Article written by Matt Mills
There has been a lot of talk recently on the internet about what really is raw, and does a lift really “count” if you use any gear. I’m not here to get into any of that, as it has been covered already, and in case you haven’t seen it, check out Brandon’s article on this subject here first. I will start by saying, wearing a belt is a performance enhancer, and for some it is a necessity to perform certain movements pain-free. Your core should be strong enough by itself to support yourself through the main lifts, injuries aside. If you choose not to wear a belt, AND are not a competitor, then you are going to be perfectly fine without one. However, if you want to push the maximum amount of weights, then you will need to use a belt, and to use it the right way.
I have noticed that most people, and even competitors, don’t know how to use a belt properly. The cheap belts you get in the sporting goods stores are not the way to go. Most of these belts are smaller in the front and wider in the back. Ideally, you want a belt that is wider all around, because the pressure you create from the belt does not come from your back, but from your abdominals. Personally I like to have my belt right over my belly button, because that is where I am able to push out the hardest. In case you have trouble choosing a belt, check out Alanna’s tutorial here:
To push out against the belt, you must learn how to breathe correctly called the Valsalva Maneuver. As you are reading this take a deep breath in, but do not let your chest rise at all. Breathe deeply, and let your belly fill with air (I know not the most attractive look). If you have trouble doing this, lie on the floor, place your hand on your abdominals, and practice making your hand rise. I have known some powerlifters to actually stand on each other to practice this as it is that important. Once you have this down, try to exhale but keep your throat closed to create pressure. Whether you choose to wear a belt or not, this is how you want to breathe while lifting. Now put your belt on and try this technique. If you do it correctly you should feel an incredible amount of pressure. This intra-abdominal pressure will help keep you back flat and arched. Your belt should be tight, but how tight is up to you. Personally I like to have mine with some room, mainly because I am able to expand my midsection to a great degree. For some competitors I know it takes another person just to tighten up for them before going into a big event to get it as tight as possible.
Now that we know how to use a belt correctly, let’s go over when you should use it. For the big lifts, you should always wear a belt when you are going for a max attempt. Squats and Deadlifts should go without question here, but you should never rely on wearing your belt. There is an old argument that all you need for abdominal training is heavy squats, and deadlifts, but with a belt it does take your abdominals out slightly. For this reason you should not wear a belt until you need it. All of your warm-ups should be done beltless, but still practice breathing correctly even without a belt. When you reach near a maximum lift, that is when you want to put the belt on to move more weight. Again, I have to be clear that you can safely lift without a belt, and be strong.
At what point you will need a belt will depend on when you are going for a maximum lift. The rep range can really be anything from a one rep max to 10 (I very rarely go over 10 reps for my main lifts). However if I am in a contest where I know I will get 10+ and even 20+ then I will definitely wear a belt as it will help keep you in better form. This rule will go for any event in strongman. A heavy yoke or farmer walk you will absolutely need a belt, especially in a contest. Again on my warm-ups I will go as long as I can without a belt to engage my core as much as possible. Once I feel my form would break down on a heavier set, then it’s time for a belt.
If you have an injury, this will change things as to when you will put your belt on. Recently a new member joined my gym, and has been having a nagging back pain when she squats and deadlifts. Her form was solid, so I suggested trying a belt. After teaching her the correct way to use it she was able to squat and deadlift with no pain at all. Now in her case I would say it is totally fine to wear a belt much earlier in her sets then someone who has no issues. If she is able to lift pain-free with a belt then I’m not going to argue with it.
When it comes to accessory work, I will rarely wear a belt for the same reasons you shouldn’t wear one on your warm-ups of your main lifts. For example, yesterday after my main sets of back squats I went to paused squats where I went without a belt. For that specific day I wasn’t going incredibly heavy so I knew I could handle the weight without a belt.
Another example would be working up to a heavy 50 feet in the farmer’s walks. Now to move the maximum amount of weight you would put a belt on to do so. After you establish that weight, at let’s say 300lbs, I like to perform speeds sets at a lighter weight at roughly 65%. With 200lbs in each hand I would then do 5 sets with a one minute rest. Because the load is so light I would not be wearing a belt for all 5 sets to engage my core as much as possible.
On a side note, just please don’t be that guy that does preacher curls with a belt on, you might as well be wearing matching gloves.
Just to review, here is what you need to know:
Get a high quality belt because it does make a huge difference
Learn how to breathe properly and push out on the belt to create intra-abdominal pressure
Use a belt only when you need it, and if you are a competitor always use a belt in competition.
When it comes to accessory work do not use a belt.