When Should I Start Using A Lifting Belt? 3.0
I originally wrote this a few years ago. I decided to revisit the topic to see whether I still had the same conclusions...
I decided to do the same thing and come up with a version 3.0. CK 2020
The Lifting belt.
Some people will wear them for every exercise they do; including bicep curls in the squat rack.
Some will wear them on certain exercises above certain weights.
Others will avoid them like the plague.
Others have no idea lifting belts exist.
Should you use them?
If so; what type is best?
When should you start?
For god sake Chris HOW DO YOU USE THEM!?
People often have questions about whether they improve performance and strength while lifting heavy things. This article will try to answer some of these questions.
Hopefully, this article will go some way towards clearing up the subject.
Who Shouldn’t Wear A Belt?
Women who are pregnant shouldn’t be using a lifting belt.
People with blood pressure related issues or those with injuries exacerbated by high abdominal pressure such as hernias are likely going to make things worse by wearing a lifting belt or going lifting heavy until the issue is fixed.
You shouldn’t wear a belt that negatively affects your range of motion or negatively affects your sports-specific training or performance.
I never like to see people using a belt who have horrendous technique. Adding more weight to this by using a belt is going to fuel the fire about to start between your L4 and L5 vertebrae.
If you aren’t sure whether you have good technique please have a few sessions with a coach to get you into the correct positions.
Types of Belt
The Powerlifting Belt
The best powerlifting belts are equal in width all the way around.
They should be as thick as your competition and comfort levels allow and should have a lever or single/double prong buckle to secure the belt.
Ideally, the belt will be made from top-grain leather which is more durable than the suede versions that are on the market, but this isn't strictly necessary.
Which should you go for?
In most Powerlifting federations 13mm is the maximum thickness you can go for so if you fancy competing later down the line I wouldn't go any thicker than this. I wouldn't go any thinner than 10mm for a powerlifting belt unless you have a specific reason for doing so.
If you are big you are normally much stronger and can therefore 'brace' or 'push against' the belt harder so having the thicker belt normally works better. I've seen bigger guys be able to brace against a 10mm so hard that it folded over. You don't want that happening mid-squat!
Some people find the thinner 10mm style belts more comfortable/ less "OW IT'S BREAKING ME IN HALF."
Most companies understand this and have a good returns policy so if your belt isn't satisfactory you can change it for another one or send it back.
The best advice is to try a belt similar to what you are looking at beforehand and try a few lifts in it to see what you prefer.
The belt needs to fit comfortably throughout all the exercises you will use it for.
For some, especially people who are short or have a short torso struggle with the 4-inch belts often reporting it digging into their ribs and feeling extremely uncomfortable. If you fall into this category I would recommend going for the smaller 3-inch belt as you'll probably find it comfortable and supportive.
Some people find the 3" belt far more comfortable
If you are tall I normally recommend going for the thickest belt you can to offer you the most surface area to brace or push against as you are lifting.
A typical single-prong belt
A typical double-prong belt
Single prong belts are normally superior in useability to a double prong belt as it can be a workout itself to get the second prong in place.
One of my clients got stuck in a double prong belt for 4 hours until his girlfriend got home.
I won't name names due to how hilarious this was. A single-prong all but guarantees you aren't going to be writhing around on the floor trying to escape it.
Some people love a double-prong so if you get the chance give one a go.
I've been stuck in loads of them before and felt like I'd done a 1 rep max to get out of the thing. I don't recommend this for when you have to do high rep sets!
The material is usually between 10-13mm in thickness but check with your federation how thick of a belt you are allowed before spending money!
Lever belts behave similarly to single prong belts. It's very unlikely you will be stuck in one. The lever mechanism increases the cost of the belt, but many people think that is worth it for ease of use.
I've used a Strengthshop lever on various belts and never had a problem with it.
Some of the cheaper lever mechanisms can fall apart quickly. Always check the reviews on a lever belt to make sure you are buying a robust lever.
I had a METAL belt lever mechanism that fell apart with less than 6 months worth of use.
After buying the METAL brand belt, the company was outed as being racist as fuck, so avoid at all costs.
Is a lever belt more effective than a prong belt?
Probably not. But they are becoming more popular than prong belts for a reason and that reason is mostly how easy a lever belt is to get in and out of.
Lever belts (other than the SBD and a couple of others on the market) need taking apart if you need to adjust the tightness, whereas a prong belt works like a clothing belt, you can change the tightness at will.
Eventually, most belts on the market will be adjustable lever belts like the SBD. This will combine adjustability and maximum useability. Once someone other than SBD develops an IPF approved, adjustable lever belt that costs under £80 with reasonable quality, it will take the powerlifting world by storm.
The ‘Rolls Royce’ on the market is the SBD lever belt costing around £165.
Eleiko has gone a step further and has a belt pushing beyond the £200 mark. I've seen it on sale for £285 new. I'm not sure what kind of car costs more than a Rolls Royce, but this much for a belt is hefty.
Here's a review I found for the Eleiko:
So I've run it through it's paces of a "training week" and this is what I'll say about it: So far so good. There's a balance to be ensured between stiffness (and hence support) and comfort and I believe this belt is more in the middle than the stiffness extreme. No more bruising at my lower ribs/lower abs from pinching by an extremely stiff belt; there is no acclimatization period. And yet it is still stiff enough to give proper support. I think that the slight softness of the belt may provide some longevity by allowing it to withstand the stresses of lifting. But I do not really like the white color; it's just asking to be stained. Unfortunately, there is no black option (my favorite color). The strap length beyond the first set of holes is also a little short, making it a little bit harder to slip it into the loop (not needed when performing military presses), but at least the loop isn't too small such that I have to use strength to pull the strap in.
You can find the review HERE.
The SBD seems to feature in every other powerlifter's kit these days and on every site, I looked at it had at least a 4.5/5 rating.
I'd say this is a belt you can trust although I've heard it's difficult to break in, has broken people's ribs, and occasionally pops open during squats (rare.)
Be sure you try before committing to buy!
After 2 years of the SBD belt, it has become clear many people prefer wearing the SBD belt backward during squats and deadlifts as the clip is massive and can limit someone's range of motion.
Budget options include Strength Shop’s IPF approved lever belt which costs around £65
I have one of these myself and I love it.
Many prefer the leather versions but I've never had a problem with the Strength shop option and they offer the 3-inch variation of the same belt which they didn't when I first wrote this article.
As of 2020, Strengthshop has added numerous styles of belts to their store. They are low-cost, reliable, and seen in competitions across the world. They come highly recommended by me.
A pro-tip if you are wishing to compete in a Powerlifting or Strongman competition is to check whether your belt is allowed in your competition.
Usually, your federation will have an ‘approved equipment’ section where you can check what’s allowed and what isn’t!
The IPF’s approved equipment list can be found through the following link HERE.
Vegan-Friendly Powerlifting Belts
Many belts are leather and for vegans, that isn't going to cut it.
According to the website Veganliftz:
"The vegan powerlifting belts from Strength Shop blows all of the competition out of the water.
Constructed out of artificial leather that holds up to the real deal; these are just incredible heavy-duty, durable and have been used for 800+ pounds squats and deadlifts. I don't get a dime from this recommendation, they are simply the best products on the market as of 2018."
You can find the full article HERE.
The bodybuilding belt is wider at the back than the front so offers less support than the powerlifting belts. They are usually double-pronged, single-pronged, or Velcro.
The ‘Rolls Royce’ on the market costs around £25 from various companies but most cost £15-20.
This was the first style of belt I used and never had a problem with them. They are cheap and easy to use.
They work and because you don’t have to worry about competition specifics they are often the best belt to go for if you want a cheap, effective belt you can throw around without worrying.
The time to graduate to a better belt is when the second prong is too difficult to get in or you wish to increase the ‘bracing’ potential during your main lifts or if you’re a hybrid competitor combining powerlifting with bodybuilding for example.
Another time to progress to a more robust belt is if your bracing is too strong and it comes undone or becomes progressively undone through your sets.
Since originally writing this article I've experienced many lifters using a light Velcro belt underneath their weightlifting or powerlifting belt for (to the best of my knowledge) psychological benefit rather than anything relating to the surface area or bracing ability.
If it makes you lift more in a safer fashion I don't have a problem with you using 7 belts on top of each other!
The weightlifting belt has a width of no more than 120mm and is similar to the bodybuilding belt in terms of the support it offers.
They are similar to ‘bodybuilding’ style belts seen in gyms everywhere and are often made of suede with a double or single prong to keep it secure.
They have more surface area at the back with the front of the belt offering the least surface area for you to ‘push’ into.
That’s usually fine. You can still ‘push’ your abdominal wall against the belt and develop a great deal of additional stability.
The ‘Rolls Royce’ of the weightlifting belts is the Eleiko belt costing approximately £44.00
I've since found the belt to be as little as £34.00 so you aren't going to break the bank with the top weightlifting belts.
If you are a Powerlifter use a ‘single prong’ or lever leather or artificial leather powerlifting belt.
If you are a weightlifter use an Eleiko weightlifting belt
If you are a strongman use a ‘single prong’ powerlifting lever belt
If you are a bodybuilder use either a high-quality leather or artificial leather ‘bodybuilding belt’ or a powerlifting belt of your choice
If you are someone training to be as strong as possible use the belt you like the most
For the all-round athlete or someone engaging in multiple strength sport disciplines having a range of belts is normally best
If you are training for a particular sporting event such as a powerlifting competition start wearing competition-specific equipment as soon as possible.
It can take anything up to a few months to years to get the most out of a lifting belt.
You shouldn’t be learning how to use a belt when you are on the platform in front of a crowd!
Why Wear A Belt?
Because most people lift more when they wear a belt.
They improve performance.
As shown HERE.
But they don't reduce the risk of injury at all.
The belt is there to effectively ‘push against’ to increase intra-abdominal pressure around your spine to thus improve stabilisation of the torso and in theory lift more weight.
There is a big placebo effect from feeling like your torso is receiving a tight, leathery cuddle. The feeling of support is huge for performance.
The belt ISN’T there to prevent injury.
The belt is there to increase performance and to increase the feedback around your torso to help to push or brace against the belt.
Increased performance (more weight lifted for the same amount of reps) in the gym is directly correlated with achieving greater muscle growth.
For those wanting to be as strong as possible, the question should be which belt to use rather than if you should use a lifting belt provided there are no factors present making using a belt inherently dangerous.
Using a belt probably doesn’t weaken your core but you should be able to do every movement in your program with or without a belt if you want to be strong in everyday life as well as in the gym.
When you put on a belt for the first time it can instantly cause you to hit PB’s.
Most of the time it takes a couple of sessions or at least a few sets to get used to the belt so don’t worry if your weights don’t suddenly jump up by 50kg.
This is because it is a different kind of breathing when you set up with a belt as opposed to without one; it also feels completely new when you first wear a belt.
I'll use a belt for:
Most squat variations above a certain weight
Most deadlifting variations above a certain weight
Olympic lifts (although they are never in my programs)
Good Morning variations
Bench Press above a certain weight
Strict Military Press variations above a certain weight
Push Press variations above a certain weight
Farmers Walks above a certain weight
Anything using a Strongman Log
When To Start?
The shortest answer I can give to this question is: whenever the hell you want.
For my clients who haven’t taken it upon themselves to start wearing a belt, I have a set of arbitrary numbers that once they reach these I consider them ‘strong enough’ to introduce the lifting belt.
At this point, they’ve clearly made significant gains and have trained consistently for strength and/or muscle and can justify the expense of purchasing one once they reach the numbers below.
My Arbitrary Numbers For Clients:
Squat- x1.5 bodyweight or 120kg
Front Squat- bodyweight or 80-100kg
Deadlift- x2 bodyweight or 140kg
Squat- bodyweight or 60kg
Front Squat- x0.75 bodyweight or 40kg
Deadlift- x1.5 bodyweight or 100kg
Normally the client has to hit one or two of these numbers but this can be subject to change.
For example, if a female client wants to do a powerlifting competition but hasn’t hit any of these numbers that’s fine. As long as she knows the movements and can breathe correctly and brace then I’d be doing her a disservice by not utilising a good belt to make her training as effective as possible.
They aren't hard and fast rules and can depend on body weight and how they feel with a belt on. I've had some people feel like their belt hinders performance so we've taken it away again.
How To Use A Lifting Belt
I place the belt where I feel I can push into it the most which is normally right where my belly button is. Up or down from here is fine but I like for it to feel as if it's in the same place each rep.
Coaches like Sebastian Oreb favor a different belt position. This position is just under the rib cage. I think that's fine. Some experimentation can help you decide on where you want to wear yours.
When you experiment with a different belt position I would encourage you to go lighter than you usually would, allowing some margin for error.
Warming Up To Use A Belt
For squats my beltless sets could look like this:
Add a belt for each working set after this
For each exercise, you'll normally have a weight above which you add a belt.
It takes time to come up with these numbers. There are truly no right or wrong answers to this.
Using A Belt Effectively
Using the squat example again:
As you set up to ‘walkout’ the bar from the squat rack you should ‘breathe into’ the belt. i.e you should imagine you are inflating the area in contact with the belt like a ‘swim ring’ and trying to burst the belt open.
From here you push up into the bar and take a couple of steps to get you into the position where you are ready to squat.
Take another deep breath and inflate into the belt again. Hold this breath throughout the descent through the most difficult part of the lift on the way up and then when you know you are safely towards the top of the rep you can let out that huge breath and repeat the process for as many reps as you need to do.
If you don’t feel like you are pushing against anything when you do this then the belt has too much give or you haven’t fastened it tightly enough.
On the other hand, if the belt is already so tight that you can’t take in a deep breath with a weight on your back then the belt is too tight and your stability will be negatively affected because of the lack of intra-abdominal pressure and reduced surface area of your core caused by the super tight belt.
Your eyes might also explode out of your head.
Like Goldilocks’ porridge; the tightness of the belt should be “juuuuuuuust right!”
Something belt beginners get wrong is wearing the belt THE ENTIRE WORKOUT. This is unnecessary. Put it on just before your set (like 30-60 seconds at most) and take it off straight afterward.
When should you start wearing a lifting belt?
Whenever you like, when you can brace, when you want to compete, or when you hit a set of arbitrary numbers your Personal Trainer or Strength Coach has come up with.
The belt should be made of leather or high-quality artificial leather and should be a single prong or a lever.
Belt choice should be dictated by what you are training for, and wearing a belt will allow you lift more weight or at least make you feel like you can lift more weight.
The belt will probably cost between £15 and £200 depending on the belt you go for and your budget.
People are coming in and out of strength sports all the time, so it's always worth keeping an eye on "equipment for sale" pages to take advantage of anyone wanting to get rid of an expensive belt on the cheap.
You should breathe into the belt as you lift to get the most of it. The belt isn’t there to save you from injury or hold your spine together.
You will probably benefit from using a weights belt if maximum strength and muscle is your goal.
I hope this helps!
If you have any questions relating to this article then please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris is a Personal Trainer, Strength Coach, writer, man of small stature, and reader of The Discworld Series with a decade in the industry.
He trains everyone from beginners to high-level athletes. His favourite clients are people getting into the gym for the first time because they can make the biggest changes in their lives.
You can reach me through the email address email@example.com
My Instagram is @theheavymetalstrengthcoach.
Thank you for reading!