It’s a safe bet that whether you train at a traditional gym setting, a CrossFit gym, a barbell club, or any sort of fitness facility you have seen someone lift with a belt or have one with them. So, what’s with all of the hype? Let’s cover some essentials.
The weightlifting belt is a tool to aid in increasing intrabdominal pressure (IAP) to create stability through the trunk musculature for a more stable position for axial loading (ie. Pressing, squatting, deadlifting, etc.) to reduce spinal shearing. In the strength and conditioning literature and anecdotally it is accepted that using a weightlifting belt does improve performance in the gym, especially when working near maximal loads. However, there is a skill to using the belt properly and increasing IAP to your advantage. There is mixed research on whether or not using a belt increases muscle activity of spinal musculature during high intensity lifting. One study did find some changes in quad and hamstring activity in trained strength athletes when using the belt with heavy squatting especially when getting past the sticking point. The notion that using a belt is safer vs training beltless is steeped part in scientific theory and also part in a person’s belief. On the one hand, there have been studies that support the reduction in spinal shearing or disc compression while under load and using a belt and another study that demonstrated an inverse relationship between spinal disc shrinkage (compression) and overall back strength. At this point, these studies are limited to short term evaluations of training cycles which can limit how we apply this information and most of the studies quoted were targeted towards more traditional “strength athletes” (aka powerlifting, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting)
So, do you pick up that beautiful custom leather belt or that dope Velcro belt with your favorite pattern on it? It depends.
Similar to the previous article about the use of weightlifting shoes, the best applications for use of a belt are for structured strength training towards increasing muscular size and strength or training with consistent heavy loads. If you are in a CrossFit gym that has a “strength” portion where you are pushing weights at higher percentages as part of a cycle, use of the belt is appropriate (and encouraged!) Proper use of the belt can give you that increased bit of confidence and better technique/positioning when trained well. For powerlifting or weightlifting, use of a belt is indicated since you compete by lifting maximal loads or higher percentages of your 1 rep max as part of your training.
If you are new to training, CrossFit or otherwise, limit your use of a belt for specific situations. One of the benefits of being new to the fitness journey is that you are going to get better, faster, and stronger rapidly just by training consistently (#newbiegainz)! Use that time to master technique and other essential training principles and use your other tools (belt, wraps, knee sleeves, etc.) for specific instances to maximize effectiveness. For example, use a weightlifting belt when training at any volume or reps at 75-80% of 1RM or more. This prevents the belt from becoming a mental “crutch” and creating dependency during training.
The jury is still out on use of a belt during higher volume metcons (or WOD’s) because there is no evidence about to confirm it is “safer” or will reduce fatigue. Since the higher intensity of these workouts are driven more from speed and increased overall volume, the goal is to lift loads that are light enough to complete the movement adequately, but safe enough not to crush you under fatigue, causing injury. Similar to strength training considerations, use a weightlifting belt in specific situations. If you have a “heavier” workout or a longer workout, you’re probably better off using the belt (even if it is only for the piece of mind to lift the weight confidently.)
Be intentional with use of your gear. They are not a lifeline, they are tools that are most effective when understood and used appropriately.
Joshua Walters is a Physical Therapist for Samaritan Health Services and owner of The Human Movement Rehab and Training. He has a Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology from Abilene Christian University and completed his Doctorate of Physical Therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in Austin, Texas. Josh has been a personal trainer or fitness instructor for 8 years. He is a CrossFit Level 1 Certified Coach and Certified Clinical Weightlifting Coach with a background in weightlifting and powerlifting. He is currently competing as a 105+ kg lifter in USAW and is on the USAW medical team. His hobbies include anything that includes a barbell, food, sports, music, or good people. To contact, email firstname.lastname@example.org or @thehumanmovementrehab on Instagram.