by TJ Hendrickson, DPT, OCS >> Request an Appointment
The most common misconception we hear about the use of a lifting belt is that it is a crutch and it allows you to lift heavy without having to engage your core. If you look at research on the topic, it points to the exact opposite. Most literature shows that using a belt actually helps to increase the recruitment of core muscles and pressure within the abdomen which helps stabilize the spine.
Spine mechanics 101. The purpose of the disc in the spine is to provide cushioning, distribute load and add mobility. The center of the disc is called the nucleus and the outer portion of the disc is the annulus, which has been likened to a car tire. The outer annulus is there to contain the jelly-like inner nucleus. As the spine is compressed, pressure within the disc increases, placing greater stress on the outer annulus. The way that our body prevents the disc from herniating is through the muscular squeeze of the core muscles pressing back against the outside of the disc. This is where core strength comes into play for reducing risk of injury.
Weight belts should be looked at as a tool. The design of the weight belt allows for something to brace against while using your core muscles. They are not designed to take the place of the core muscles. If you're having pain with day-to-day tasks, bending to lift light objects or rolling over in bed, a weight belt isn't a good solution. You need focused core strengthening to build a base. Once you have a base level of strength, you can then utilize that strength to increase stabilization against a belt when lifting progressively heavier weights. Being able to increase strength with squatting, deadlifting, overhead pressing and other barbell lifts increases your threshold for work with lighter, everyday tasks.
There are a multitude of different weight belts out there. The ideal belt is the same diameter all the way around - 4” is the standard. You typically want the belt placed between the hip bones (iliac crests) and lower ribs, around the soft midsection. Before the lift, take a breath in and brace/tighten your stomach into the belt. Maintain that hold for the rep, then release at the finish of the rep. The increased pressure within the abdomen and core muscles helps to reduce the pressure gradient between the inside and outside of the disc, thereby reducing injury risk.
When working with lighter weights, it may be a good idea to train without a belt, but as the weight goes up, don’t be afraid to try one. It’s simply a tool for building strength - no different than a barbell, lifting shoes or stretchy pants.
Give a lifting belt a try and let us know what you think. If you have any questions regarding belts or are having pain with lifts, it may be good to consult a licensed healthcare professional to make sure form is correct and there are no underlying issues that need to be addressed first.