I wrote this article for GirlsGoneStrong.com and it can be found here.
“Weight belts are for the weak.” That’s the purist and opinionated view I had developed over my four-year powerlifting journey.
My first coach, Ryan, a colleague personal trainer, taught me powerlifting when I was a 43-year old newbie (I am now 47). Now, Ryan didn’t tell me that belts were for the weak — he simply taught me how to deadlift conventionally with two hands over the bar, how to engage my lats and focus on pressing the floor away to stand up, and how to hold a bar and to use hip drive to rise when performing a low bar squat.
We never discussed belts. I was simply on a linear progression of increasing weight to my weekly squats. I figured the more I could squat and deadlift with my unequipped self, the stronger I would become.
After a year working with Ryan, I continued to train on my own. I squatted three times a week following the Starting Strength program. I believed in the fundamental tenets that being able to deadlift conventionally, and squat unequipped, would get me the strength gains I chased.
Sure, I would notice belts on guys at the gym. I also eyed belted lifters all over Instagram. But why were they using a belt? Wait, was I supposed to use a belt at some point? Wasn’t it a cheat?
What I discovered during my rabbit hole search on belts is that there is no hard and fast rule about weightlifting belts. As is the case with many soulful life questions, I have come to learn that the answer is it depends.
In this article, I interview three experienced powerlifting coaches of varied backgrounds. The experts include: JVB (Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake), coach at The Movement Minneapolis; Arian Khamesi, coach at Squats & Science; and Inna Koppel, coach & owner of Woodmere Fitness Club.
What does a belt do?
JVB: Weightlifting belts increase intra-abdominal pressure to provide the lifter with more core stability in the lift. When used correctly, a lifter can generally lift more weight with one than without.
Arian: Research shows that the weightlifting belt has little effect on hamstrings or quad performance, but studies have shown an increase in core activation. The intra-abdominal pressure against the belt supports a heavier lift. The increase in max capacity goes up 5 to 15 percent.
Inna: The weight belt works as external support for the abdominal muscles. When used properly, it allows you to lift heavy weights safely, by providing a proprioceptive cue for the abs to work hard when they need to and placing the back in a safer position.
The core of the body is soft and flexible: it allows us to twist, bend and pick things up — we need this ability in daily life! However, we don’t want the core to be loose or soft when squatting or lifting heavy things.
Most people think that a weightlifting belt will magically help them lift heavy weight, but it doesn’t work like a magic pill. The belt doesn’t make you do something your body isn’t ready for. — Inna Koppel
JVB with her lifting students from Movement Minneapolis
When do you advise clients to start using a weightlifting belt?
JVB: Belts are useful for people who are interested in building and testing their max levels of strength. If a lifter is interested in general strength training but not in maxing out, they don’t ever need to wear a belt.
I like new powerlifters to go through at least one training cycle and meet before working with a belt because I want them to learn how to use their core and back muscles without it while they build up their strength and become more proficient in the big three. Plus, just because you can lift more weight with a belt doesn’t mean you should — when you’re newer.
For my more intermediate powerlifters I have them wear their belt once they get within 80 percent of their 1RM because the weight is heavy enough to warrant that extra help, and because they’ve put in the time to earn the heavy weight.
Arian: It depends on how proficient they are with the powerlifting movements. If the client can squat and deadlift properly and they want to compete, I encourage using a belt regularly. There are no negatives about wearing the belt, only positives. If the client wants to invest the money and they want to learn how to use a belt with their lifting, they should use one.
Inna: The general rule is that when a lifter can squat their body weight or deadlift 1.5 times their body weight, they should start using a belt. In my experience, women who have had multiple children may need it sooner, as will lifters with a weaker core.
Squats & Science coach, Arian Khamesi
What lifts do you advise them for and why?
JVB: Squats, deadlifts and overhead pressing. Some lifters like it for bench and that’s a matter of preference. I don’t think a belt makes or breaks the bench.
Arian: This answer depends on the person. For my lifters who compete, I encourage that they wear it all the time for the main competition lifts. The regularity of usage is to pattern the movement as they would when in a competition.
In bench press, wearing a belt depends on the person. Few people wear it but for some it does provide more support when arching. I first started using a belt during bench as good feedback about how braced my abdominals felt. I would take in a breath, get the physical feedback against the belt. When I felt that belt, I knew I had properly braced my abs for the left.
Inna: Squats, deadlifts and overhead pressing. Or, even Olympic lifts. When there is spinal loading, a belt is encouraged. While lying on a bench, there is no spinal loading. That being said, some people don’t know how to brace their abs and may need a belt during bench press.
Should they wear it all time after they start?
JVB: No, even intermediate and advanced lifters benefit from time away from the belt. Mostly because off-season training after a meet is important and a time where lifters can be less intense with their training (good for the brain) and work with lighter weights to shore up weaknesses (good for the body). Off-season training weights aren’t heavy enough to require a belt.
Arian: For competition lifts, 90 to 95 percent of time. There is no need to wear a belt on accessory lifts nor during off-season when not lifting as heavy.
Inna: As things get heavier the lifter will use it in the last warm up set and during work sets. They would use the belt for the rest of the training session. If the lifter needs to reset, where they are going below body weight, then they would not use a belt.
What brand do you like and why?
JVB: I recommend all lifters spend some time researching different belts that fit their needs and budget. Newer lifters might want to go with a less expensive belt while they’re still learning if they really like powerlifting. Quest (on Amazon) sell for around $60. Inzer belts are a step up in stiffness, about $100. SBD belts are super high quality, very, very stiff, expensive ($250 for a base model, I think), and have a long wait time from order to delivery.
Arian: No difference. Some competition organizations allow only certain brands such as Inzer, Titan, or SBD. Between these brands, choice comes down to price, color, and how long it takes to ship.
Inna: I recommend an American-made belt, and double prong as it’s more efficient — the double prong distributes the force more evenly. The belt should be three inches wide and made of 100 percent leather.
JVB with her powerlifting students
How long have you been coaching?
JVB: Since 2015. I coach and train lifters for powerlifting every day, in person and online, year round and coach four to five meets a year. I’ve coached at least 15 meets.
Arian: When I started powerlifting in 2011, our team would train and coach each other. Essentially, I’ve been coaching since 2011, and coaching online since 2014.
Inna: I’ve been coaching for over 10 years
When did you start powerlifting?
JVB: My first meet was in February 2014. I’ve competed in seven times.
Arian: My first USAPL meet was in 2011, my first year of graduate school. I’ve been in 14 competitions.
Inna: I started eight years ago and have lifted in three competitions.
Starting Strength coach, Inna Koppel.
When did you start wearing a weightlifting belt?
JVB: I started wearing a belt after my first meet. I noticed the belts on other lifters and was curious about it.
Arian: I didn’t wear a belt for my first meet. It was my coach who suggested wearing one for my second meet. I wore it only for my squat, as I wasn’t comfortable using it with my deadlift yet — it takes time to get used to the feel of the belt. By my third meet, I was using it for all my lifts.
Inna: A fellow coach suggested I wear a belt when things got heavy for me. I stubbornly refused until I was squatting 135 pounds (at a bodyweight of 125). I resisted a long time because I believed the misconceptions that the belt would have me lift more weight than I was capable of.
Here I am with my custom leather Best belt.
What About Me?
In my four years of powerlifting, no one has directly advised me to wear a belt. However, I finally bought one recently — a custom leather Best belt. Once I started squatting 10 pounds over my body weight, I reached out to Inna to ask her if it was belt time. After using it, I agree with Arian's statement about strength potential: the belt does increase my max capacity by 5 to 10 percent. I feel more conscious of my abs bracing during a heavy squat when wearing a belt.
Are You Ready for a Belt?
If you are considering using a weightlifting belt in your training, take the time to ask yourself the following questions.
- Is this a sport you are dedicated to and see yourself pursuing for a long time?
The belt is an investment in terms of money and space. Mine cost over $100, and I now have to lug the heavy cumbersome belt with me when I go and lift. The belt isn’t light and adds a few pounds to your gym bag. I found that I often don’t bring it with me because of this.
- How heavy are you lifting? Is your goal to continually increase strength via barbells?
If you see yourself dedicated to increasing strength gains like I was, the belt will help you brace better under the poundage. However, if you’re lifting for “maintenance,” the belt might not be necessary.
Not Ready to Commit but Curious?
Not only does a custom belt cost a pretty penny, it takes time for the company to make it and ship it. Mine took a month to arrive after purchase! Before committing to a pricey questionable accessory, try ordering and testing out a much cheaper one. You can always order the custom one after trying a cheaper one. (I actually wish I had done that!)
Remember, there are no hard rules on when to wear a belt with powerlifting, just general guidelines. If you’re a competitive lifter, be aware that most of your competition will use one and possibly have a slight advantage. If not, maybe try one on and decide for yourself if a belt is for you.