High and Tight
Recently, I’ve had gym members ask me about whether they should be wearing a lifting belt during training. As you see in many sports, such as Powerlifting, Weightlifting, and Strongman, lifting belts are a commonplace piece of equipment for heavy lifting sports. So, you say, “Hey! I lift heavy in CrossFit.” Ironically, the lifting belt is one of the most misused pieces of equipment in the gym. A lifting belt can allow you to stabilize your spine, provide support for your core, supplement mid-line stability, protect you from injury during heavy free-weight lifts or multiple repetitions with free weights, and enhances the use of maximum force during high power movements such as cleans or snatch.
How It Works
A lot of concern with using a lifting belt is that it allows the user to become “lazy” during their lifts. But, when implemented properly, a lifting belt does the opposite. The idea of using the weight belt is to prevent spinal flexion. This could be in the form of lumbar rounding during dead-lifts or squats, or hyper-extension during an overhead load. Wearing the belt tight provides tactile feedback during bracing for the lift, resulting in a more stable position. This bracing technique involves taking in a huge breath, holding it, and exhaling only after the exercise is finished, commonly known as the Valsalva Maneuver. Doing so increases your thoracic abdominal pressure, bracing you, and allowing you to safely stabilize your spine while lifting near maximal effort. Think of it as giving your abs a wall to press against to enable maximal mid-line stability. If you don’t feel yourself bracing and pressing your abs hard into the belt, you are slacking in your overall position of the lift and should drop the weight to adjust your technique to prevent injury.
The belt should be worn tight across the midsection, above the hips, yet below the ribs. Therefore, a solid lifting belt should range between 3” – 4” in width. The last thing you want to feel is a thick leather belt digging into your hips or rib cage at the bottom of a heavy squat clean. Again, this is purely based on your body proportions, as I have known guys well over 6’5” and up who preferred a 5”-6” belt due to comfort. When deciding a belt, consider the differences between the two most common lifting belt materials, nylon and leather. Leather is thicker, stiffer, and has less give or ‘stretch’ while moving, which may be ideal during a 1 rep max or strength training under 6 total reps. Nylon has more give, the material is more flexible allowing more complex and deeper range of movement. A nylon belt would be ideal for a WOD where you need to do 20+ reps of a heavy weight, while needing to also breathe during the lift but have that abdominal pressure to maintain bracing. This is a good way to keep your back from looking like a scared cat during high rep, high weight dead-lifts.
Buckle or Strap
If you are wearing the lifting belt correctly, there should be a significant amount of pressure on the belt during a lift. If that belt comes undone mid-lift, that could spell disaster and injury. It is typical for leather lifting belts to come with a buckle style clasp, with multiple hole options for clasping. This is perfect if you want the belt to stay tight, snug, and breathing is not a major issue, such as during a 1 rep max. Then there are plastic clasps or even Velcro strap style belts, seen more often on the nylon lifting belts. These are more useful when you need to be able to remove the belt quickly, or don’t want the restriction of the belt to affect a secondary movement in the WOD.
Measure Twice, Lift Once
If there are any large gaps between your torso and the belt, in the front or back of your body, then the lifting belt may not be tight enough and would not produce any benefits previously stated. A great way to measure for a lifting belt is to measure your waist with a tape measure, starting at your navel, pulling the tape flat against your waist without digging into the skin. You should more than likely measure over your usual workout gear, as lifting belts are worn on the outside of any other lifting equipment on your body. This is to be done with a relaxed stomach, with no flexing or holding or ‘sucking’ in. Because lifting belts are adjustable, you may use a one size lifting belt despite weight gain or loss, thought pulling and clasping the lifting belt tighter or looser.
Should I Use a Belt?
A lifting belt won’t fix your technique or add 50 lbs to your max, but it will help avoid injury during movement. Beginners to CrossFit may not need a lifting belt, as the loads they are moving may not be heavy enough, where proper technique would suffice injury avoidance. Intermediate and advanced level athletes should consider using a lifting belt, depending on the movement and their mechanics/mobility. This level of athlete would typically push the envelope during a WOD, despite the loss of proper form, and would greatly benefit from the extra tactile feedback that gets lost in the heat of a difficult WOD. An example of this is, imagine you are doing Heavy DT:
5 Rounds for Time
12 Deadlifts (205/145 lb)
9 Hang Power Cleans (205/145 lb)
6 Push Jerks (205/145 lb)
By rounds 4 and 5, your awareness of your mid-line stability when moving may not be as great as it was during the first round. This is a good example of a time that using a lifting belt during a WOD may be beneficial.
2018 09 05