Monday, July 1, 2019

Lifting Belts: Good or Bad? - By Jim Duggan

     A lifting belt is something that is found in the gym bag of just about every person who trains with weights. Different styles, leather or suede, metal buckles or velcro are just some of the options available to trainees.  But are lifting belts really necessary?  Do you really need to be wearing a belt from the moment you walk onto the gym floor?  For years, beginners were taught that wearing a belt was necessary to support your lower back and prevent injury.  This was especially true if you were doing Squats, Presses, or Deadlifts.  Quite often, the various muscle magazines would endorse the notion that the use of a belt was absolutely essential to remaining injury-free.  Never mind the fact that just about every magazine advertised - and profited from the sale of- lifting belts.  If you were to believe the "muscle comic books," a lifting belt was the sine qua non for better, safer workouts.

     When properly worn, a belt can help increase intra-abdominal pressure, thus adding support to the vertebral column.  If you are a competitive lifter, it is easy to see the benefit of wearing a belt.  Whether you are a Powerlifter coming out of the hole with a heavy Squat, or an Olympic Lifter holding a heavy barbell overhead, a belt will provide support and help maintain proper form and hip position, thereby enabling one to lift maximal weight.
     While most of the muscle magazines are no longer in print, there is still plenty of training misinformation to be disseminated, thanks to the internet.  And a casual stroll through any commercial gym would confirm that many trainees are only too willing to follow along.  There are people who wear belts for just about every exercise they perform.  Of course, this is not necessary, since wearing a belt will only benefit movements which require that the lower back be supported.  But in order to really support the spine while Squatting or Pressing, the belt will have to be very tight.  As in painfully tight.  Tight enough that it may require the assistance of one or more persons to cinch it tightly enough.  If you've ever watched a Powerlifting contest, when a lifter gets set to attempt a Squat, his/her belt is so tight that they will have trouble moving and breathing normally.  This tightness is necessary if one wishes to increase the intra-abdominal pressure and support the spine the right way.  Once the attempt is complete, the belt is removed, and normal, pain-free breathing and movement is resumed.  So, for a competitive lifter, a belt is necessary in order to perform at your best.
     What about wearing a belt during training?  My philosophy on wearing a belt has been influenced by two people.  The first was Larry Licandro, who owned Bruno's Health Club, the first gym I ever joined.  I was nineteen when I began training at Bruno's, and had been training for about four years.  Like many young trainees, I had been brought up to believe that one had to wear a belt when doing Squats, Deadlifts, and Presses.  And I proudly wore my belt whenever I did these exercises. Every set. Even warm-ups.
     One day, I happened to be training with Larry.  We were doing Squats, and I noticed that Larry did not use a belt.  Ever. Not even when the weights increased past 400 and 500 Lbs..  There was no belt to be seen!  Naturally, I asked him why he didn't wear a belt.  His answer was that he never trained with one.  He felt that you can become too dependent on it to the point where it becomes a crutch.  He encouraged me to try lifting without it.  "You will get used to lifting without it."  Gradually,  I got used to going "beltless." At first, I would only use it for my heavy sets.  Eventually, I got to the point where I stopped using it completely.  Larry was right.  My body became acclimated, and I stopped bringing a belt to the gym.
     Year's later, at Iron Island Gym, I discovered that Dr. Ken Leistner's thoughts on lifting belts were the same as Larry's.   He confirmed what I had learned years earlier, except that he was a bit more technical than Larry. Actually,  quite a bit more technical since he was a chiropractor,  but sound advice just the same.
     "The great disadvantage of wearing a belt is the inhibition of strength development in many of the torso supporting muscles."  These muscles will not become as strong as they should, and this could lead to eventual injury to the lower back and oblique region."
     It was reassuring to have a renowned expert as Dr. Ken validate a concept that I had  learned at a young age.  Over years, I have faithfully followed this philosophy by NEVER using a belt in training.  The only time I ever used a belt was in competition.
     For most trainees, a lifting belt is unnecessary.  You will become stronger by not using one.  While the factors and synergistic muscles of the low back are not as glamorous as "bulging biceps," or "barn-door lats," they are infinitely more important in the development of real strength.
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