Lifting weights is tough and you’re going to want to do it in the safest way possible. It’s a great way to build muscle, burn fat and improve performance, but it’s also a dangerous undertaking if done wrong. Today, we’re going to take you through everything you need to know about weight lifting belts and what role they should play in your fitness journey.
What is a Weightlifting Belt?
It’s a belt for weightlifting, duh.
Okay, so a weight lifting belt is a bit more complicated than that. It’s a belt – made of anything from leather to fabric – that you place around your torso during heavy weight training.
They’re designed to fit around your midsection between the ribs and the hips, and there are actually many different types of weight lifting belt.
That’s why we’ve put this article together: to help you understand what the weight lifting belt is for, how you can use it to help improve your own fitness, and what type will best-suit your needs.
What is the Purpose of a Weightlifting Belt?
Weight lifting belts exist to provide resistance to your abdominal muscles. When you’re performing a heavy lift, they’re there to improve your core activation, and protect your spine. If you value your spine, then, you should stick with us for this piece!
Benefits of Wearing a Weight Lifting Belt
Reducing injury is the #1 reason athletes use belts. The extra core activation means more stability in the spine – a part of your body that is susceptible to injury.
80% of people suffer with debilitating back pain at some point. This is a huge number and exercise injuries can often trigger these problems.
Weight training is perfectly safe and improves your health in a number of ways, but it does carry its own risks and can trigger serious back injury if you’re not careful.
How does a Lifting Belt Work?
The first thing you need to know is this: you can’t produce maximum force without resistance. Think about throwing a ball of cotton wool – you can’t produce much force because it’s so light. The same thing goes for the inside of your body.
You can’t produce maximum force with your core muscles if there’s no resistance. Why would you want to? Simply put, increasing the involvement of your core muscles during heavy lifts is the #1 way to reduce back injury and pain during weight lifting.
You need to provide some external resistance for your body to contract against. A tightly-fastened belt is the perfect thing to push against. These muscles then stabilize your spine, keep your back straight and reduce the chance of catching any injuries in the hips or lower spine (you know – the bits you need for walking!).
Do Weight Lifting Belts Prevent Hernias?
Sadly, it’s not quite that simple. The way that weight lifting belts protect your core and spine is dependent on how well you use them and the way you lift. Simply put, the weight lifting belt is only going to help prevent hernias if you’re doing everything else right too. It might help you, but it isn’t going to solve the problem all by itself!
So, why don’t weight lifting belts prevent hernias?
To start with, it’s important to remember that the belt won’t protect you from hernias. You’re at-risk either way if you’re lifting incorrectly, loading too heavily, or you’re not using your core properly. You can’t use a belt to cover up your crappy technique, so you need to make sure that you’ve got a stable foundation of technique and core strength.
Secondly, that’s not quite how a hernia works. A hernia is when something pops through the muscular wall of your core that really shouldn’t – like an organ. This is a problem in the core itself and is very rarely the result of using a belt or not using one. It’s about having an injury or serious weakness in your core.
As mentioned above, the point is that you need to make sure that you have enough of a foundation in basic core strength and weight lifting technique before you load heavily. Lifting Belt or not!
Weight Lifting Belts DO Prevent Some Hernias
The type of herniation that weight lifting belts combat is more likely to be spinal disc herniation. This is exactly as awful as it sounds – the discs between the vertebrae of your spine can herniate which can cause problems like sciatica and compromise your long-term back health. This is where weight lifting belts can be helpful.
When you use a weight lifting belt tense your core, you produce pressure on your spine in every direction. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually essential to make sure that the compressive force on your spine (the weight squishing your vertebrae together) is controlled and doesn’t cause you injury.
By squeezing these core and back muscles, you keep the pressure on the discs to prevent them from squishing too far outwards. This is a bit simplistic, but it’s how it works: your belt can help you keep your core tight and protect your spine from too much compression.
Can you Use a Weightlifting Belt to Help you Lift with a Bad Back?
The short answer is yes.
The accurate answer is yes but you really shouldn’t!
If you have a bad back (it hurts when you lift without a belt), you shouldn’t be lifting at all. You should see a physio and get a series of exercise and strengthening protocols that don’t cause you pain!
This is another example of using a weightlifting belt as a band-aid to a serious problem. If you’re using a belt to prevent back pain during heavy lifting, you’ve missed the point. Pain is your body’s warning sign that something’s wrong. You can use a belt to prevent back pain, but you shouldn’t use one to hide pain.
This is a situation where core and back strength is necessary before using a belt.
Weight Belts for a Bad Back
There are some situations where a belt can help a bad back, however. First of all, if you’re an athlete attempting to stay healthy while competing, you can use a belt to survive through tough training. This is only a good idea if you’re very aware of your body and what you’re doing – it’s a real risk.
Additionally, you can use a weight belt during rehabilitation for your back. Once you’ve gotten rid of the pain, you’re still going to feel weak and have little control of the muscles. This weakness and lack of control is one of the worst causes of low back pain and you need to address muscle-loss immediately to protect your back.
The improved contraction of your core and back muscles during belted weight training isn’t just good for your spine – it’s also awesome for building lower back muscles. The most important of these is the multifidus – it’s one of the spinal erectors and it attaches at almost every single vertebra.
Using a weight lifting belt turns on these key muscles more effectively helping you to recruit them and develop better control. This means bigger, thicker back muscles and a healthier spine. It’s ironic but, in the long term, weight lifting belts help you strengthen your core. You don’t have a weaker core for using them – they improve your belt-less core performance too!
What type of Weight Lifting Belt is Right for ME?
There are two main types of lifting belts: the powerlifting belt and the (Olympic) weightlifting belt. We’re going to discuss them now because the type you choose depends on your goals and it will determine things like how you should wear it and what sort of size you’re looking for.
Powerlifting is all about squats, bench and deadlift. These are raw-strength movements that require you getting the most out of your core in very stiff and mechanical movements. You need to keep your core as tight and “locked down” as possible because you deal with max weights.
Powerlifting belts are thick (so you can get thick too). They’re much wider than weightlifting belts and they come in different styles. Some come with a belt buckle (this is more common) but they also come in lever forms which are tighter and can really get the most out of your belt.
Powerlifting belts tend to be more expensive than weightlifting belts – they’re specialised for powerlifting, they’re larger and lever belts are expensive to make. For a custom powerlifting belt, such as a Wahlander, you’re going to be looking at $200+.
Powerlifting belts are a great choice if you’re in the gym to build maximum strength. They’re nice and tight, they’re reliable and we’re pretty sure they’re made from the same stuff as tanks – you’re not going to have to replace them very often!
The downside to a powerlifting belt is that it costs a lot and its probably not going to be a useful investment unless you’re actually interested in powerlifting. Weightlifting belts are equally effective for the general gym-goer so if you’re looking for general fitness or aesthetics, you probably won’t need to splash this much cash!
Olympic Style Belts
Weightlifting belts are the more common sight in the gym. They’re tapered throughout to allow you to reach deeper positions. This is because weightlifters – the Olympic kind – need to squat into incredibly deep positions without the belt impeding their movement. You can’t perform a snatch or clean properly with a powerlifting belt because its so wide.
As a result, weightlifting belts are a lot lighter and more streamlined. They still have the same padded, wider section at the back to support your lower back, but they’re not going to be so large on the torso. They’re also going to be less stiff which means you’re less likely to get bruises on your torso or find your belt “cutting” into you.
Weightlifting belts are also cheaper: even the most expensive off-the-shelf belt is only going to cost around $65-70. You can find this type of belt all over without too much cost. This is another reason why it’s going to be a better choice for the general population.
Are you Missing out Anything with a Weightlifting Belt?
While they’re not as thick as powerlifting belts, you’re probably not going to need this level of compression unless you’re doing actual powerlifting.
The important thing to remember is that Olympic champion weightlifters use this type of belt for their squats. If it’s good enough for these gold-medal athletes, it’s probably good enough for you! In case you still had any doubts, here’s a video of a 180lb man squatting 595lbs in a weightlifting belt:
How to Wear a Weightlifting Belt
In case you hadn’t guessed, you don’t wear a weightlifting belt in the same place you’d wear any other belt. It fastens around the core, not the hips – you need to have the belt at the right position so that you can feel it pressing against your abs and other core muscles during the lifts.
There’s only one place you can wear a powerlifting belt, really: it takes up your whole core. However, a weightlifting belt can be moved up and down on the torso. Usually, you should put the belt over the middle of your core – use your belly button as a guide.
This is only a rough guideline. One good way to adjust this is to put the belt where you need it for back health. If you’re rehabbing a certain part of your back, or you find that you tend to round your back at a certain height, you can place your belt over that area to improve core activation and strengthening.
The rule of thumb is that your belt can go anywhere where it isn’t:
- Reducing your ability to move (especially through the hip or core)
- Pinching your skin
- Restricting your breath or causing serious discomfort
- Being used instead of core activation!
How do I know what Size Weight Lifting Belt I Need?
This depends on what type of belt you’re using. However, both types of belt can be found with their own sizing charts.
Fortunately, both types of belts come with some relatively generous options for holes. This means that you only need a general idea of what your measurements are – there will be holes that fit pretty well and allow you to choose your own tightness. You don’t want to go too tight, but you should feel a small amount of pressure from the belt when you put it on.
Consult with the individual manufacturer’s sizing chart to get a better idea of the size your belt should be. These are almost always available from third-party sellers, so you’re going to have a relatively easy time finding them.
How Tight Should your Weight Lifting Belt Be?
This depends on what you’re looking to do. If you’re just going to be training for health and wellbeing, you should only tighten your belt enough to feel a small amount of resistance while at-rest. You should feel secure when you breathe in and brace.
If you’re using a weightlifting belt, this is basically the best advice. You want to feel some resistance and be able to push into your belt in every direction. This is the point of the belt – it’s just going to keep you safe and prevent any back injury.
With a powerlifting belt, however, you’re going to want a slightly tighter belt. This means that your pressure should be just comfortable when you breathe into it and brace. You shouldn’t experience any shortness of breath or reduced in-breath while wearing your belt. However, you should feel very tight and secure in the belt.
This is because powerlifting belts are designed for maximal loading through this very specific pattern and provide a huge amount of pressure. If you’re wearing one of these belts, it’s because you’re looking for an easier time lifting bigger weights. A borderline-uncomfortable tightness during your lift is the best measure.
This is all about your goals, however, and if you’re using a weight lifting belt to protect your back it only needs to be tight enough that you can feel yourself pushing against it.
One Overlooked Aspect of Belt Sizing
It might sound really obvious, but you need to consider what your fitness goals are before you buy a weight lifting belt. These pieces of kit tend to stick with you for at least a year or so and many last even longer. If you’re on a cut, it’s important to remember that you’re going to be changing weight drastically.
You should take into account how this will affect your belt sizing and your buying choices. If you find that you’re at the last hole on a belt now – and you’re still planning on losing weight – you might want to take the precaution of going a size down.
If you buy too small or too big and your weight changes, you’re going to need to make another purchase. That’s going to be embarrassing and unnecessary: your pride and wallet are both going to take a hit!
What Kind of Belts Are There?
If you do a quick Amazon search for weightlifting belts there are hundreds on the market and there’s not much difference between many models. (In fact, many of them are produced by the same companies and just have different logos on)
This is your quick guide to the type of belts you’re going to see on the market, which ones we approve of, and what you should be looking for. You should have an idea of the main pros and cons, so you know what you’re buying and what to do with your hard-earned money!
Leather Weight Belts
Traditional weightlifting belts are made from leather or faux-leather. The material is perfect as its flexible enough to fit your body and be easy to carry, but stiff enough to provide support without any real risk of breaking.
The obvious benefit to this type of belt is that it’s going to be hardy and last a long time. It’s a great investment because you’re probably going to be using it or the next few years. You’re probably going to grow out of it (or shred out of it) before it breaks.
With this type of belt, the most likely reason it will be retired (other than weight changes) is a problem with the buckle. You can rely on decent quality belts for a long time – Eleiko and Wahlander are the most popular brands for a weightlifting belt and powerlifting belt respectively.
Custom Weight Lifting Belts
If you’re feeling like really investing in your belt, you can even acquire a custom leather belt with personalised designs. If you’re living in the United States, Wallis Weight Belts are providers of outstanding quality custom belts, but other providers are popping up.
The benefits here are going to be aesthetic – you get to express yourself in the gym and show off your character. If you’re going to be shelling out for a high-quality belt anyway, this is a small extra commitment and (if you can afford the mark-up) you’ll love it.
Nylon/Velcro Weight Belts
The alternative to a standard leather belt is a nylon, Velcro-based synthetic fibre belt. These are slightly different in that they don’t rely on a classical buckle approach but are lighter, more mobile and tend to fasten with strong Velcro.
You’re going to see some of these at the top level of competitive weightlifting, but almost none in powerlifting. They’re more often used for general fitness, as they provide gentler support and fewer movement restrictions.
These are great because they provide you with a very personal level of adjustable tightness: Velcro-fastened belts don’t rely on pre-set holes or lever slots. The trade-off is that they’re generally less secure and you won’t get as much support from this type of belt.
Gentle Support Belts/Wraps
You’re going to see these in rehab more than top-level strength sports. They’re gentler and, as the name suggests, they’re used to keep the core and back healthy after surgery or other complications.
One time you will see these belts in use is during “double-belting”. This is when an injured athlete is using a traditional belt over the top of a gentle core support to better-protect themselves. This is a great demonstration of what they do: they provide a basic strength-building tool for rehab.
You should really only be using one of these when you’re dealing with injury-rehab or working on certain posture points. They’re great, but they’re not for everyone all the time – you’re likely to benefit more from a classical weightlifting belt.
Weight Belts for Women
There’s no difference between lifting belts for women and those for men. Everything works exactly the same.
The only real difference you’re going to notice is that you’re probably going to need to account for period-related bloating or tenderness when choosing a belt. You may experience greater waist fluctuations over a month, so giving yourself a little more lee-way with sizing is a good idea.
Otherwise, women’s bodies work in the same way as men’s: women don’t need specially-designed weightlifting belts!
What’s the Best kind of Weight Lifting Belt?
This is the real question that you’re going to be asking yourself after all this. We’ve made it simple, using this easy step-by-step to decide what you need.
Are you injured or rehabbing an injury?
If the answer is yes, you want to look at a gentle support belt. Your main focus should be regaining regular function and spine health/control. This means you’re not going to be lifting heavy weights to start with – all you need is support.
This is going to be a short-term purchase and it’s going to make a difference to your health and long-term spine health.
How will you be training?
This is the key one. If you’re looking for maximum support for heavy compound lifts, you’re looking for a powerlifting belt. It’s going to be useful for squatting and deadlifting like a powerlifter and handling those heavy weights. It’s maximum stability, but also maximum cost and mobility-restriction.
If you’re looking for a balance between support and restriction, the weightlifting belt is the middle ground. It’s tapered approach is far more comfortable and will help with almost anything you want to do that involves heavy weight and using your core.
If you’re relatively casual and won’t be working down to heavy 1-3 rep maximums, or you’re not going to be performing much heavy lifting, a nylon velcro belt might be perfect. These are useful because they’re so personal so probably won’t need to change size and it’s stable enough for everyday use.
How much do you want to spend?
If you’re a big baller and want to really get something “you”, custom belts are great. Wahlander’s powerlifting range are the pre-eminent belt for the sport of raw strength.
Wallis make awesome custom weightlifting leather belts, so if you’re looing to get creative that’s another way that you can put your stamp on your training.
Otherwise, belts are pretty cheap. They can be anywhere from tens to hundreds of dollars, but the point is that you’re probably going to get a lot of use from it and your short-term expenditure means better long-term performance and health.
A great buy!
Weightlifting belts are one of the most popular and effective pieces of kit. They contribute to your safety and wellbeing, but they’re also a good way to improve your performance and strengthen the muscles of the core and lower back.
Don’t be put off by the price tags: they might be a bit pricey but when you spread that cost over the years that you could own them, it’s a great investment. If you buy a $60 weight belt and it lasts you 3 years (pretty conservative), that’s $20 a year for better health and performance. That’s one coffee a month!