As a Chiropractor I see patients all day long with low back pain. Everyone will deal with it at some point in their life, I hate to say. I’m passionate about preventing low back pain in the first place, especially in my athletes who I’m training. Lately, I’ve seen a rash of overuse of weightlifting belts in the box, and I want to help you understand when and when not to use them. If you don’t want to read any further, here is the take home message:
Belts should be used rarely, if ever, by most of our athletes. Unless you need special accommodations because of a pre-existing back problem, the rule of thumb is only use your belt when you get above 85% of your 1 rep max and even then you shouldn’t always use it when things get heavy.
So, here’s the rest of the story… belts accomplish a specific task, and that’s to squeeze your trunk and give you something very unyielding to push against as you lift. This accomplishes the same task, to a higher degree, of taking a breath and holding it during a lift: it creates intra-abdominal pressure. Imagine your trunk like a can. Squeeze a pop can when it hasn’t been opened and it doesn’t give very much, does it? That’s what taking a breath and holding, engaging your abdominals and squeezing your butt, and/or using a weightlifting belt accomplish. Now imagine squeezing the same can after it has been opened. Pretty squishy, huh?
Creating intra-abdominal pressure is the key to sparing your spine, especially the low back (lumbar spine) during lifts. Doing this maintains the spine in its strongest, neutral position and it also takes some of the load off the spine itself and transmits it to the muscles. These are good things!
One of the inherent problems with using belts, however, is that they take a lot of the work off of the muscles, so athletes who use them too often and in the wrong circumstances accomplish a few BAD things by using them:
- They weaken key muscles in their back and abdomen
- They mask inherent form and mechanics problems they should be working on improving and training
- They actually put themselves more at risk for injury
When I went into practice close to 15 years ago, it was customary for the workers in stores like Home Depot to come to work, strap on their velcro waistbelt, and then not remove it until their shift was over. They “prevent injury,” after all. Even back then my biomechanics professor told us all the ways in which this was actually counter-productive. Sure enough, studies came out showing that workers who used their belts this way were developing horrible core strength and control, and, sure enough, their work comp injuries went through the roof. Fast forward to today, most of these stores instruct their workers to ONLY use the belts when they’re lifting the heaviest stuff, and then ONLY while they’re actually lifting, then release the belt.
So, unless you have a pre-existing back problem, the rule of thumb is to use the belts only when things get really heavy and/or you have a set that you’re starting to feel a little sketchy with and you want to finish it out without hurting yourself. Be careful with the latter because that “sketchy feeling” is your body telling you to cool it, but if you’re highly experienced you may be able to work with that by using a belt for a few reps. As a rule, pretty much don’t use your belt until you get over 85% of your 1 rep max. And, even then, don’t ALWAYS use it at these weights because you need to learn body position, develop core strength and control and this happens when you’re not overriding all of that with a belt.
Contributed by Steve Agocs, DC (Chiropractor, educator, CrossFit Level 1, SFMA movement assessment certified)