A common debate in the health & fitness world revolves around the need for and usefulness of weightlifting belts. You’ll far too commonly hear arguments that weightlifting belts will “weaken your core” or “isn’t functional.” But if you look at most elite lifters in strength sports, you’ll always see them wearing a belt during maximal lifts. So what’s the truth about weightlifting belts? Let’s examine the research.
Should You Wear a Weightlifting Belt?
Intra-Abdominal Pressure and Weightlifting Belts
Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) refers to the amount of pressure that is generated inside the abdominal cavity. This is important as increasing IAP will help to stiffen the spine and reduce spinal compressive forces. All athletes should know how to properly brace their spine to stabilize it during heavy lifting activities. For more on bracing, read “Brace Yourself, A Bigger Squat is Coming.”
Weightlifting Belts and Bar Speed
The increase in IAP from a weightlifting belt comes with the performance advantage of being able to increase barbell lifting speed. A 2001 study found that athletes lifting 90% of their one-rep max back squat significantly faster when wearing a weightlifting belt vs. not. “This suggests that the use of a weight belt may improve a lifter’s explosive power by increasing the speed of the movement without compromising the joint range of motion or overall lifting technique. (PMID 11710410)”
Do Weightlifting Belts Make Your Core Weak?
One of the most common misunderstandings of weightlifting belts is the idea that they might weaken your core. Research on abdominal muscle activation has shown no significant differences between lifting with a belt versus without (PMID 11932579). The belt helps you use the same muscle activation but with a stiff surface to press your muscles into to create greater intra-abdominal pressure, as discussed above.
Athletes should know how to brace with and without a lifting belt but should not worry that using it will create long-term imbalances.
Will Wearing a Belt Reduce Injury Risk?
At this time of this article being written, no research has examined if wearing a weightlifting belt reduces injury risk in lifters. One study on physical labor workers found that there were not any significant differences in injury incidence and low back injuries between workers that wore a belt versus those that did not (PMID 11105177). But an important note here is that the lifting tasks of physical laborers are very different from weightlifters, meaning these results may not hold true for fitness athletes.
No, weightlifting belts won’t make your core weak. Nor will they likely prevent injuries. But they will let you further stiffen your spine for heavy lifting, allowing you to move more weight and overload your leg muscles more.