I’m a belt and suspenders kind of guy- as in, I like to be over prepared for most situations, including my pants falling down. Most CrossFitters seem to be of the same mindset, often wrapping every available joint with wraps, straps, and the focus of today’s WWW- weightlifting belts. While a simple pair of wrist wraps are fairly cheap and innocuous, a (good) belt can run you some serious cash and may or may not be a great choice for you as an athlete. As we do with all gear, it’s worth considering the why and when of using a belt, not just assuming that strapping one on will give you magic powers.
What Are They?
Weightlifting belts vary in material and craftsmanship, but tend to share some broad traits. They are usually somewhat wide, ranging from 2.5 to 5 or more inches in width (really in height from top to bottom). Some belts will be uniform in width while some will taper from a narrower point at the buckle (your belly button) to a wider part at the back (yo spine.)
Belt materials fall into two broad categories- nylon and leather. Nylon belts are generally cheaper, often have some sort of interior backing (usually thin, flexible plastic), and are more flexible and comfortable. Due to their flexibility they are often favored by CrossFitters and Olympic Weightlifters, since they are more comfortable in deep pulling positions (clean/snatch) and other times where you are in deep hip flexion or doing other movements with the belt on.
Belts made of leather or suede are usually thicker in width and rely on the firmness of the natural material to give structure. They tend to be less flexible, especially when new, when they can be really stiff. Due to their strength they are usually preferred by powerlifters, who want as much firmness as possible and are willing to trade some comfort since the belt will only be worn for brief periods- one lift or set, then removed. My favorite company for leather belts is Best Belts, a family run shop in North Carolina that makes high quality custom belts in a variety of widths.
There are some belts that combine nylon and leather. One of my favorites, and the belt I personally own, is from Blitz Belts. Blitz combines a nylon outer chassis with a leather lining, which gives the firmness of leather with the comfort and ease of on/off of a nylon belt. Plus they come in craaaaazy colors.
Belts fasten in a variety of ways. Velcro is the easiest to put on and take off, but runs the risk of not fastening securely and sometimes (GASP) popping off mid-lift. If you’ve even had this happen, it falls somewhere between annoying and terrifying. Buckles are tried and true, tend not to fail or loosen, but can sometimes (especially with new, thick leather belts) be a PITA (not the delicious middle eastern bread) to fasten. Some powerlifting belts will also use a cam system, which work really well but aren’t easily adjustable and are bulky.
Why Should I Use One?
Ask a group of people why they use a belt and you will get a bunch of reasons. People will say they support their backs, make them feel more secure, or my favorite- call them “strap-on abs.” I suspect that many people use belts for the same reason that Nike sells lots of LeBrons- they see elite athletes (or even the best guy or gal at their gym) wearing one, and figure they should too. Once again (this is turning into a chorus, so feel free to say it with me) correlation is not causation. LeBron would school you in a pair of sandals, and Mat Fraser was and is strong even if he used a shoelace as a belt. Too often a belt is suggested when someone has trouble bracing or “keeping their chest up” during a lift. This is missing the point, will make the problem worse, and eventually create a greater likelihood for injury.
What a belt really does is give you some proprioceptive feedback by acting as an external wall for you to push against. For experienced lifters this allows them to take an already well-developed bracing sequence and amplify it by actively pushing against the belt, plus it allows for some degree of feedback during passive movement and bracing. While lifters generally can take their time and make sure they get a full, powerful breath and brace before they lift, in CrossFit there are times when an athlete may be called upon to lift while short of breath or where actively holding one’s breath (a la valsalva technique) may be detrimental to their performance.
For novice weightlifters use of a belt can teach bad habits and cause overreliance on a piece of equipment to create the vital intra-abdominal tension needed for safe and efficient lifting. The joke about strap-on abs cuts both ways- if you can only use your abs with a belt on then you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t work with it off, and I doubt you want that. In the beginning it is highly unlikely that the use/omission of a belt is the limiting factor for your lifts- usually its because you aren’t very good at them yet. Most novices will be better served holding off on a belt until they absolutely need it and get extremely good at bracing and maintaining a stable midline under load.
When Should I Use One?
At the end of the day we are all adults here, so belt use is up to you. Still, there are times when it is more/less appropriate to use a belt.
First, if you have ever spent a significant time in a globo gym (like I have) then you know about the one guy who wears a belt to do everything, from deadlifts to walking up an inclined treadmill backwards. Don’t be that guy. Do not. (If you do, I’d suggest some Zubaz and Otomix to round out the look.)
The first situation where a belt can be appropriate is for heavy lifts. My personal rule is I won’t put a belt on unless I’m doing triples or less at 90% or higher vs my 1RM. Don’t wear them during your warmup sets, practice bracing without it, and don’t wear it for any volume work or anything but the heaviest attempts.
Next, I will sometimes put on a belt during a metcon where I know that a) I will be severely hypoxic (aka out of breath) and b) I will be moving moderate to heavy loads without a chance to rest, catch my breath etc. For those workouts a belt helps me keep my mind on bracing even when I’m out of breath. Also, every once in a long while if my back or midline is especially smoked from earlier training I will wear my belt, but this should be rare occurrence- it’s not really a good habit.
At the end, a belt is like any other piece of gear- a tool for performance. Use it sparingly and make sure you have developed your lifts as far as they can go before you put one on. Don’t use it as a band aid or cover up, or be prepared to pay the price. If you really want strap on abs, I suggest you buy one of these shirts instead.