’t stretch.
If you are on the lookout for a good belt, we would suggest our York Fitness Lumbar Support Belt.
When wearing the belt, it should be positioned and tightened correctly. Many times I’ve seen lifters move the belt to a more comfortable position under their gut, even though that is contrary to what they’ve learned about belt usage. Obviously, the belt shouldn’t be too loose, although many make the mistake of making it too tight. A belt so tight that you can’t properly contract your abdominal wall will actually work against you. Take a breath (hold it), place the belt in position and brace the abdominal wall. Draw the belt just tight enough to slightly restrict your braced abdominal position to achieve maximum benefit.