If you’ve ever gone to a gym where bodybuilders workout, then you’ve probably seen a weightlifting belt in action. Or maybe you’ve at least seen a big, muscled-up guy walking around with a big belt on. I know I have when I first started to work out and I used to wonder if it made any kind of difference.
After some extensive research, it turns out that weightlifting belts aren’t just for gym-bros. There’s a lot of science to back up the benefits of utilizing a weight lifting belt. In this article, I’ll go over some basics about when and how to use a weight lifting belt, the benefits of using one, and how to choose the best weight lifting belt.
What is a lifting belt?
Whether you’ve seen one before or not, weight lifting belts are pretty recognizable despite coming in different shapes, sizes, and materials. Generally, they look like thick, often leather belts with huge metal closure prongs or a lever in the front.
The main purpose of a weight lifting belt is to provide support and increase spinal stability while lifting heavy weight. Some studies have shown that the best weight lifting belts, when worn properly, can also reduce some of the compression of the discs in your spinal column.
Don’t get me wrong though. Even the best weight lifting belt isn’t magical. You have to know how to use them properly.
When worn correctly, weight lifting belts reduce the force on your spine by encouraging more intra-abdominal pressure.
What is intra-abdominal pressure? Great question!
Intra-abdominal pressure happens when you inhale and brace your core, thereby creating stiffness in your trunk. Wearing a weight lifting belt increases that intra-abdominal pressure by giving your abs something to push against, which gives you more leverage to generate greater power and stability.
This translates to a more stable spine, which is what you want when your body is lifting a heavy load.
Weight lifting belts do not reduce the chance of injury. In fact, wearing one improperly can actually increase your risk of injury. They do, however, do the following:
- Encourage spinal stability
- Increase intra-abdominal pressure
- Reduce compression forces on the spine
- Aid in performance (faster lifts, more explosiveness, lift more weight)
Different types of lifting belts
Weight lifting belts vary in shape, style, width, closure method, thickness, and type of material depending on what they’re specifically meant to be used for.
Shape and style
There are 3 different styles of lifting belts: weight lifting belts, powerlifting belts, and a bench or Oly belts.
1. Weight lifting belts
Weight lifting belts are used for Olympic lifting movements, and heavy lifting in Crossfit and bodybuilding. They generally range in width from 4-6 inches in the back, and narrow to about 2.5 inches in the front. This shape is referred to as contoured.
They’re great for heavy deadlifts because the taper in the front prevents them from restricting your positioning and movement pattern, and potentially pinching you during a lift.
2. Powerlifting belts
The powerlifting belts are 4 inches all the way around. The 4-inch width in the front provides more surface area for your abs to push against and create more intra-abdominal pressure during really heavy lifts.
If you aren’t powerlifting, sometimes these belts can get in the way of you getting your body into the correct position. In that case, a smaller or contoured belt may be more appropriate for you.
3. Oly or bench belts
Oly or bench belts are specifically used for bench pressing because they don’t mess with your back arch. These are typically smaller belts for that reason. They are usually 2-3 inches wide. However, some people with smaller frames also like to use these for squats and deadlifts as well, provided the normal weight lifting belts don’t fit properly.
The thickness of the weight lifting belt is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing the right one for you. They generally range in thickness from about 5mm to 13mm thick. While a thinner belt like the 10mm is quite common due to being softer, more comfortable and easier to break in, there are some benefits to getting used to a thicker belt.
A 13mm belt will provide more support and will stay in place better. Plus, the stiffness helps to keep your spine safer. Research shows that the more rigid a belt is, the more intra-abdominal pressure that can be created. They are also more durable, but they can be quite uncomfortable and take some getting used to.
Nonetheless, seasoned lifters often prefer the 10mm belt for comfort and effectiveness. It comes down to your body and personal preference.
Type of material
The 3 main materials used for weight lifting belts are leather, suede, and velcro.
Leather is durable, especially top grain or full grain leather. The best weight lifting belts are made from high-quality leather because of the stiffness they provide. These are also best for powerlifters, as it gives them a rigid base to push their abs against while under heavy loads.
Suede is softer, which tends to be more comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s also less durable. However, suede weight lifting belts are easier to break-in. If you can’t stand to use a rigid, top grain leather weight lifting belt, then this may be a viable option for you.
Velcro belts allow for some extra mobility in your movements. However, due to the reduced rigidity, they don’t provide the same level of stability. They also fail to allow for adequate internal pressure when compared to the support of often heavier leather weight lifting belts.
Some lifters prefer velcro belts because they are lighter and feel that there is plenty of support. Again, this is something that it’s best to experiment with to see what suits your needs.
Closure and fastening types
The best weight lifting belt will have a secure closure that won’t impede your focus while lifting. With that being said, there are 3 types: single prong, double prong, and lever closures.
1. Single Prong
Weight lifting belts with a single prong closure are the most popular for ease of use. They offer the same level of security as double prong belts, and they’re easier to open and close. This comes into play when you’re about to do a lift and want to get your belt situated quickly and smoothly.
The last thing you want is to be standing there losing focus while you’re fighting with your belt.
2. Double Prong
A double prong belt is supposed to offer a more secure fit. But it can be challenging to get that second prong in if your belt is tight like it should be.
Lever closures are nice because once you adjust it to fit you correctly, you’ll get that exact fit each time. It’s simple to use in that you just click the lever into place and go. This type of closure is also a lot faster to put on and remove.
The only drawbacks to lever closures are that they require a little more effort to adjust for proper fit, and you can’t readily change the level of tightness. This could be a hindrance if you’re feeling a little bloated so your waist is bigger than normal. Another time this may not prove convenient is when you’re switching lifts and want to adjust your belt to accommodate the different position.
When and how to use a lifting belt?
Weight lifting belts can significantly reduce the pressure on your spine and contribute to more core stability. This will ultimately enhance your performance by allowing you to lift more weight effectively and safely.
They’re most often used during heavy resistance training, usually by powerlifters and other strength athletes like bodybuilders. If you aren’t particularly concerned with how much weight you can lift then it’s totally fine to lift beltless. Regardless of whether you’re using a weight lifting belt or not, your form and technique should always be a point of focus.
Weight lifting belts are NOT for reducing lower back injuries or supporting sloppy form.
It’s important to note that your weight lifting belt may be considerably uncomfortable at first – that’s normal until you break it in.
You want the belt to fit tightly around your waist while still being able to take in a full breath of air and push your abs against the belt. If it’s too tight your abs won’t be able to exert adequate force against the belt, and you’ll feel the restriction as soon as you try.
The first thing you want to do is put the belt around your waist where your belly button is. You want to position it above your hip bone and under your rib cage. You can adjust it so that it’s slightly above your belly button, or maybe a little below depending on your trunk length, comfort, and personal preference.
Next, you’re going to tighten the belt as much as you can while holding your full breath of air and pushing your abs against it. Then try a bodyweight squat. Get into your squat position and mimic the conditions of an actual squat so you can see how it’ll feel. Pay close attention to if and where the belt shifts to. Take note as this is where you’ll most likely want to wear your belt for squats.
For deadlifts, you may want to loosen the belt a smidge or even wear it a little higher on your trunk due to the bent-over starting position. Play around and see what works best for you before loading up any weight.
How to create intra-abdominal pressure?
Once your belt is fitted properly, it’s time to use it correctly. To put this baby to use you’ve got to put in a little effort. You’ll want to activate the intra-abdominal pressure in your core by taking in a big breath. Then brace (tighten your core) and push your abs against your belt as you execute your lift.
As you tighten your core and press your abs outward against the belt, the internal pressure stiffens your trunk and adds stability to your spine.
Is using a lifting belt considered “cheating”?
There are two main camps when it comes to the validity and effectiveness of weight lifting belts.
On one side there are the people who live and breathe the weight lifting belt life. They’ll tell you that you should always wear one to protect you and reduce your risk of injury. These may also be the people that put their weight lifting belts on as soon as they get to the gym, and then keep it on for every single exercise.Please, don’t be that guy doing chin-ups wearing a weight lifting belt.
The other main school of thought is that weight lifting belts are cheating, absolutely unnecessary and that you’re sacrificing core strength by using the belt as a crutch.
Let me debunk some of the myths and address the controversy surrounding weight lifting belts once and for all.
No, using a weight lifting belt is NOT cheating. You are not sacrificing core strength, but rather increasing the engagement of the abs and lower back musculature by creating intra-abdominal pressure.
Studies show that a weight lifting belt can aid in supporting and stabilizing the trunk during heavy lifts when it’s worn properly. Weight lifting belts are meant to improve your performance by facilitating more force generation.
Research also suggests that when you use a weight lifting belt, the bar speed increases during your lifts. Faster bar speed means you can get more reps before your muscles fatigue. This can lead to better one-rep maxes and more explosive power.
So the main takeaway is that weight lifting belts are great for people who understand and utilize correct form and want to lift heavy loads more safely and effectively. It isn’t cheating and it won’t detract from any gains you’re trying to make. A good weight lifting belt has the potential to increase your gains while also keeping your spine safe.
What to look for when buying a lifting belt?
There are some important factors to consider when choosing the best weight lifting belt for your needs. These factors include, but aren’t limited to:
- Width and shape
- Thickness and stiffness
- Closure method
- Quality of material
Width and shape
A beginner may want to opt for a belt that’s a little less wide than 4 inches when first using a belt. Again, this is dependant on your body type and torso length. Generally, a 4-inch weight lifting belt is the standard that most people lean toward.
To properly create a good amount of intra-abdominal pressure you also want to aim for a belt that’s the same width all the way around. That way you have enough room for your abs to maximally press against the belt.
You also want to be able to get into your lifting positions without the belt pinching you. If it’s causing too much pain it may distract you from focusing on the lift itself. They aren’t meant to be comfortable, but they aren’t meant to be torture devices either.
Thickness and stiffness
A weight lifting belt is supposed to aid your performance and keep your spine safe throughout the movement. So, you want to make sure you choose a thick enough belt to provide enough stiffness to accomplish that. A 10mm belt is rigid enough to provide stability and security without preventing you from moving well.
You should be able to wear a weight lifting belt and still be able to sit deep in your squat, as well as be able to set up your deadlift position appropriately.
A lot of people prefer a single prong closure because it’s quick and easy. People often find that it’s a struggle to get the second prong fastened when using a double prong weight lifting belt. Lever closures are also pretty popular since you don’t have to worry about adjusting them once you get your fit locked in.
Ultimately this will come down to personal preference. A lever closure may be the perfect hassle-free option for you if you’re not going to be switching between big lifts. Often if you switch from a squat to deadlift or vice versa, your belt may need to be adjusted slightly.
However, a single or double prong closure may be your best bet if you want the security of a prong closure and the ability to adjust your belt arbitrarily.
Quality of material
The best weight lifting belts are usually made with top grade leather. Leather belts provide a good amount of stiffness for support and tend to last longer. They are pretty uncomfortable at first, but if you have the patience to break them in they’ll serve you well in your heavy lifts.
Please remember that there is a certain amount of discomfort that is expected. If you find it intolerable, you may want to try a softer weight lifting belt such as one made from suede or nylon.
5 Best weight lifting belts in 2020
Below we put together a list of top 5 weight lifting belts based on a collaborative effort between ourselves and reviews from fitness experts and enthusiasts.
If your goal is to increase performance at the gym and continuously progress while minimizing the risk of injuries, be sure to invest in a good weight lifting belt.
The Dark Iron Fitness weight lifting belt is made from genuine buffalo hide leather. It’s about 5mm thick, which is pretty thin for a leather weight lifting belt. However, it is IPF (International Powerlifting Federation) and USAPL (USA Powerlifting) approved.
This product has a heavy duty double prong buckle to provide extra security. It also has a non-slip fit which can be great to make sure your belt doesn’t shift mid-exercise. The company is so confident in its product that it offers lifetime replacements should your belt have any issues.
This product has a contoured design where the sides narrow to fit naturally around the body. It’s 6 inches in the back, about 3.5 inches on the sides, and 4.5 inches in the front. The wide front is perfect for providing maximum surface area for your abs to push against and create the most stability and support for your heavier lifts.
It’s made with a nylon, cotton and polyester blend with neoprene in the middle, all of which contributes to its lightweight, softer, and flexible feel. This product is 7-12mm thick, with a hook and loop support strap, velcro closure. FireTeam Fit offers a lifetime warranty with free replacements so you don’t have to worry about being without a belt for long should anything happen to it.
The Element26 weight lifting belt was designed by a physical therapist specifically to keep Crossfit athletes safe while improving their performance. Its uniform 4-inch width makes it a great option, as it provides adequate surface area for creating intra-abdominal pressure. It’s specifically approved for use in USAW (USA Weightlifting) and Crossfit competitions, however, powerlifters may also benefit from its use.
It is thinner than 10 mm, a feature that contributes to its lightweight, comfortable wearability. This product is made with a self-locking roller buckle velcro closure. I appreciate the self-locking roller buckle because it adds an extra level of security on top of the velcro to ensure your safety while lifting.
Harbinger offers you the option of choosing between a 4 or 6-inch width, which is great for accommodating larger frames that could benefit from more surface area. The contoured design facilitates a 2-3 inch taper in the front which makes this a great choice for people who want to ensure a proper, comfortable fit while deadlifting.
Made from genuine leather, it’s stiff but also padded with interior foam cushioning for added comfort. It’s also lined with suede, likely to prevent slipping.
Made from oil tanned Nubuck leather, this is a high-quality belt constructed with top grain leather. Its lining is suede, which should provide more grip to prevent it from shifting once tightened. The design includes special stitching that makes it more compact for a better fit.
It’s uniformly 4 inches wide, which is perfect for powerlifting, Crossfit and bodybuilding. Also, it also has a Leclo power lever closure system that makes it easy to quickly put on and take off, while also providing plenty of security. The 10mm thickness is another good feature in that it provides enough stiffness for adequate support while still being comfortable to wear.
RDX will also replace your belt if it malfunctions.