Stop Doing This One Thing And People Will Like You Better! (A Guide On Proper Use Of Belts In Weightlifting)

By: Josh Daniel, CF-L2, Head Coach

First off, the title was completely misleading. By changing this one thing you will in no way become any more or any less likable or pleasant to be around. That is determined by your character and attitude which are in no way related to the topic of this blog. But now that I have you here it is a good time to discuss a common problem I have been seeing.

The last two weeks were testing weeks for us here at Fitness Jubilee. This was an opportunity for us to assess some base strength numbers for our members to ensure that we are improving and have numbers to compare to down the road. During these lifts many of our members utilized weightlifting belts while attempting these one rep maxes. One member asked me for advice about how to put their belt on because I commented that he was starting his lift with his back already in a bad position. Before he approached the bar his stomach was sucked in and his shoulders were leaning forward over his hips. Basically before he even put the barbell on his back to begin the lift he was already walking around with a rounded spine. I have seen this member lift before and I was very aware that he knew how to align his spine properly and brace before beginning his lift. That is when the question arose. He said “I always feel like I go into this position when I put my belt on. How am I supposed to put it on and it not do this?” After receiving this question I began to pay close attention to the rest of the classes and how participants put their belts on. I was surprised to see that nearly everyone was using their belt incorrectly. They were actually exacerbating the problem they needed the belt to fix.

Before we go any further, let’s discuss the role of a belt in weightlifting. The first day of every new members experience at Jubilee Fitness begins with one very important concept that is foundational to everything you will do in movement. Not just in the gym, but in life. It is “Bracing.” The first step of bracing is to pull the shoulder blades back to remove the natural forward angle of the thoracic region of the spine. This is the “flat back” you always hear people talking about. The goal is to bring the thoracic region of the spine into better alignment with the natural arch in the lumbar region of the spine. This alignment shortens the overall length of the spine and provides for greater mechanical advantage during any movement involving a hinge movement at the hips.

After aligning the spine properly we ask members to take a big breath in and fill their body up with as much air as possible. The goal here is to make yourself as big as you possibly can by filling yourself up with air and holding it. After doing this, you will notice that the musculature in you chest and belly expand. If you were to lightly tie a string around your midsection and take this deep breath in, the string would break or come untied due to the expanding of your torso. This expansion is the result of increased intra-abdominal pressure. Thoracic and abdominal pressure are the factors responsible for maintaining muscular tension in the upper body during lifts. This is what keeps your midsection from turning to jello when you put heavy weight on your back or pick it up from the ground.

The sole purpose of a belt is to improve intra abdominal pressure during lifts. This is done by limiting the possible expansion of the abdominal cavity. A belt does not directly support the spine. Instead the belt reinforces the musculature of the trunk by maintaining pressure. So the goal when putting a belt on is not to suck your stomach in and pull the belt as tight around your torso as you possibly can, not allowing you to take a deep breath in before stepping under the barbell, if able to take a breath in at all. This is most likely going to pull your belly button back toward your spine and reduce the possible amount of pressure you are able to create. Another problem with this is if you are looking down at your belt and you pull it as tight onto your body as you possibly can, you are more than likely going to find that you have pulled yourself into a hollow position and your shoulders drifted out forward of you hips and you have locked your back into a rounded position with the aid of a device intended to prevent such problems.

How to put your belt on correctly: The first step is to place the belt where you intend to wear it for the lift. Lift the shoulders back and pull your chest out in front of you to remove the curvature of the thoracic region of the spine. Take a deep breath in and expand your abdomen, flexing and pushing your muscles out against the belt as hard as possible. Try to think of a deep belly breath. From there, tighten the belt so that your abdominal muscles and pushing against the belt with significant pressure. Secure the belt into place. You should feel that your torso is as big as it can possibly become while still pushing against the belt. Your waist size under the belt should not be 8 inches smaller than it is when you are not wearing a belt. With the belt in position you should feel more musculature around your torso engaged and locked in that you otherwise would by tightening the belt after removing all air from your body and making your torso as small in circumference as possible. It is a weightlifting belt guys, not a corset.

Please learn to increase this pressure and properly brace without the use of a belt first. This is even more important for people with a history of back problems. Learning to use your musculature to protect and reinforce the vertebrae is a skill that will make your life much easier. (And who knows, possibly make you more likable…) Do not become belt dependent for every lift. In fact, reserve the belt for near maximal lifts and sets that are higher in repetitions in which the musculature supporting the spine are more likely to become fatigued and allow any bad posture to come about as repetitions continue.

I hope this has been helpful and if you have any questions about the content please feel free to reach out to us or come see us for any clarification at Jubilee Fitness/ Fitness Jubilee. Happy lifting guys and remember, “If you don’t use it, you lose it” when it comes to your muscles. Including those deep inside your torso that are responsible for maintaining posture. Lift without your belt more often than you lift with it.

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