A great post from CrossFit Watsonville coach Connie K. Thanks for the insight, Connie.
Let’s talk about the weight belt. Why do athletes wear belts? How do they work? Should you use one?
Lifting belts are definitely a personal preference. If you ask any lifter why he or she wear one you will most likely get a different answer from each person. Belts are simply a training aid and are used for many different reasons.
The most common misconception about weight belts is that their sole purpose is to support the back in order to prevent injury. While this is not entirely untrue, belts do generally support your back, it is also not the whole truth. In fact, the more important function of the weight belt deals with breathing during a lift. Holding your breath and attempting to exhale through a closed glottis (theValsalva Maneuver) significantly increases your inner abdominal pressure. The benefit here is that the increased pressure applies support to the front side of your spine and work to counter the force applied to the back side of the spine by a heavy load (i.e. squat bar). A weight belts main purpose is to provide a surface for the abdominal muscles to push against in order to further increase the internal thoracic pressure.
The belt does not directly stabilize the spine. The belt allows for increased inner abdominal pressure, which ASSISTS in stabilizing the spine.
In my humble opinion, the use and principle of using the belt defeats the core strengthening value of CrossFit by allowing a removable object to become your stability and support system. All of your support should come from yourself alone, which is maintained and increased through many of the exercises in CrossFit. Through exercise, you can hammer out and create a core as strong as a belt and it goes with you everywhere. Over reliance on the belt can also lead to injuries when it is not used and high loads are attempted under the false pretense that the mid-section is just as strong without it.
All that being said, I have and do use my belt. I use it most often when performing max loads with front/back squat and max load cleans. However, I have been lifting for almost four years now and did not once use a belt until I was cleaning more than my body weight and I understood how and why to use it. My advice, particularly to newer athletes (first two years of lifting), is to shy away from the belt and work at developing the core muscles to support your lifting efforts.
*Note from 2 time Olympian and 9 time National Champion Chad Vaughn:
“Weight belts inhibit your body from adapting the true strength to handle the weight”.