The belt question is one I hear a lot around the gym. The short answer is that if you have no back pain and you don’t do heavy lifts like squats, deadlifts, or bent over rows, then you don’t need a belt and are actually better off not wearing one. If you do heavy back intensive lifts, a belt is a good safety precaution when used properly.
For the long answer, read on…
How do people hurt their back?
When you pick something up or pull on something, the muscles of your core (abdominals and lower back) work to stabilize your spine so that the forces produced by the strong muscles of your legs and hips can be transferred to the object you’re trying to move. If those core muscles are weak, or if you’re lifting/pulling from a bad position, the lower back muscles can strain or tear. Even worse, a weak core will result is stress on the discs that lie in between the vertebrae, potentially causing them to herniate or rupture. That means serious debilitating pain!
How do you avoid back pain?
Number one, you need to have strong core muscles. Work those abs and lower back consistently. The typical crunches, leg raises, and hyperextensions are OK, but even better are exercises that require greater spinal stabilization like planks, squats, deadlifts, and bent over barbell rows. There is no need to go heavy on those barbell exercises for lower back health – just doing them with comfortable weights and good form will go a long way towards strengthening your midsection and keeping your lower back happy and healthy.
Number two, you need good form and posture. This means keeping your spine in a healthy “neutral” position when you’re sitting, standing, and especially when you’re lifting. It means consciously tightening/bracing your core muscles (as if preparing for a punch in the gut) when you lift something heavy. It also means keeping the muscles around your hips and spine flexible so that tight muscles don’t pull you out of alignment. Stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors regularly, especially if you sit at a chair most of the day.
Where does a weightlifting belt fit in?
A lifting belt acts much like a second set of core muscles, wrapping around and stabilizing the spine. That allows a belt to help ease existing back pain and prevent future back injuries. Just don’t use one excessively and start relying on it rather than your core muscles, otherwise it will become a crutch and you’ll put yourself at risk whenever you lift without one. My advice is to only put on a belt as a safety precaution when doing heavy lower back intensive exercises lifts like heavy squats, deadlifts, rows, and strongman type lifts (farmer’s walk, loading odd objects, etc). When you wear it, make sure to push out with your abs against the belt to maximize the pressure and support that it provides. The rest of the time, ditch the belt, and instead focus on building a strong healthy core and good form and posture.
What type of belt to use?
If you do decide to use a lifting belt, there are a wide variety to choose from. Look for one that’s at least 4 inches wide, fits comfortably and puts even pressure around your midsection, and has a firm solid clasping mechanism. For existing minor lower back strains or squatting/deadlifting less than 300 pounds, I’d recommend one of the black fabric belts with Velcro clasp, such as those made by Valeo. They’re comfortable, inexpensive and provide adequate support. For squatting/deadlifting over 300 pounds, I’d recommend a leather powerlifting belt, such as those made by Inzer. My personal favorite is a 10mm thick single prong belt, for its combination of stiffness, flexibility, and ease of use.
Any feedback, questions, or tips of your own, just let me know below.