Weightlifting Belts: A Guide to Choosing and Using

Introduction

One of the first pieces of equipment a trainee will want to consider is a weightlifting belt.  I recently bought a new one (more on that later), so I thought this would be a good time to write about this topic.

The “Weaken Your Abs” Myth:

Some believe wearing a belt weakens your abdominal muscles.  This is not true–a belt gives your abs something to push against, so they are very much involved in a belted lift.  I would, however, advise you to only wear a belt during: squats, deadlifts, and military/overhead press.  Putting one on as soon as you walk in the gym is counterproductive.

Let me add something else here: I would also advise you to train “beltless” for your first few months.  Just work on your form and start building your foundation before using any equipment.  After that you may want to consider using one (more on how to use it later).

Why Use a Belt?

As I’ve mentioned, wearing a weightlifting belt while training gives your abs something to push against, which raises your intra-abdominal pressure during the lift.  This increased pressure adds stiffness to your trunk and gives you more stability.1 There’s also some evidence to suggest a belt can reduce compression on your spine when used properly (when you inhale in order to push your abs against it).2

Here’s the bottom line: most people find they can lift more with a belt than without.  All things being equal, pushing or pulling more weight will accelerate your gains in size and strength.

There are two more benefits I’ll mention before moving on:

Awareness:  having a belt on may help you be more aware of your posture and body positioning while training.  This is kind of hard to explain, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you experience it–you simply have a better “feel” for your stance, position, etc.

Back Warmth: I like to wear a lose belt even during my warm-up sets for the squat and deadlift.  It helps get my back warmed up (and keeps it that way).

Types of Belts and Buckles

Width

Weightlifting-Belt1
Not the style I recommend.

Start training in a typical gym and chances are you’ll see a belt that looks something like this: wide in the back and narrow in the front.  This is a very common style, but it’s not what I would recommend if you are wanting to get the maximum benefit.  I would encourage you to invest your money in a powerlifting style belt–one that is a uniform 4-inch width all the way around (you’ll see pictures of this style below).  Remember something I said earlier: a belt gives your abs something to push against.  A powerlifting belt is perfect for this purpose.

Thickness

You’ll see two thicknesses available if you start shopping around: 13 mm and 10 mm.  The thicker (13 mm) belts are going to be stiffer and take longer to break in.  Most lifters (including yours truly) go with the thinner 10 mm belts–13 mm is overkill for the needs of most trainees.

Buckles

Now let’s talk about the most commonly available types of buckles: lever, single prong, and double prong.

Lever Belts

Lever Belt
Lever Belt

Pictured here is the first powerlifting belt I ever owned, and as you can see, it a lever belt. I bought this one almost twenty years ago and it’s still holding up nicely (the site I bought it from no longer exists).

The biggest advantage of a lever belt is the quickness with which you can tighten and loosen it.  One quick motion and you’re either ready to lift or ready to rest after your set.

The biggest disadvantage of a lever belt is the fact that you need a screwdriver to adjust it.  This may not be a big deal, but it’s something to consider.

One more thing: I’ve heard people expressing concern over the lever breaking (due to metal fatigue, etc.), but I’ve never had this problem. You could always buy a replacement if this happened.

Single-Prong Belts

Single Prong Belt
Single Prong Belt

I recently ordered this single prong belt from bestbelts.net, and so far I’m really happy with it.

The advantage of a single-prong buckle is the relative ease with which you can adjust the waist size.  Right now, for example, I’m at my “winter weight”–about ten pounds heavier than I usually am during warmer months.  I can just pull the belt a little tighter as I get leaner.

There may be times that you need to adjust the belt tightness more frequently than seasonal weight differences.  You may, for example, want to experiment with what feels right for a particular lift or even a particular day.  This is what I’m enjoying about a single prong belt.

Needless to say, the disadvantage of a prong belt is that it’s a little more difficult to tighten or loosen it (compared to a lever belt).  But so far this hasn’t been a big deal at all for me.

Double-Prong Belts

Two prongs theoretically increase stability and add to the life of the belt (since the stress is distributed over two holes).  But the extra prong makes these belts more difficult to use/adjust, and I doubt it it is worth the extra hassle for most trainees.  But if you if you just have to look like “the Wolverine” when you train . . .

HT_hugh_jackman_working_out_weight_lifting_thg_130802_16x9_992

Using a Belt

As I mentioned earlier, I would recommend you only use a belt for lifts that put compression of the spine: squats (including front squats), deadlifts, and overhead/military press.

How heavy should you go before putting it on?  There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this, and you can experiment and see what works for you.  I usually put mine on loosely even for warm-up and lighter sets on the before-mentioned exercises.  This doesn’t give any real support, but it does help get my back warmed up.  I wait and tighten it up for heavier sets.  As a general rule, for example, I tighten up my belt when squatting over 300 lb (maybe a little heavier for deadlift).

The tightness and positioning of your belt is something you’ll also need to experiment with.  I’d recommend you tighten your belt snugly, but not so much that you can’t inhale and brace hard against it with your abs.   I tend to wear mine a little lower on my waist for squats and a little higher for deadlifts (a subtle difference, but one I can feel when training).

Final Thoughts:

A solid powerlifting belt is a great investment.  It will help you lift heavier weights and should last for years (if not decades).  Hopeful this article has helped those who are thinking about buying and using one.

References:

1. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1999 Feb;14(2):79-87. Effects of abdominal belts on intraabdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles.

2. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2006 Oct 15;31(22):E833-9. Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting.

High Rep Training

I’ll start this post off with a video I first saw years ago.  Here is the legendary Tom Platz doing high repetition squats with heavy weight (well over 500 lb).  This video was filmed back in 1993.  Tom Platz and Dr. Fred Hatfield (aka “Dr Squat) were doing a “squat off” in Germany.  Hatfield won the one-rep max competition by squatting 855 lb.  Platz won the rep competition with the weight you see here:

A while back I wrote an article on the best rep range for building muscle and burning fat.  I basically argued that a 5-10 rep range is going to be ideal for both of these goals.  I still believe that–most of your gains will probably come from this range.

But more advanced and older trainees may want to consider experimenting with higher repetitions (let’s say 15 and up).  There are some good reason to do so:

Leg Traininghighreptrainingplatz2

I’ve heard several bodybuilders say they had better leg growth from training with higher repetitions.  This makes sense because the quadriceps in particular tend to have a high number of both fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers.  You’ve just seen what Platz was capable of in his prime–his legendary thighs were built with both heavy lifting and high reps.

Joint Health

High rep training has the advantage of being able to stimulate the muscles with less strain on the joints.  Older trainees in particular may find this to be very helpful.  But even younger guys can benefit from simply giving the joints a break.

Lactic Acid

Training with higher reps will produce more lactic acid, which in turn tends to produce growth hormone (a helpful hormone for burning fat).

Mental Toughness

I’ve found that training beyond my usual rep range also helps me learn to push beyond the pain barrier and force my body to keep going when my muscles are screaming to stop.

Variety in Training

Going to the gym can get kind of boring if you do the same thing week after week.  Dropping the weight and going for higher repetitions is a simple way to challenge yourself and keep things interesting.

Research

Some recent studies indicate that training with high repetitions is an effective way to build muscle.  One study, for example, took fifteen healthy young men and randomly assigned them to different workouts, measuring their bodies’ responses to different training stimuli: 1.  One set to failure with 80% of one-rep max (1RM)  2.  Three sets to failure with 80% of 1RM, and 3.  Three sets to failure with 30% of 1RM.  Needless to say the third workout tended to be much higher in repetitions (20-23).   They found that lower weights/high reps produced a similar anabolic response to lifting with heavier weight and low reps.1 This is just one of many studies you can find verifying the efficacy of this kind of training.   Bottom line: training heavy is not the only way to build muscle.

These are just reasons to consider incorporating higher reps into your workout.  Now let me give you some practical tips (in no particular order of importance):

Exercise Selection:  I think you’ll find some exercises simply aren’t good choices for high reps.  I love deadlifting, but I rarely go over 5 repetitions for that particular exercise.  My form simply starts to break down if I try to go beyond that.  The same goes for front squats.

I tend to be old-school and prefer free weight exercises, but it may be advantageous to consider machines with this kind of training–especially if you are working out without a spotter.

Time Under Tension:  Using less weight will mean you can lift more slowly and deliberately.  Take advantage of this and maximize the time your muscles are under the tension of the weight.

“Burnout” Set:  One of my favorite techniques is to finish my training with one or two sets of high reps after I’ve done some heavier sets.

I hope you find these tips helpful.  Try them and see if they don’t produce new gains.  Please check out my list of recommended workout programs if you’d like more detailed training guides.

1. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2012 Jul;113(1):71-7. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00307.2012. Epub 2012 Apr 19. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men.

Seated Leg Press

Next to squats, the leg press is probably my favorite exercise for working the thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings).  This exercise gets a lot of criticism from purists, but it is a legitimate, compound movement for building size and strength in your legs.

I learned one of my favorite variations of this exercise from none other than legendary powerlifter Ed Coan (so much for that theory of leg press only being used by weak wannabes).   He mentioned single-legged presses (using only one leg at a time) as a useful assistance lift in one of his videos.  According to the video, he got the idea from watching an amputee train.

Just keep this in mind: leg press can be really hard on your lower back, especially if done improperly. Remember this before you try to load up every plate in the gym.

I usually see two mistakes in the gym when it comes to this exercise:

*Not going deep enough with the reps. This is the main mistake I see–guys loading up the bar and doing “fourth reps.” If you are going to do the exercise, go ahead and go parallel. Check your ego at the door and do it right.

*Going too deep with reps. I mentioned that leg press can be hard on your lower back. If you go beyond parallel your rear end will naturally start to come up off the seat. This puts you at great risk for injuring the discs in your lower back.  90 degrees is enough–don’t try to bring your knees to your chest.

You can experiment with different foot placements for variety.  Placing your feet higher on the platform will put more emphasis on the hamstring and glutes.  A lower foot placement will tend to emphasize the quadriceps.

I mentioned that I usually do squats (or a variation such as front squats) then follow it up with leg pressing.  Here’s why I like training this way: I find that my back often gets worn out before my legs with squats (especially standard barbell squats).  Leg press allows me to keep safely training legs even when my back is fatigued.