Weight lifting belts are a divisive subject in the fitness community.
Some guys swear by weight lifting belts, claiming that you’d be an absolute fool to do heavy deadlifts or squats without one.
Other guys think that they are entirely unnecessary – or, worse, unsafe – and will tell you that you’re way better off lifting without one.
And with such strong opinions on both sides of the issue, it can be hard to figure out what the truth is.
Are weight lifting belts actually effective and safe?
What’s more, should the average gym goer run out and buy one?
To help answer these questions, this article will offer an in-depth look at the weight lifting belt – the pros and cons of using one, how to use it effectively, and which brands I’d recommend going with if you choose to buy one.
What Are Weight Lifting Belts?
Contrary to popular belief, weight lifting belts aren’t some kind of back brace to protect your lower back.
So when you see a guy using a weight lifting belt on every exercise of his workout – including many isolation exercises – he is probably using it wrong.
There are many reasons for wearing a weight lifting belt, but obviously the biggest drive for its advocates is that it allows them to lift more weight.
Weight lifting belts are an accepted part of natural powerlifting, and if you wear one you are still considered to be lifting ‘raw’.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a competitive powerlifter who didn’t use a weight lifting belt, but the question here is whether or not they are suitable for regular, non-competitive lifters as well.
The Pros Of Using A Weight Lifting Belt
Let’s first run through some of the potential advantages of using a weight lifting belt for certain exercises.
Increases Intra-Abdominal Pressure
This is the primary benefit of wearing a weight lifting belt.
As I’ve discussed before, when you’re doing any core-intensive exercise – like a squat or a deadlift – maintaining sufficient intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) is incredibly important. This is what will help to keep your core rock solid (and safe) when you are lifting heavy weights.
When you do one of these exercises without a belt, you should still be breathing in and tensing your abs to increase intra-abdominal pressure; however, the amount of IAP is significantly increased by having a belt to press your abs firmly against.
Reduces Lower Back Strain And Likelihood Of Injury
I know that I’ve said before that a weight lifting belt isn’t a back brace, and shouldn’t be worn as one, but if you are using your belt properly it can help to reduce lower back strain during heavy compound exercises.
This is directly tied to the above point about intra-abdominal pressure. You see, if you are maintaining a high level of IAP, and thus keeping your core strong and tight, then you’ll end up putting far less strain on your lower back, reducing the chance that you’ll hurt it.
Serves As A Reminder To Lift With Proper Form
We all know that we should pay attention to form when lifting heavy weights, but that can be easier said than done sometimes.
There can be a lot of little points or cues to remember, especially for multi-joint, compound exercises.
I find that wearing a weight lifting belt can help with this when doing squats or deadlifts, since the tactile feedback from the belt will remind you to really press out with your abs when preparing to do each rep.
Allows You To Lift More Weight
Then, of course, there is the big benefit of using a weight belt: it allows you to lift more weight than you would be able to without one.
In fact, on average, most guys are able to lift 10-15% more instantly on certain exercises just by wearing a belt and using it properly!
All things being equal, this will translate into faster progress, allowing you to get bigger and stronger more quickly than you would just lifting beltless.
The Cons Of Using A Weight Lifting Belt
Now that we’ve been over the positives of lifting with a belt, let’s take a look at the other side of the argument.
Increases Blood Pressure
Lifting heavy weight is all well and good, but not at the expense of your overall health.
If you have high blood pressure, or suffer from other heart-related conditions, then you should be wary of using a weight lifting belt.
Studies have shown that wearing weight lifting belts can cause a spike in blood pressure, although notably only in diastolic, not systolic pressure.
To be clear, though, this only amounts to a temporary increase in blood pressure, which will return to normal after you finish using the belt.
Gives You A False Sense Of Security
A weight lifting belt can definitely give you an increased feeling of confidence.
You’re standing there with a big, bad ass belt strapped around your waist, so it’s easy to feel like a superhero ready to perform mighty feats of strength.
Sadly, you are not a superhero, even with the belt. This means that if you get overconfident, and try to lift more weight than you can actually lift safely, you will end up hurting yourself.
Limits Lower Back Development
Many people say that wearing a belt limits lower back development; however, I personally don’t find this to be true, and neither do the studies that have been done on this.
This comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use a weight lifting belt. Again, it is not a back brace, and your lower back still needs to be sufficiently strong to lift heavy weights – with or without a belt.
Trust me, if you gradually work up to squatting and deadlifting 400+ lbs with good form using a belt, you will not have a weak lower back. I can promise you that much.
Should You Use A Weight Lifting Belt?
It really depends a lot on your situation and specific goals; there is truly no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
The truth is that using a weight belt will allow you to generate a greater amount of intra-abdominal pressure, which will in turn help to maintain core stability, and ultimately allow you to lift more weight.
For years, though, I just didn’t like the idea of using a belt, and wanted all of my exercises to be done completely raw.
But, really, my bigger concern was somehow becoming reliant on the belt, and being unable to lift without it.
I’d use one on occasion, but it was never something that I did regularly.
However, after a friend of mine finally convinced me to give the belt a fair try, I would now say that I greatly prefer using the belt.
Exercises like deadlifts and squats feel more secure, and I pay more attention to setup cues like properly blocking my core as a result of the tactile feedback of the belt.
What’s more, since using a belt my lifting numbers have increased considerably – both belted AND unbelted – so I definitely haven’t experienced any of the lower back or core weakening that a lot of people tend to worry about.
Now, all of that being said, a weight lifting belt isn’t suitable for everyone.
In my opinion, you should only wear a weight lifting belt in these 3 situations:
- You have a pre-existing lower back injury that you don’t want to aggravate.
- You are lifting at 80-85%+ of your one rep max.
- You are lifting a certain amount of weight – I’d say at least 315 lbs for deadlifts and 275 lbs for squats.
I’d also suggest that even if you do use a weight lifting belt, not using it for all of your sets if they aren’t as heavy.
This includes your warm-up sets, which I personally prefer to do without a weight belt.
How To Wear A Weight Lifting Belt
There are 2 main considerations when it comes to wearing a weight belt: how tight to wear the belt and where on your waist to position it.
Let’s quickly go through both of these factors to ensure that you’re using your weight lifting belt properly.
How Tight Should Your Weight Lifting Belt Be?
It should be pretty tight, but not so tight that you can’t breath, that it restricts your setup or range of motion, or that it makes you feel like you might pass out during a set!
Some guys tend to suck in excessively, or use the rack to try to tighten the belt, but this often results in the belt being too tight.
Alternatively, if the belt isn’t tight enough, then it can slip during the exercise, not effectively provide a feedback mechanism for your abs, or allow you to generate sufficient intra-abdominal pressure.
I personally like to have my weight lifting belt tight enough that I can just barely stick my fingers between the belt and my abdomen.
Where Should You Position Your Weight Lifting Belt?
This can vary somewhat based on the specific exercise, the width of the belt, and the length of your torso.
In general, though, you want to have the belt positioned where you can generate the most force against it using your abs.
For squats, I like to have the belt centered across my belly button, whereas for deadlifts I like it to sit slightly higher – between my belly button and my rib cage – since that is more comfortable while setting up.
Also, guys with longer torsos may find it more comfortable to wear the belt higher up than guys with shorter torsos.
Again, this part is largely personal, so just experiment with the position that you feel balances comfort and your ability to generate maximal force with your abs.
Which Weight Lifting Belt Should You Buy?
There are lots of different weight lifting belts on the market – and, as you might expect, some of them are great, some of them are OK, and some of them are utter crap.
In general, the things that you want to look for when buying a weight lifting belt are:
- Material (leather vs nylon)
- Width (4 inch vs 6 inch)
- Fastening mechanism (prongs, lever, velcro)
- Overall build quality (thickness, quality of materials, etc)
First of all, I would generally suggest that you avoid nylon weight lifting belts.
They aren’t going to give you as much to press into with your abs, compared to leather belts, and you also run the risk of the velco ripping open mid-set if you’re putting it under too much pressure.
If you’re looking for an affordable, beginner lifting belt, I’d recommend going with the Valeo 4-Inch Padded Leather Belt, which you can order from Amazon here for about $20.
This is just a basic leather belt with 2 prongs; nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.
It’s also pretty comfortable, you don’t have to spend much time breaking it in, and it’s easy to put on and take off between sets.
On the downside, the leather definitely isn’t of the highest quality, and if you use it a lot you can expect the leather to wear through and need more frequent replacing.
Now if you’re willing to spend a little more money, and want the absolute best, most awesome weight lifting belt, then you should get the Izner Forever Lever Belt.
In fact, this is the belt that many of the best powerlifters in the world use.
The build quality is fantastic, it is the same thickness all around, and the lever makes it very easy to close, tighten, and then quickly loosen after a set when you’re resting.
Many guys have reported using this belt for years, even decades, without it breaking or needing to be replaced.
There are 10mm and 13mm versions of the Forever Belt, but I would recommend going with the 10mm, unless you’re a competitive powerlifter. It is easier to break in, more comfortable, and is perfectly sufficient even if you’re lifting very heavy weights.
Unfortunately, Inzer only ever keeps the black color in stock, so if you want any other color you’ll have to wait a month for it to be custom made for you.
The Bottom Line On Weight Lifting Belts
As you can see, as far as weight lifting belts are concerned, whether you wear one or not is ultimately a matter of personal preference.
Still, if you are an intermediate weight lifter or above, and have already mastered the form for exercises like the squat and deadlift beltless, then I’d suggest at least trying out a weight lifting belt and seeing how it feels.
I can pretty much guarantee you’ll lift more weight using one, so give it a shot for a few of your workouts and let me know what you think.
Do you use a weight lifting belt? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.