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The most common fear (or maybe excuse) I hear for not wearing a belt is “I don’t want to have to rely on a crutch.” Let's clear this up right from the start: belt is a tool, not a crutch. You don’t smash nails into a board with your hand to avoid using a hammer as a crutch, because that’s fucking stupid. Nor should you lift beltless to avoid using that belt as a crutch.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Here are the three reasons that, in my opinion, justify not using a belt.
- Comfort. For some lifters – particularly larger guys and smaller women – wearing a belt can be pretty uncomfortable in some positions. Most frequently, I hear complaints of the belt digging into the ribs or hips at the bottom of the squat or deadlift. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of the time, powerlifting is supposed to be damned uncomfortable. Knee wraps don’t feel good if you’re wearing them correctly. Hell, doing a hard set of five or ten reps doesn’t always feel too great, either. That’s not an excuse to avoid wearing a belt altogether – but just like you don’t perform all your sets in wraps, you don’t always have to wear a belt. So, if you’re just cranking out lighter volume work, for example, and don’t need the stability a belt provides (see below) to be safe, it’s fine to not wear one.
- Confidence. This one might also be called “ego,” but nevertheless, I do think it’s a valid reason to occasionally not wear a belt during your heavy work. Many athletes feel that the belt provides a sense of additional safety or strength. So, when they hit big lifts without a belt, they believe they can lift even more with one – regardless of whether the belt actually adds anything to their lifts. I honestly believe that confidence adds more pounds to a lift than the belt itself!
- Poor Bracing Technique. This is where that crutch argument might hold some weight (pun intended), although I think “band-aid” is a more appropriate metaphor. Now, remember: the main value of the belt is to provide something for you to brace against, which creates greater core stability and intra-abdominal pressure (read more here). It does add a bit of lower back support, too, but in my opinion, that’s fairly insignificant. However, if you do not know how to brace correctly and consistently, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to get in the optimal position to perform a squat or deadlift. That’s because in an optimal position, the load distribution is balanced correctly to take maximum advantage of your leverages while still involving all of your muscle groups – not just your strong ones. But without excellent core stability, this sort of balance becomes virtually impossible to achieve, because there’s no consistent transfer of force to the bar – you’re pushing and pulling all over the place. If you can’t that core stability by bracing, and throw on the belt anyway, you’re very likely to shift the load in such a way that you end up relying almost exclusively on your stronger muscle groups. At best, this will simply slow or halt your progress – but at worse, it could lead to possibly serious injury.
Outside of those justifications, I think a belt should always be worn. Check out this video for instructions on how to wear your belt:
One last point: some lifters are fine with wearing a belt, but think it might make some difference whether or not they use it in their warmups. The only real rule you need to follow here is to find a balance between comfort and confidence. That balance is entirely individual, but ultimately, whether you throw the belt on at 45%, 60%, or even 80% doesn’t really matter. I would say that when lifting over 90% of a 1RM, a belt should always be worn. That’s because no matter how good your technique might be, at very high percentages of a max, that little extra bit of support for the lumbar actually can make a difference between a new PR and a missed lift or injury.
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