Lifting belts became popular in the world of body builders because they allow you to lift more than you normally could. Your spine is subjected to very high forces during heavy lifting and back injuries are not uncommon. Belts stabilize your back thus protecting it from injuries. Competitions allow the contestants to use lifting belts but not straps.
Because of the relatively low number of studies conducted to determine whether lifting belts increase muscle activity, there are plenty of wrong ideas circulating the internet. This article tries to shed light on facts and help you understand the real benefits of lifting belts.
The Miyamoto study
Miyamoto K. together with other researchers conducted a study in February 1999 about the effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal and intra-muscular pressures in the erector spinae muscles that support the spine. They revealed that these pressures increased significantly during maximum isometric lifting exertions with belts.
So, what does this mean? When wearing a belt, your spinal erectors actually contract more and the pressure in the abdominal cavity is raised by the belt. As a result, the spinal vertebrae are stabilized. Apart from this, the belt allows you to lift more with your legs than your back during deadlifts and squats with a barbell.
Should you use it all the time?
The answer is no. It is best to hold off on the use of a lifting belt until you get to very heavy weights that don’t allow you more than 5 reps. If you use the belt all the time from the very beginning, you may inhibit proper motor learning of the abdominal muscles.
The recruitment process is impaired because beginners are not yet used to tightly squeeze their abs during a heavy lift. The belt will just do this for you. It should not be used until you acquire strong core stabilization.
However, there is a second concern regarding the premature use of lifting belts. Your lower back becomes weak because the belt takes the strain off those muscles. People with weak lower backs will never strengthen that body part if they use the belt.
If you noticed, most competitive powerlifters wear a belt but this is not how they got there. The belt came into picture only when they reached a level where they work with extremely high weights. Their primary concern is to lift more in competitions. However, at this point the risk of injury increases exponentially and safety becomes very important too.
So, lifting belts are not considered cheating for powerlifters since the rules allow them to use one in competitions. Lifting belts add additional support to the spine and boost performance to a certain point but they should not be used early nor frequently in your body building training.
The performance boost does not help you grow muscles faster in the early stages, it actually weakens your abdomen and lower back as time passes. Lifting belts are meant for very heavy weights where safety is a main concern.