If you squat or deadlift long enough, at some point you’re going to wonder two things: should I wear gloves and when should I use a belt?
Fortunately, the answer to the former is simple: do whatever you want, but wearing gloves isn’t going to help you any.
To answer the second question, things get a little bit more complicated. To even be able to answer it, we need to define some terms to start with.
Those flimsy belts they sell in supplement stores with nylon straps and plastic buckles actually can be useful in certain cases, but they’re not what we’re talking about here.
Good lifting belts (such as those powerlifters and strongmen use in training and competition) are a way to not only solidify your core, but to also transfer and distribute force around the circumference of your entire core.
Second, it’s really important to define what we’re talking about when we’re discussing the core since even that is up for debate.
When I refer colloquially to the core, I’m referring to all of the muscles and tissue that form a “canister” of pressure in your midsection. Imagine there’s a cylinder from about nipple line down to your pelvic floor all the way around your body.
Some of the more notable muscles in this cylinder include the rectus abdominis (which creates the six-pack appearance), the transverse-abdominis (which is notable for being totally invisible and often neglected in importance), the obliques (on the sides of your body), the erector spinae and latissimus dorsi (on the back of your body), and the basket of muscles with complicated anatomical names that form the pelvic floor.
Instead of thinking about the core in terms of individual muscles, here is what you need to know about the core for the purpose of a strong, healthy, and functional body:
While training your core almost exclusively in terms of a stabilizer (think of things like Paloff Presses and ball roll-outs) is popular these days, it’s also important that the spine moves in 8 distinct directions, everywhere in between, and a healthy body needs to be able to conduct these movements in addition to rigidly stabilizing.
With that part out of the way, we can discuss some of the myths surrounding belts.
Myth: Weight lifting belts replace your abs.
Reality: Belts are useless without a strong set of abs and core muscles. The effect a belt has is additive, not substitutive.
One of the things a belt allows you to do is to use intra-abdominal pressure to actually push out on the belt such that the overall tension around the entirety of the belt is increased.
Myth: Training with a belt will make your core weaker.
Reality: When used properly you will be able to move more weight by using a belt thus creating a greater systemic load and greater training effect which will make you stronger than you would be without the belt.
Myth: You don’t need to know how to use a belt, it just fixes things for you.
Reality: A lifter who doesn’t know how to create pressure without a belt won’t know how to create pressure with a belt and thus won’t get anything out of it. Sure, you can crank it down super tight so that they don’t have much choice, but while it’s a stupid experiment and I’ve never tried it because it’s stupid. I’d wager that a lifter who doesn’t know how to lift without a belt wouldn’t see even a 1% increase with a belt.
Any powerlifter or strongman who is competing in a federation that allows belts (basically all of the powerlifting feds that matter allow belts even in “raw” divisions, and strongman allow the use of belts in most events) should use a belt.
If they allowed you to use straps I’d tell you to do that too because it’s one more thing that is bolstered by the training aid.
If you just want to have the strongest squat and deadlift you possibly can then at some point you should start using a belt. You shouldn’t train all the time with a belt, but use it in cycles.
For example, a non-powerlifter who isn’t on a competition cycle might train eight weeks on with a belt while working up to a new PR, and then eight weeks off without a belt and work up to a non-belted PR.
Fun fact: lifters have a special place in their hearts for No-No-No Squat PRs (no-belt, no-wraps, no-spotter).
I said that at some point you should start using a belt. This implies that at some point you have not used a belt. Opinions vary on this matter but I am going to give you mine which has is informed by my experience and knowledge gathered from others.
Men: Work your way up to a double-bodyweight deadlift and bodyweight and a half squat before you start using a belt.
Women: Work your way up to a bodyweight and a half deadlift and bodyweight squat before you start using a belt.
The reason for this is simple: for the vast majority of lifters, these benchmarks are going to represent a reasonable amount of training age which will have resulted in you creating solid motor patterns for the movements and laid down appropriate tissue for what are by any-normal-person’s standard very heavy lifts. It usually means you know how to create pressure and brace your core.
Is that a heuristic perfect? No, but it’s a close approximation.
If you’re unsure, seek out a good coach and have them take a look at your lifting. If you’re getting hurt all the time that’s a good sign you might NOT know what you’re doing and shouldn’t add a belt to the mix.
At this point, if you are still unsure as to whether or not you should train with a belt you should be able to safely dismiss it from consciousness completely.
If you’re lifting for general health, wellness, and betterness, then putting another ten or fifteen percent on your squat or deadlift max isn’t going to make a difference and probably isn’t worth the increased risk as you get closer to your absolute limits.
I suppose first you’ll need to acquire a belt. Check with the rules and regulations of your favorite powerlifting federation before you purchase, of course. More than likely the Inzer Forever Lever 10mm belt would serve you perfectly. It’s my favorite belt and the one I recommend to all lifters.
Some people prefer prong-style belts, but some people don’t like brownies with ice cream and I honestly don’t know what the fuck is wrong with them, but I’m not going to try to change their minds.
Once you purchase the correct belt in your correct general size range (S-M-L, etc) you’ll want to adjust it so that it fits.
The idea is that it’s tight enough that you can press out against it by pushing out your belly a bit, but not so tight that you can’t take a full breath. This will take some practice, and your belt setting will change if your body composition changes significantly.
Where you will wear your belt height-wise is totally going to come down to personal preference and your own shape.
Generally, it’s going to be somewhere between the bottom of the ribs and the top of your iliac crest.
The main thing is that it shouldn’t interfere with your range of motion, which tends to be more of an issue with deadlifts than squats. If it gets in the way of your deadlift setup, try wearing it just a shade higher. Keep in mind that “belt bite” or bruises right around your iliac crest is pretty normal.
Assuming you are a competent squatter or deadlifter and have reached the above benchmarks, then you hopefully already know how to draw in a belly full of air and then brace “against” that air to pressurize. Using a belt is similar except that instead of bracing against your own cylinder, you’re going to actively push and brace against the belt. It should feel like you’re going to explode from your stomach if the belt suddenly lets go.
Hopefully, it doesn’t!
Here’s an important distinction on how to utilize the belt: don’t just push your belly out like you’re trying to exaggerate your gut. Get tight, brace everything, and then push that out against the additional support of the belt. Maintain this thick, solid, tight braced position throughout the lift.
You do need to know how to use a belt to get something out of it and you’ll get the most out of using a belt if you meet some pre-requisites. If your goal isn’t to get as strong as possible, for whatever reason, you don’t need to ever worry about using a belt.