Every small gym or training center has that corner — an isolated, dusty area where forgotten fitness equipment goes. On this island of misfit training toys, you're likely to find a beat-up kettlebell or two, an arbor of resistance bands, barbells of PRs past ... and a mix of worn-in weightlifting belts.
Unlike the Bass Pro truckers or perfectly-cut stringer tanks you'll see, weightlifting belts are not a fitness fashion statement. Rather, they're a great tool for getting the most out of your strength training. After all, there's a reason you see professional strength athletes stepping to the platform wearing these thick straps around their midsection.
But weightlifting belts are a tool, after all, and in order to use them properly, you need to know when and how to reap the benefits. You wouldn't use a hammer to cut a board, would you?
We spoke with professional weightlifter and owner of PFP Barbell Tom Duer to get the backstory on this back-supporting accessory. Here's when, how and why you should add a lifting belt to your list of essential training gear.
What Does a Weightlifting Belt Do?
Lifting belts aren't there to keep your training shorts from falling down. Rather, their purpose is to add rigidity and bracing support for lifts that require a stable core and back. When you squat, deadlift or perform olympic lifts, you want your core to be rigid for stability, so you can successfully move the weight with less risk of injury.
"To put it in as simple of terms as possible, the belt is there for our stomach to press against to help us stabilize our midsection," Duer says. "It's something to push against as we brace ourselves for those big lifts."
A great analogy is to think of yourself as a balloon. During the day, your core is soft and deflated, which is fine when you're not putting a load on your frame. When you brace, you breathe into your core and create a rigid profile — you're now an inflated balloon. There's more structure to the frame and you can more easily support external forces. According to Duer, this rigid frame helps promote a better transfer of force, or, how efficiently you lift the bar.
For example, when you go to complete a deadlift, Duer says, "we want to brace our core before that bar breaks off the ground. That way, we can transfer as much of that force through the floor and into lifting that bar as possible. The less stable we are, the less of that force gets transferred."
Now, think of a weightlifting belt as putting a rubber band around the balloon. This gives the air inside something physical to push off of, increasing pressure and creating a more stable frame.
Wearing a weightlifting belt is not a cure-all for poor technique. If you don't use proper form and breathing techniques, you won't get the benefits of the belt. "I think that's probably the time where you don't want to use a belt, when you are using it as a band-aid," Duer says.
When to Use a Weightlifting Belt
Lifting belts can be a great addition to your fitness get-up, but as with any tool, there's a time and place. For exercises that put a heightened load on your spine — squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, Olympic lifts, etc. — you can definitely benefit from adding a weightlifting belt to your bracing setup.
For movements where you're not loading the spine, like machine exercises, you don't need the extra security. In these situations, the only thing a belt can help support is your ego.
You should also be mindful of your personal abilities and when you need to increase your bracing pressure. If you're just starting out in strength training or your maxes aren't heavy, you'd be better off practicing proper form and bracing techniques without a belt. Save the accessory for when you progress past what your body can naturally handle.
A common occurrence for when a belt comes into play, according to Duer, is when you're lifting close to your one rep max (1RM). "Probably around that 80 percent threshold is where you start to see a lot of people use a belt. But then, it's really going to be a personal preference to the athlete; you're not going to be losing any benefit if you use it at 60 percent [1RM]."
And don't worry about losing your support if you opt to not wear a belt. Remember, the main security and rigidity comes from proper bracing, not the belt itself. You can make plenty of gains and lift plenty of weight without the training tool.
How to Wear a Weightlifting Belt
If you are at the stage in your training where a weightlifting belt could boost performance, you want to make sure you're wearing the gear properly. Weightlifting belts should sit around your midsection, covering your navel. This is an ideal spot for optimal bracing and back support while still remaining comfortable above the hips. To wear a lifting belt, follow these simple steps:
- Take a deep breath in
- Cinch the belt down as tight as you can around your midsection without restricting your airway
- Close the locking mechanism
- Brace by pushing your midsection against the belt interior
- Maintain your brace throughout the lift
You want the belt to be tight, but not so much that it limits your ability to breathe. You should be able to slide your thumb in-between the belt and your stomach, but again, comfort is key. If you’re unable to brace securely, consider going tighter. If the belt digs into your sides or you can’t breathe properly, loosen it by a notch or two.
Best Weightlifting Belts
There are a handful of belt materials to choose from when looking to purchase a lifting belt of your own. For premium support and rigidity, you can't go wrong with a thick leather belt, like Gym Reapers's 7mm Heavy Duty Pro Leather Belt. Leather is a durable, strong material that can provide the perfect surface for building pressure and maintaining your rigid core.
If you want a more flexible weightlifting belt that allows for easier movement, then Duer recommends a nylon belt. This material, like in Harbinger's Foam Core Belt, has a little less rigidity than leather, which can be a welcomed perk, especially in Olympic lifts.
Whether storing one in your gym bag or taking one out of your gym's long-forgotten corner, the weightlifting belt can be a great tool for squeezing that extra zip out of every workout. Breathe in, brace up and take advantage of this worthwhile workout essential.