Eleven years ago I stepped outside of the weight room setting and worked as a performance specialist in a physical therapy clinic. My job was to get kids to stay training at the facility after they were cleared from physical therapy; to help increase their performance in their sport. One day I was working with a college football player. He was a tackle which means he was exceptionally large and probably still is. We were squatting 5 sets of 5 that day and I asked him what he thought his work weight should be.
“405” he said.
Impressed, I took him through a warm-up, and then we started to squat. We did sets of 135 lbs, 185 lbs, 225 lbs, and then 275 lbs. When we hit 275 lbs, the athletes technique fell apart and he started to do half of a good morning, and half of a squat. I asked him why he was struggling and he said that he normally uses a belt when he squats, presses, and deadlifts. Actually he tightens that sucker to the max as soon as he steps in the weight room like a pair of sneakers. He then asked if he could put one on and I politely replied, “No.”
Each and every one of us comes with a weight belt already built into us. It’s called your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominals, obliques, quadratus lumborum, and spinal erectors. More often you’ll hear people refer to this area as your “core.” The problem is most trainers and the general public only think about the visible six-pack abs when they hear the word. What’s more is there are some physiologists that consider the latissimus dorsi to be a core muscle as well because of how low on the vertebrae they attach, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
When we lift weights, jump, and run these muscles essentially produce a bracing effect to tighten the structure of our body up to produce force. The consistent use of a weight belt to decrease injury will actually produce injury due to the supportive effect it produces. Our body is incredibly smart and has evolved in such a way to conserve energy to promote our survival in certain situations. If the central nervous system senses assistance, it will simply decrease the firing strength of those muscles to conserve. With repeated effect, the muscles not being supported strength and grow, while the muscles being supported weaken and atrophy. We now have created a core of mashed potatoes.
As a strength coach, I teach my athletes to never depend on a piece of equipment for performance. Instead, we use equipment as a catalyst for performance production. As far as weight belts are concerned, I really only advise them to use one during heavy squatting, but it is permissible to use a belt this way for deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and presses as well. If you really want to get crazy, use one for a vertical jump test.
I use the theory of max efforts in my strength training sets a lot. The following would be an example of how I would progress a female athlete trying to hit a PR in a 5 rep max squat for the day. After the warm up, she would progress as such:
95 x 5 (no belt)
115 x 5 (no belt)
135 x 5 (no belt)
155 x 5 (no belt)
175 x 5 (no belt, this is probably the best stimulus out of all sets)
185 x 5 (with belt)
Let’s say about 6-8 weeks pass and she is maxing out with reps of 5 again. Here is her progression now:
95 x 5 (no belt)
125 x 5 (no belt)
145 x 5 (no belt)
160 x 5 (no belt)
180 x 5 (no belt, best stimulus)
190 (or higher) x 5 (with belt)
Utilizing a weight belt in this way allows the structures of the body to build strength and stay conditioned because you are only depending on it for your heaviest set. CrossFit is well known for their use, and sometimes overuse of supportive equipment, but the amazing thing is with as many CrossFit gyms that I have been in I rarely see belts being used for squatting. This, combined with an obscene amount of back work is why those that use CrossFit as an exercise regime have none other than superior core development.
The only weight belt that I recommend is Schiek. Why Schiek? Because it has a superior design. It is thicker in the front and the back than it is on the sides. This allows for a very comfortable fit. Maximum mobility is coupled with support where your body needs it most.
Most people believe wearing a belt protects your back. It does not. The purpose of wearing a belt is to increase the strength of your abdominal wall. When we squat, the main place we lose energy is through the abdominal wall. Intrabdominal pressure pushes out against the abs, and the abs push back to increase tension in our body so we can produce vertical force. Wearing a weight belt allows our abdominals to push up against something increasing the amount of weight we can lift. Traditional weight belts are thick in the back, and then skinny on the sides and front which does not allow our body to take advantage of this effect. The massive power lifting belts can be very cumbersome for anyone who is not 6’4″ and 330lbs.
I hope this clears things up a bit for those of you who rely on a weight belt too much. Even though your numbers may go down a bit at first, you’ll see the glaring deficiencies you have created through such use. Be patient, and be persistent, and soon you’ll be back on top!