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In order to build muscle, one has to look at various aspects of bodybuilding- training, nutrition, muscle building supplements, rest, motivation and more. Each of these factors has several sub domains. For example, fitness experts put importance to bodybuilding apparel as well as weight lifting equipment accessories.
One question that always haunts the average trainee is- do I really require a weight training belt? Let is try to find out.
A beginner does not have a strong core. Therefore, weight training belts are recommended for the average trainee. If you are an intermediate to advanced bodybuilder aiming for strength, you should use a lifting belt only for sets above 85% of 1RM. It does not make sense to use a belt while performing a movement in sitting or lying position.
The main purpose of the lifting belt is to stabilize the spine by increasing the abdominal cavity pressure. Let’s do an experiment to understand this. Stand straight, and suck in your belly. Try squeezing your abs tight. What do you feel? This is what a lifting belt does.
As mentioned earlier, weight lifting belts are believed to increase the abdominal pressure, which further supports the spine while protecting the vertebrae, discs and muscles. However, research shows that the rigid lifting belts bring about increase in IAP (Intra Abdominal Pressure).
Researchers use the Electromyography (EMG) to check muscle activity during lifting exercises. A study observed the EMG activity in ‘the erector spinae muscles’ during high bar squats. Ten experienced lifters participated in the study. They performed 2 x3 sets, with the first set with a weight belt and the second without a lifting belt. Load in both the case was 60% of each lifter’s 1RM.
The study showed that the muscle activity was higher in the spine’s lumbar region with the belt ON. In other words, a lifting belt does not provide the ‘biomechanical change’ required to ‘minimize the risk of low back injury.’
Not many understand the mechanics of the lifting belt, manufacturers included. For example, a belt with a wider back than the front is not correct.
The general rule is that you should inhale during the negative part of the movement and exhale during the positive part. Right? Not completely. When dealing with lightweights, this principle is good. However, when you have to lift extremely heavy, this rule does not work.
Observe when you lift something off the gym, say a heavy box. The body’s natural tendency is to take a deep breath hold the breath while pushing or pulling, and then release the breath once the movement is complete. This technique is known as Valsalva’s Maneuver. This technique is also put into practice when you cough, urinate or vomit.
Valsalva’s Maneuver technique allows you to lift more weight. This is the reason why Olympic lifters never breathe out slowly while squatting 700 pounds.
Bottomline: Should You Use A Belt Or Not?
Ideally, you should not make it a habit to wear the lifting belt. I would not go to extremes to say you should or should NOT use the belt. You should try using your body’s own abilities to stabilize heavy weights. You should not jump from a lighter weight to an extremely heavy weight without practice.
If you decide to use a belt, make sure the belt has uniform width throughout. Use a firm belt, and not a belt that may stretch. Lifting belts may help beginners in overhead lifts in particular.
While psychologically, using the weight lifting belt may help you lift heavier, scientific evidence points otherwise. So what’s the solution? First, do not use belts for warm-up or lighter working sets. Never hold your breath while lifting. During this movement, you should exhale or BREATHE OUT. Whenever you are lifting heavy, focus on your core abdominal muscles. Always use strict form. Arching your back, for example, is dangerous for your spine.
Finally, I would say that use the lifting belt only when you approach the heaviest set of a compound lift.