Belt Pictured Above by Pioneer
"Yeah, I actually wear this belt so I don't blow out my spine."
"If I don't wear a belt my back will hurt so much after the gym."
I'm sure you've heard it before, and more than likely it was from an individual who's form is less than superb. But this isn't an article lashing out at the uninformed people of the fitness world, this is an article about the WHEN and WHY you should wear a belt to maximize your own performance.
Although there's many, many misconceptions and tall-tales about why you should wear a belt, we are going to examine the facts through studies, expert opinion and personal experience. If you're on the fence about if you should wear a belt, then this is definitely an article for you. If you're someone who wears a belt just to do leg extensions or calf raises, then this is also an article you should read. The poor advice and misconceptions regarding the lifting belt almost overshadows the knowledge out there; it's almost like it's impossible to find the facts. So without further delay, let's delve into this...
One of the more commonly discussed topics amongst the serious strength community is when you should actually put the belt on during your training session.
I use the word "serious" because most average gym-go'ers throw their $15.00 Velcro dip belt on from the moment they enter the gym, and then take it off once they leave, thinking that wearing it will protect them from injury and mask any chance of harm from their terrible exercise form, but I digress.
As a strength athlete, more particularly a Powerlifter, you're always looking to optimize performance and get better at the sport; in this particular case, it means utilizing different tools to perform at the highest level possible, such as a lifting belt or knee sleeves.
Many athletes and coaches differ with when to use a belt, both in terms of training cycles and during a specific training session.
For example, Chad Wesley Smith, owner of Juggernaut Training Systems and a world class Powerlifter, suggests that during lower intensity phases of training (for example, the "off-season" or early on in a meet prep) you should perform all lifts "Beltless" for the duration of a month, two months or however long the block(s) last. Typically this will be a Hypertrophy Block, where all lifts are performed in the sub-maximal range of 60-75%, so you don't really require a belt, which brings me to my next point...
There is a general consensus amongst high-level lifters and coaches regarding when you wear the belt during a training session. Once you've reached the 80% range, you will typically see most lifters throw on their belt. The belt is NOT a magical safety device so that when you put it on, you're safe from all harm regardless of form on that lift. A belt is a tool that allows you to enhance your training by increasing Intra-Abdominal Bracing (IAB) by giving you something to "push against", thus increasing the overall force output, drive through sticking points (particularly in the Squat) and a way to "internally cue" the lifter to push against something, since there's a literal object there to push against as opposed to beltless training.
There's a very interesting EMG study by Lander JE, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 titled "The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise" and what they found was that Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP) was 25-40% higher in the belted group, as opposed to the beltless group, which can mean for a significant carryover for "Beltless" VS. "Belted" Squatting in terms of overall load. Also, athletes who took part in the study found that they were able to "blast through sticking points" more effectively compared to when they trained Beltless.
[LINK: "The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat "]
I read a great article from Greg Nuckols titled "Should you wear a belt or not? - Study write-up", which is actually an in-depth look at the aforementioned study above "The effectiveness of weight-belts during repetitions of the squat exercise" and I really like how he compared and contrasted the two study groups while also giving his own educated opinions on the matter. If you're interested in reading Greg's article (which I highly suggest you should) then I will link it below.
[LINK: "Should you wear a belt or not? - Study write-up" by Greg Nuckols ]
Thoughts on "Beltless Training" vs. "Belted Training"
The following is my personal opinion, shared by many including Greg Nuckols, Chad Wesley Smith, Max Aita and many other highly successful lifters. All of the aforementioned lifters after Squatted over 700 pounds in competition and although they train with different methods, the general consensus with Beltless training is this:
Having a phase/block of Beltless training in your program can allow you to mentally focus on staying tight without the assistance of a belt. In my personal experience, I've found that going through 1-2 Hypertrophy Blocks completely Beltless, then transitioning to General Strength with a belt has increased my lifts dramatically. This can go back to the Principle of Variation, whereas systematically switching up your training with close-variations to the competition lift (ie: If you Low Bar Squat with a belt in wraps in competition, try Beltless High Bar Squatting with sleeves as a variation), while still adhering to the Principle of Specificity can allow you to provide proper stimulus and adaptations for gains.
The Principle of Specificity states that the further you stray from competition lifts, the less carryover they will have. So for the Raw Powerlifter, a Safety Squat Bar Box Squat with bands and chains won't have as great a carryover as a High Bar Squat with sleeves, for example. Below I've linked "The Principle of Variation" by Chad Wesley Smith, which goes more in depth to specificity. Highly recommend you take a look.
[LINK: "The Principle of Variation" by Chad Wesley Smith ]
- Devote a period of training to Beltless Variations such as Beltless High Bar Squats, Deadlifts and Front Squats. Preferably during a Hypertrophy Block, whereas the weights are all between 60-75% of your 1RM.
- Many people rely too much on belts and don't have proper breathing patterns or know how to execute the Valsalva Mauver. While performing Beltless Training, try to focus intently on properly creating Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP) during the movements, but also practice diaphragmatic breathing throughout your day to day life. Doing something right 2 hours a day while you're in the gym, but going home and doing it wrong for the other 22 hours of the day will not suffice for long-term adaptation.
- After training Beltless for a period of 4-8 weeks, transition back to Belted Training during General Strength (75-85%) and you should see a significant difference over time, especially if you were deficient in your breathing patterns before, but have taught yourself how to properly brace now without a belt. You will feel a lot stronger and more stable now.
This can also be attributed to confidence; training without a belt for a period of time, hitting tons of sets/reps, setting rep/volume PRs and then going back to lifting with a belt can be a huge confidence boost for the lifter; and as we all know, Powerlifting is very mental, so we must take every advantage we can get.
As you know by now I really enjoy linking videos/studied to my articles because I feel there's just TOO much to say in such a short period of time. So, below is a video by Chris Duffin called "How to Squat". The biggest point in the video is breathing and how he cues the lifter to brace himself during the Squat. In my opinion, this is one of the BEST videos out there for both learning to Squat/refining technique, as well as learning how to properly breathe and position yourself.
[VIDEO"How to Squat" by Chris Duffin at SuperTraining Gym ]
This is a very hot topic within the fitness community, but for many different reasons. As a Strength Athlete and as a Powerlifter you need to understand that there are certain "tools" to the trade that should be utilized to maximize performance. For example, if you're a Raw Powerlifter who Squats in wraps then the tools to your trade are 2-3m wraps, a belt and maybe knee sleeves for early on in your training.
A few points to take away:
- A belt can help you drive through sticking points and increase Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP) throughout the movement.
- A belt is not a crutch. Relying on anything for too long can be detrimental, and I'm not referring to the physical aspect, since wearing a belt doesn't actually decreased abdominal activation, but I'm referring to the mental aspect of it. Don't rely on a belt to protect you from getting injured if your form is breaking down, or if it wasn't safe to begin with. The belt, like wraps or knee sleeves, is a tool to help us be better Powerlifters, so treat it that way.
- If you're going to wear a belt during your training session, throw it on at around 80% of your 1RM. So, if your max on the Squat is 405, you should be putting it on around 325; not when you start warming up with the bar.
- A period of Beltless Training during your "Off-Season" or early on in a meet prep can provide you with a new training stimulus, while also helping to build confidence.
- Proper breathing and bracing in the lifts is KEY. Learning to properly breath, both inside and outside of the gym, is crucial for success and long term health. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing throughout your day can provide you with both short-term, as well as long-term health and performance benefits.
One of the biggest questions I get is, "What type of belt should I get?"
Below I will link a few websites that sell proper lifting belts that will benefit you in training. Make sure your federation allows for a certain brand/style of belt before you purchase it (especially if you compete in an IPF affiliate; IE. CPU, USAPL).
As I said before, this is just a few of the companies that sell lifting belts, if you can think of more feel free to leave the company's name in the comment section or feel free to discuss which belt you prefer.
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