When Should I Start Using A Lifting Belt?
I originally wrote this a few years ago. I decided to revisit the topic to see whether I still had the same conclusions...
Anyway, I hope you learn something new from this article. CK 2018
The Lifting belt.
Some will wear them for every exercise they do at the gym, like every single one; 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 even exist.
Should you use them?
If so; what type is best?
When should you start?
For god sake Chris HOW DO YOU USE THEM!?
And ultimately do they improve performance and strength in the gym?
Hopefully this article will go some way towards clearing up the subject.
This article is aimed at people who are training and aren’t sure about lifting belts!
Who Shouldn’t Wear A Belt?
We should clear this up to begin with so no-one is putting themselves at risk for no reason.
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 very likely going to make things worse by wearing a lifting belt or going heavy as all for that matter until the issue is fixed.
You probably shouldn’t wear a belt that negatively effects your range of motion (makes you squat too high or ruins the bottom of your clean position for example) or negatively effects your sports-specific training or performance.
If the belt doesn’t effect your movement negatively then you are probably good to go with belt usage unless your technique is awful.
I never like to see people using a belt who have horrendous technique. Adding more weight to this by using a belt is just doing to fuel the fire that’s 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 correct 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 even this isn't strictly necessary.
Which should you go for?
In most Powerlifting federations 13mm is the maximum thickness you can go for so just in case 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 much harder so having the thicker belt normally works better. I've seen bigger guys be able to brace against a 10mm that hard that it folded over. You don't want that happening mid-squat!
Some people just find the thinner 10mm style belts more comfortable/ less "OW IT'S BREAKING ME IN HALF."
Most companies understand this and have a very good returns policy so if your belt isn't satisfactory you can just change it for another one or simply send it back.
The best advice is to try on a belt similar to what you are looking at beforehand and try a few lifts in it if possible to see which you prefer but that isn't always possible.
The belt needs to fit comfortably throughout all the exercises you use it for in the gym and 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 very comfortable and supportive.
That being said you might prefer a 4 inch thick belt taking up half your torso and feel super supported.
Unfortunately with belts there are no hard and fast rules for which will be better for someone.
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 to a double prong belt as it can be a workout itself to get the second prong in place. One of my clients actually 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. But you get the point. A single-prong next to guarantees you aren't going to be writhing around on the floor trying to escape the thing and a double-prong means you could get stuck.
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!
As we've said the leather or alternative material is usually between 10-13mm in thickness but check with your federation how thick of a belt you are allowed before spending lot’s of money!
In terms of pure surface area, the powerlifting belt offers the most. So you can brace through 360 degrees of torso more effectively while the bodybuilding and weightlifting belts have a shape offering a bit more movement around the torso.
The ‘Rolls Royce’ on the market is the SBD lever belt costing around £165.
Eleiko have gone a step further and have a belt pushing beyond the £200 mark. I've actually 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.
I haven't actually found a review of the Eleiko belt. Maybe the price tag is too high for everyone!
If you know of a review, please link me up, I'd love to hear about it's performance.
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 very difficult to break in, has broken people's ribs and occasionally pops open during squats (rare.)
Be sure you try before committing to buy!
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 now they even offer the 3 inch variation of the same belt which they didn't when I first wrote this article a few years ago.
A pro-tip if you are wishing to compete in a Powerlifting or Strongman competition is to check whether your belt is actually 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:
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 hold 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.
Double prong belts are usually the biggest hassle as when you are trying to get the belt on as tightly as possible it can be a workout in itself just to get that second prong in place. Not what you want to focus on when you are lifting heavy as we were saying above.
I feel this is one of the reasons that typical ‘gym bro’s’ keep a belt on for an entire workout.
It’s bloody hard to get the second prong in and it’s hard to get the second prong out again!
So it's easier to keep the belt on all the time yes!?
This probably isn't the most beneficial way to use a belt and probably encourages people to use more weight than they should to maintain good form.
The ‘Rolls Royce’ on the market costs around £25 from various companies but most cost £15-20.
When I started lifting this was the belt I started by using.
They definitely work and because you don’t have to worry about competition specifics they are very often the best belt to go for as long as you aren’t competing in a strength sport.
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.
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 surface area or bracing ability.
If it makes you lift more in a safer fashion I don't have a probelm with you using 7 belts on top of each other!
The weightlifting belt has a width of no more than 120mm and is very similar to the bodybuilding belt in terms of the support it offers.
They are very 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 very top weightlifting belts.
If you are a Powerlifter use a ‘single prong’ 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 where you should end up
If you are training for a particular sporting event such as a powerlifting competition then you should start wearing competition specific equipment as soon as possible to get to grips with it.
It can take anything up to a few months to years to get the most out of a lifting belt.
You definitely still shouldn’t be learning how to use a belt when you are on the platform in front of a crowd!
To say this another way it shouldn't feel alien at all to wear your belt on the day of competition.
That being said, there are powerlifting competitions which don’t allow belts. If that’s the case then don’t wear one!
Why Wear A Belt?
Because most people lift more when they wear a belt.
They actually improve performance.
As shown HERE.
But they don't reduce the risk of injury at all. Wearing a belt actually exposes you to injuries that probably wouldn't happen without a belt on.
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.
The belt ISN’T there to prevent injury.
The belt is there to increase performance or at least increase 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.
The only real concern to anyone wanting to be as strong as possible should be which belt to use rather than if you should use a lifting belt provided there are no factors present that would make using a belt dangerous as mentioned above.
You might also not want to use a belt because you aren't a serious lifter and you find using them very uncomfortable.
Using a belt probably doesn’t weaken your core as some suggest but you should definitely be able to do every movement with or without a belt if you want to be strong in every day 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 simply 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 wear them at first.
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 programmes)
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.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that once a client hits the numbers below (natural freak strength not included) it’s time to introduce them to the equipment that will make them A STRONG AND/OR AS MUSCULAR AS POSSIBLE.
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 only has to hit one or two of these numbers but this can be subject to change.
They aren't hard and fast rules and also depend on bodyweight 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.
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 breath 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.
How To Use A Lifting Belt
I place the belt where I feel I can push into it the most which is normally right around where my belly button is. If it’s slightly up or down from here that is usually absolutely fine bui I like for it to feel as if it's in the same place each and every rep.
For squats my beltless sets could look like this:
Add belt for each working set after this
It would work exactly the same for deadlifts or front squats.
Getting the most out of the belt is what we want. The belt shouldn’t just sit there for show.
I’ll use the squat example again:
As you set up to ‘walk out’ 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 do your squat.
Take another deep breath and inflate into the belt again. Hold this breath and pressure 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 actually 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 which we mentioned earlier is wearing the belt THEIR ENTIRE WORKOUT. This is unnecessary. Put it on just before your set (like 30-60 seconds at most) and take it off straight afterwards.
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.
It’s as simple as that. Unless you shouldn’t wear one or don't want to wear one.
The belt probably should be made of leather or high quality artificial leather, should probably be single prong and belt choice should be dictated by what you are training for and wearing a belt will probably 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.
You should breath 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 email@example.com.
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 Chris@kershawstrength.com
My Instagram is Chris_Kershaw_Strength.
Thank you for reading!
Kershaw Strength and Powerlifting Coach