I have noticed more and more people starting to wear weightlifting belts in the gym, so I thought it would be a good time to talk about when and how to use them. One of the most common misconceptions about the weightlifting belt is that cinching one on nice and tight will protect you from injury.

That is wrong. Weight belts are not designed to support your back, and they certainly will not help your back when it is sore and tight from a workout.

A weight belt does not help correct poor mechanics and mobility. If you have these issues, then you don’t need a weight belt; you need to focus on improving your technique and using weight ranges that allow you to perfect your mechanics. Proper mechanics will strengthen your midsection so it can support itself during the majority of the workouts we do here.

So why do you use a weightlifting belt?

A weight belt should be used to help stabilize your midline by acting as a surface for your abdominal wall to brace (push) against during increased intra-abdominal pressure. Basically, intra-abdominal pressure is created by taking a large breathe into your belly (diaphragm) and trying to exhale it while closing your throat. You read that correctly: breathe into your belly, not your chest. This helps your belly to push out against the belt, which increases the pressure around your midsection. This is known as the Valsalva maneuver.

Using the Valsalva maneuver to create increased intra-abdominal pressure is something you should be practicing whenever lifting a heavy load. A weight belt isn’t needed for this. The belt just gives your stomach something to push against to create more stability during heavy lifts.

How do I pick a weightlifting belt?

Belts come in a variety sizes, styles, colors and materials. Functional fitness incorporates a lot of powerlifting movements and Olympic weightlifting, so a 4” wide belt will work for most people. If you are a small individual then you may prefer a 3” belt.

The primary factor on width should be determined by whether or not it will fit between your ribs and hips. You should wear the belt on your abdomen, not low on your waist like pants. The ideal belt will not taper in the front. Remember that the front of the belt is the area your abdominals are pressing against, so having a wider belt in the back does not provide an advantage.

I mentioned that belts come in a variety of materials. Both leather and nylon belts are suitable for weightlifting. Belts are not worn against your skin most of the time, unless you are a chest-baring beast, so you don’t have to worry about chafing or discomfort with either material.

The main difference is in the “give” or flexibility of the material. In general, leather is thicker and stiffer, with less give and is often chosen by those training with heavy, lower rep movements like squats and deadlifting. Nylon is a little more flexible and allows for a more complex range of movement, which works well for multi-movement workouts. The Velcro nylon belts also make it easier to quickly loosen and tighten the belt between movements and sets.

How do you wear weightlifting belt?

The belt you choose should fit around the small of your back with the buckle covering your lower abdominals. When you buckle or tighten the belt, you should still be able to comfortably slide your fingers between the belt and your stomach. I often see people tightening the belt to the extreme, which provides a false sense of security because it feels tight; however, they are actually minimizing the room for their abdominals to expand during the Valsalva Maneuver. Remember, the Valsalva Maneuver allows you to push your abs into the belt by taking a deep breath into the belly to increase the pressure around your midsection.

When should you use weightlifting belt?

Let’s start with when to wear your belt. Don’t wear a weightlifting belt in order to mask an injury during high reputation workouts or during lifts with loads lighter than 80-85% of your one rep max. You don’t want to wear a belt during these times because you want your body to develop your core musculature.

For heavy strength exercises I recommend working up to around 80%-85% of your final weight without the belt, and then use it when you exceed 85% off your one rep max.

Now, for Olympic movements the weight belt can be a great tool to help people throughout their full range of motion. It can help newer athletes who have trouble catching weight at the bottom of a clean or snatch. I would recommend using a weight belt once the load becomes challenging.

To summarize

Weight lifting belt are a useful tool, but they are no substitute for proper form and appropriate weight. A weightlifting belt provides an additional layer to your abdominal wall and with proper technique will add stability to your lower spine. However, remember, the belt does not brace your back. Stabilizing with a belt is a lot of work and requires practice, but when used correctly it can add to your max effort lifts.


About Chris Elmore

Chris is the founder and owner of Metcon Media, and Creative Director of Metcon Magazine and WODTALK Magazine. He is an electronic engineer by trade, but has a passion for fitness. He is a CrossFit certified trainer, and loves long distance endurance events. He has over 20 years of competitive swimming, running and triathlon training, racing and coaching experience. Chris has competed in endurance events of all distances, including Ironman Coeur D’Alene, Ironman Lake Placid, and Ironman Arizona. Chris began training with CrossFit in 2008, when he realized that the years of long slow distance (LSD) training commonly practiced by most endurance athletes had significantly decreased his muscle mass, strength and power. He created the first functional fitness focused magazine, WODTALK, in 2012.

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