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Weightlifting Belts: The Accessory of Strength!

No, it’s not cheating – it makes you stronger while preventing injury – so, it actually makes you smarter

WINTER 2018. Okay, I’ll admit. There is a culture of fashion in training. Products and accessories in the gym can really be outstanding, and you might be tempted to spend a couple dollars here or there to make the training experience just a bit more fun and exciting – and, of course, effective. Yes, there are some really cool sneakers out there that we covet, some water bottles we simply must have, leggings that just really make us feel strong (and look good), and I know a lot of us have sock collections that might border on obsession (my Pizza socks are my favorites). And that’s good!  We work hard, so let’s be happy while we’re doing it. Yet the best fashion and accessories in training are actually functional – in fact, they can even put the “fun” in “functional.” 
And sometimes, you come across the accessory that is so functional, you may not know what to make of it at first. Among those most visible, and potentially misunderstood, are weightlifting belts. You may have belonged to some gyms in the past where you’ve seen people walking around in weightlifting belts and wondered what it’s all about; why do people wear them? Why do they wear them all the time? Should I be wearing one? How would I know?
I’m proud that the culture at Punch Is all about doing things right, and using the right tools at the right time, while also creating an atmosphere for creativity.  Consistent with that, let’s talk about the magic and myth of the weightlifting belt in some simple, straight-forward terms.
As you may have noticed (as a student of chiropractic medicine, I hope you have), your body has a spine at your back, but no such structure up front. I, for one, noticed this the first time I went to the beach (Ha! Kidding…).
With this, your back has a rigid spinal structure with muscular surroundings – that’s good. But your front, of course, lacks such a structure. We have a cavity that we all know benefits by being strong for a variety of reasons – and we even call it out “core,” and we work hard to strengthen it.
So, what a belt does, is it allows you to produce a harder muscular contraction from your front against your back. It gives the muscles around the spine something to contract against, since your core muscles push against the belt, which also contains the back at your spine. Essentially, it’s the same principle as the ring that surrounds a wine or whisky barrel, holding all the wood slats in place as a strong unit, where they would otherwise be weak without the rings to offer structure. And when you fill that barrel with wine or whisky – the hoops offer stress that allow the wood slats of the barrel to be even stronger. The hoops (like the belt) allow the stress to be distributed more evenly, rather than distribute the pressure to the weakest point (without a belt, our core becomes our weakest point).
Another way to think of it; if you had to push a car from a standstill, you’d lean in and when pushing, you’d quite possibly lose traction at your feet. However, if you had a structure such as a wall behind you, you could push your feet against the wall, and getting the car moving from a standstill would be a bit easier. That’s kind of what the belt does – it gives you something your unstructured core can push against, thereby increasing your strength.
To be clear, while the properly-used belt offers support, it doesn’t automatically protect your spine just because you put it on. It’s the act of contracting the surrounding musculature and holding the breath in tight that actually protects your back, and since wearing the belt helps with all of that, it can help your body protect your spine.  
The belt doesn’t in and of itself make you any stronger, it simply allows your body to use its strength more efficiently. With the example above, by having a wall behind you when pushing against the car didn’t make you any stronger; it just allowed you to apply your strength more efficiently.
The belt doesn’t act at all. You do.  It doesn’t add strength so you can lift more; but it does allow you to use your strength to lift more.
Picking the right belt is important, and there’s not a “one size fits all” approach. Depending upon the movement, your size, and your build, one or more belts may be right for you.
We’re all built a bit differently, so we all may wear belts a bit differently. Typically, you want the belt to connect at your naval. But, of course, some of us have shorter torsos than others, and some of us lift more than others, and so when you need, how you wear, and which belt is best, is a bit of a trial-and-error approach.

To start, you don’t need to wear a belt all the time – in fact, you may not need one at all. As you may have seen by links I share on Facebook, Mark Rippetoe is a foremost expert I admire, and here are some of his rules of thumb:
  • You want to use a belt when there’s pressure on your spine; not all lifts do this significantly, until you really get into some heavy weights proportional to your body weight, such as:
    • When you approach squatting your body weight
    • When your deadlift is 1.5X your body weight
    • When your shoulder press is .75X your body weight
The belt doesn’t need to be on all the time. You need not wear it at warm up until your last set before hitting your training weight. Even then, you can loosen between sets.
Putting on the belt, as noted earlier, you generally want it buckled at your naval. And it should be tight. Breathing normally, you want to get it as tight as possible as you inhale – but don’t inhale deeper than usual or else the buckle will dig in.
A 4” belt is typical, but there are different sizes for different people and different uses. A deadlift, where you start out loose and then lift is a different move than a back squat, where before you move you’re already loaded up with weight. For each of these moves, you may need a different belt; and you may need to adjust the belt if it’s digging in too hard, or move it up/down a bit depending upon how your back arches higher or lower on your body.
As well, there are leather belts, nylon, with metal buckles and Velcro – many choices.
First, please don’t be shy. Speak with Mike or me (Stef) before buying a belt. There are many considerations, and watching you lift can help us steer you in the right direction. Plus, we have a couple to share in the Power Room you may want to experiment with before committing to a purchase. A good belt could cost $50 - $100 (or more), so let’s make sure you get one that will last you a lifetime, and that won’t fail on you in the middle of a lift which could cause injury.
In general, some good belts for women include: And for men: But, again, let’s discuss before you purchase.
When the time is right, a weightlifting belt is a great accessory for improving strength. It’s not a crutch, but rather a tool. Like all tools, it only functions well when it’s the right size and used properly, so if you’re thinking about using a belt, talk to us – our goal is to help you get stronger every day, and so we’ll make sure you pick the right tool to get the job done.
And, if you need advice on picking out some cool kicks or socks, we’re also ready to help.