Weightlifting belts are a fairly common accessory used in the gym. The most common theory is that wearing a weightlifting belt will give extra support for the lower back, and is useful for people suffering lower back pain. After all, it’s a belt that is placed tight around the lower back, it MUST give it some support. Well, kind of. The proper use of a weightlifting belt does have an effect on lower back stability, that’s true, but it isn’t as simple as just slapping on a belt and instantly gaining stability.
To understand the proper use of this type of accessory, first you need to understand the role of the core when it comes to resistance training, and the concept of abdominal bracing, and something called Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP). When referring to the core, we are referring to more than just the muscles of the abdominals. We are referring to the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominus, obliques, multifidi, erector spinae, the pelvic floor and finally the diaphragm. When these muscles are all contracted together it creates a stiffness of the muscles around the spine, which helps us create IAP. IAP is extremely important when lifting heavy weights as it assists in supporting the lower back to maintain a neutral spine during exercise. This is where weightlifting belts come in to assist us in creating IAP.
It has been shown that belts do provide additional stability for the lower back through greater core activation. The amount of activation has been shown to increase IAP by about 20 – 40%, which is a huge increase. However, it takes more than just strapping on a belt and performing some squats. It is the physical act of breathing out, contracting all the muscles of the core and bracing against the belt that has been shown to increase IAP. This technique is much more advanced than your basic gym program, and is typically used for lifting heavy loads using free weights.
So, should you use a weightlifting belt in the gym? Well, maybe. If you have a goal of developing maximal strength for a competition (powerlifting, weightlifting or CrossFit) then definitely. Even with that specific goal in mind, a weightlifting belt is not going to be required for every exercise. For big, compound lifts or any exercise that requires a lot of IAP to stabilize the spine (squat, deadlift etc.) it can add a lot of IAP and improve your performance. If you get a sore back during or after lifting weight, then absolutely not, but a visit to an allied health professional may be a good idea to determine the source of the pain. A weightlifting belt should not be used to Band-Aid over poor technique, or an inability to brace the core. For the majority of the gym going population, they will not need to use a weightlifting belt to get great results.