Weight Belts: Necessary or Not?

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Gym Lore would have us believe that doing just about any “real” exercise requires the use of a weight belt.

Deadlifts? Try this big leather belt on for size!

Clean and Jerk’s Today? Now you really have to use the belt.

Or do you?

After doing a bit more research than your average mook, I’ve determined to never to use a weight belt. For any heavy lift.

While this might seem like Sacrilege to the lifting deities, when you look at the science behind the belt, not wearing one is the only way to work out.

Weight belts, Weight lifting belts, Weight lifting belt purpose, Weight belt for squats, Weight lifting belt pros and cons

Intra-Abdominal Pressure

Every time you bend over, be it picking up a pencil or deadlifting 400 pounds, the pressure in your spinal disks increases.

Under normal circumstances, your body can handle this increased pressure. However, this pressure can increase as much as 300%. If your body did nothing to protect against this increased pressure, you would easily herniate a disk. And that just ruins your day.

So, to relieve some of this pressure, your Abdominals naturally tighten. This creates “Intra-Abdominal Pressure”, forcing your internal organs upward and downward within your torso. The equal and opposite pressure exerted by your innards actually relieves compression on your lumbar disks. Under normal conditions (no weight belt) this abdominal pressure occurs naturally when you lift.

There is an upper limit to this intra-abdominal pressure though. Too much pressure and your blood pressure levels increase. Then, you can no longer breathe downward through your abdomen (ideal) and you are forced to breathe through your chest (bad). Extreme levels of pressure and your heart can no longer pump blood at all.

As with all natural processes, your body naturally seeks equilibrium and finds an ideal level of intra-abdominal pressure.

What is the Purpose of a Weight Lifting Belt

When looking around on forums, the responses people had to weight belt questions were incredible. Most lifters touted the idea of wearing a weight belt even though they could not pinpoint exactly why the device helped them. Here’s my favorite quote yet, from a forum post:

“The ACE study says belts are not recommended anymore but I’ve always heard from my friend at the local gym that the belt is more for long term health. The guy seems to know his stuff as he is really ripped…”
–Marks1 at DiscussBodybuilding.com

That about sums up the weight lifting world. People listen to whoever has the most ripped abs, even if they have no idea what they are talking about.

After actually researching the issue, I can tell you without a doubt that weight belts do three things:

  1. Artificially Increase Intra-Abdominal Pressure (Detrimental Over Time)
  2. Give you Sensory Feedback as to When your back is bent and your form is going bad (Unnecessary)
  3. Give you something to attach weights to during weighted dips (Probably the only real use for a weight belt)

Weight Belts DO NOT:

  • Support the Weight Itself (your body still has to do that)
  • Keep you from Herniating a Disk just by wearing one
  • Make you look like you know what your doing

Using a Weight Belt

A weight belt is designed to be cinched tightly around your abdomen during heavy lifts. You should loosen or take off the belt any time you are not lifting. Finally, a weight belt should be used only during exercises where your spine will undergo extreme pressure: Deadlifts, Squats, Clean and Jerk, Standing Shoulder Press, Push Press, etc.

You don’t need to keep wearing it when you bench, curl, or do pullups. You just look stupid when you do that.

Besides, leaving a weight belt on and tightened the entire time you are in the gym can lead to all sorts of long term blood pressure problems.

Why I Don’t Use a Belt

The following study appeared in the American Council of Exercise magazine:

Support Wanes for Weightlifting Belts

“Weightlifting belts do little to improve performance, concluded researchers at the Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y., after comparing the progress of 50 weightlifters, half of whom wore weightlifting belts.
All the men followed the same program, and their results were essentially the same. But there was an important difference: The men who did not use the weightlifting belt had better abdominal and back strength.
These results echo a previous study that found little to support the use of these belts.
While an individual may be able to lift about 20 percent more weight when they wear a back belt, this does not translate to 20 percent more protection for the spine.
Furthermore, other studies have found that the constant use of back belts leads to reliance as torso and back muscles begin to atrophy over time.
Only power lifters or those who lift extremely heavy weights appear to benefit from the use of weightlifting belts. But even these individuals would be better off doing their daily training without the aid of a belt.”

The study was undertaken by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, and seems to echo the natural accounts of gym-goers elsewhere:

“I knew someone who worked out with a belt all the time, while I never use one. Me, I never get back injuries and can lift the same amount as him- But when he decided to take the belt off and attempt to lift the same amount of weight he was used to, he damn near sent himself to the hospital.
I also know plenty of guys who wear belts while working to avoid injury- The thing is, their bodies get used to moving stuff with the added support of the belt, and as soon as you try to lift something heavy without it, your body’s not up to the task…”
–cpl at DiscussBodybuilding.com

If you train without a weight belt, your body develops using its natural abdominal strength to keep you from getting injured.

If you train with a weight belt, you become reliant on that belt. Your abs become the weak link in the chain and you become even more dependent on the belt.

The Body’s Natural Weight Belt

Your body has a natural, built-in protective device for lifting weights, it’s called the Transverse Abdominus. This is the large muscle that runs horizontally around your abdomen. Think of your body as a house, and this muscle as the primary wall. It’s not one of those aesthetic muscles like the Rectus Abdominus (6-Pack). Nope. It’s purpose is to hold your guts in place.

When you lift weights, your abdomen naturally tightens. The Transverse Abdominus is what is causing this tightening. And as we’ve already seen, this added Intra-Abdominal pressure is what keeps your back safe during heavy lifting.

When you train without external devices, your abs will naturally build themselves up to handle the added weight.

So take off that weight belt, and lets get really strong!

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