T Nation

Why Not To Wear A Belt


#1

Note: the title of this thread is taken from Tom Griffin's Weighty Matters Equipment page, so don't yell at me.

This is an article I thought might spark some good discussion -

Date: Fri, 31 Oct 1997 02:52:05 -0500 From: Paul Chek Subject: BACK STRONG & BELTLESS!

Backstrong and Beltless by Paul Chek MSS, HHP, NMT and reformatted for human consumption by Kim Goss CSCS

When it comes to lifting heavy, a weight belt is more fashion accessory than essential workout gear

Remember when the only time you would see someone wearing a weight belt was in the gym, and only when they were performing the heaviest squats, dead lifts and overhead presses? Now it seems everyone who wears a belt-- from the Arnold wannabes to the elite few who make the cover of Powerlifting USA--regardless of what exercise they're performing or how heavy they're lifting. Squats? You MUST wear a belt. Bench presses? You SHOULD wear a belt. Biceps curls? Well, you know, just to be on the safe side...

It's getting ridiculous.

The trend to wear a weight belt has now extended beyond the gym doors. Trash collectors, truck drivers, and construction workers often spend their entire workday in a weight belt--as do mail carriers, grocery clerks and even the pizza guy. Some companies have gone so far as to make it a mandatory safety policy that all employees wear a back harness. Next thing you know it's going to be a misdemeanor to drive a car without a weight belt! What's going on here? Do weight belts really protect the back? Will they make you stronger? Can the estimated 85 percent of Americans who will suffer from at least one episode of back pain in their lives find relief, and possibly even avoid surgery, by making a weight belt a habit?

Before I answer these questions, try to dig up recent pictures of the world's best Olympic weightlifters in competition. Not the American weightlifters who are losing the struggle to achieve international respect, but our European counterparts who are breaking records and winning world and Olympic titles. Isn't it interesting that they never use belts when performing the snatch lift, and seldom in the clean and jerk? Even in training you'll find that many of these lifters prefer to train without any forms of artificial support. In fact, IronMind Enterprises sells videos of these athletes squatting over 700 pounds without a belt! Either these athletes are really stupid, or they know something that we don't.

INTRA-ABDOMINAL PRESSURE TO THE RESCUE

To determine whether or not weight belts can protect the back, it's necessary to first look at one of the body's support mechanisms for the spine: intra abdominal pressure.

As you bend forward, the pressure in your lumbar disks should increase in direct proportion to the degree of forward bending. When using heavy weights in the squat and dead lift, intra-disk pressure may rise 300 percent above normal--such high levels of stress could cause disk herniation if your body did not take measures to protect these structures.

When you bend forward your abdominal muscles contract, compressing the internal organs, forcing them downward into the pelvic basin and upward into the diaphragm. Through this intra-abominal pressure mechanism there is a decompression of the two lowest vertebral disks (L4/5 and L5/S1). This decompression may be as great as 30 percent or as low as 6 percent. Regardless of the magnitude of the decompression, the important point to remember is that these two lumbar disks carry the greatest load of all spinal disks. If the intra-abdominal pressure mechanism is weakened or faulty, it will proportionally affect the other mechanisms, leaving the lower lumbar disks at a high risk for injury.

ENTER THE WEIGHT BELT

So how do weight belts fit into this picture?

When a weight belt or back harness is wrapped tightly around your torso, intra-abdominal pressure increases. This belt compression creates a mechanical phenomenon known as "hoop tension," and this hoop tension will enable you to lift more weight.

A good way to understand hoop tension is to visualize what occurs when you squeeze toothpaste out of the tube. When you apply pressure to the tube, the hoop tension forces the toothpaste to ooze out one end of the tube. Knee wraps utilize hoop tension around knee joint to help you lift more weight in squats. Because these wraps are compressive and restrict freedom of motion in the hinge joint, an extension force is created in direct proportion to the level of hoop tension. You can determine how much hoop tension contributes to your squat by seeing how much you can lift with and without wraps.

Hoop tension develops naturally when you contract your abdominals or artificially when you tighten your weight belt. The result is a "hydraulic amplifier mechanism" that assists in straightening the spine. Natural hoop tension is the body's innate mechanism for increasing your lifting ability. However, the more of an increase in capacity you experience from a weight belt, the greater the weakness and functional deficit you have in the abdominal wall.

Wait there's more!

Weighing the value of potential increased strength from wearing a weight belt and potential risk requires you to understand the downside of weight belts as well as the pluses. For example, there's a limit to how much intra-abdominal pressure your body will allow, and this is always less than the the pressure in the blood vessels that pass through the diaphragm. If you were able to exceed the blood pressure levels in these vessels, the blood flow to the heart would be stopped!

To ensure sufficient circulation to the heart, when you lift heavy weights your abdominal muscles only contract hard enough to develop the optimal amount of intra-abdominal pressure. Consequently, chronic use of a weight belt will DECONDITION the abdominal muscles' capacity to develop intra-abdominal pressure. This causes a big problem the day you show up to the gym (or work) without a weight belt. For other athletes, especially those involved in contact sports like football and boxing, having deconditioned trunk muscles will subject their lower lumbar discs to considerable stress.

Because weight belts are usually very wide, they restrict motion in the lumbar spine. When you bend forward during exercises like squats or good mornings, 80 percent of the lumbar motion occurs in the lower two lumbar disks. With the addition of a tightly cinched weight belt, the upper lumbar segments become partially immobilized, forcing the lower two lumbar disks to contribute more than their fair share of the work. This stress accelerates degeneration in these disks, which are the most commonly injured to begin with.

A weight belt also affects the natural rotation of the lumbar spine, reducing the work of the lumbar stabilizer muscles. This deconditions and destabilizes the lumbar spine, an effect which also accelerates the onset of disk degeneration, destruction and possibly osteoarthritis. Finally, prolonged use of a weight belt can affect your natural diaphragmatic breathing pattern, resulting in overuse of the accessory respiratory muscles. Clinically, this "chest breathing" is associated with tension headaches, poor posture and accelerated degenerative changes in the cervical spine.

WEANING YOURSELF FROM THE BELT

If you currently use a weight belt, I suggest weaning yourself from it--don't go cold turkey! You need to retrain and recondition the abdominal mechanism first.

Start by wearing your belt only when performing lifts of more than 85 percent intensity. After each two weeks, reduce your use to only lifts of more than 90, 95 and 100 percent. As you become more comfortable without the belt you can eventually stop using it altogether (except perhaps in competitions), relying upon and maintaining the body's own protective mechanism.

Weight belts have long been touted for their protective and even therapeutic qualities. In Joe Weider's book ULTIMATE BODYBUILDING the Master Blaster tells us "A weight lifting belt supports your lower back and abdomen, thereby preventing injuries to the middle of your body. It is particularly necessary to use a weight lifting belt when doing squats, heavy overhead pressing movements, or any type of dead lift or rowing motion."

The fact is: Prolonged use of weight belts contributes to dysfunction and injury in the lumbar spine. I realize that despite compelling evidence to the contrary, many powerlifters would rather believe their training partners and gym lore and will continue wearing a belt. But the final decision as to wear a belt or not is yours--think carefully before you decide.


#2

Good idea. In case anyone wants to read the full text by Paul Chek it appeared in the early days of t-mag (2000 - issue 121 is where it starts).

Great information. It's really sad to see all of the workers at Home Depot and Wal Mart wearing those back braces when you know that it's hurting more than helping.

In the days that I went to an actual gym, I was reminded daily that I should be wearing a belt. There were even signs up in the gym saying that it was necessary for all people using free weights to have a belt. I would up just carrying one around all the time.


#3

Great article. Thanks for the post!


#4

even bounty hunters wear weight belts. watching this week's episode of Dog:Bounty Hunter and lo-and behold the wife was wearing a Valeo belt while they were searching for a fugitive.

I too am perturbed by the fact that some bone head actually convinced the Walton conglomerate that their employees need to wear elastic-neoprene brace belts to work. They also still pay out big in work-comp settlements to employees with "sore" backs and "sore" necks. When I worked at the Hilo, HI store I got verbally warned because I was not wearing my brace belt. Then again I was actually doing heavy work. Ever seen a door greeter get an injured back while greeting patrons into a store while sitting in a chair? I've seen it, classic bull-job.


#5

Hi Everyone
I believe that in general Paul is correct but as usual his words get used and taken as gospal by his disciples.
The other day I was at a high profile fitness exhibition in Birmingham UK (LIW), I was trying out a power plate which for those of you not familiar with it is a vibrating platform; the sales girl was telling me to try various movements, when she told me to squat she informed me that I should pull my belly button in! I told her that this was unnecessary and that I was quite familiar with good squatting technique and that it didn't involve pulling the belly button in, and that in this instance Chek is wrong, yes I'd already figured out that she was a Chekkie! I recommended that she read the essay by Mel Siff about hollowing verses braceing. She then came up the great comment of I bet you use a belt!! What, is this now a capital offence? I told her that I only use a belt for singles when I squat and that without a belt I can do a Good Morning with over 500 pounds, I then had to explain what a good morning was! Bloody chekkies if its not done on a swiss ball and now on a power plate they haven't got a clue.
Anyway back to the point in question. For a serious lifter the lifting belt is a great tool, read Dave Tates articles and he describes how to use the belt for extra leverage thus incraesing your lifts, he actually recommends that the belt be worn losely. Having said that the average recreational lifter along with shop workers probably doesn't need them.
Regards, BJ


#6

Blond Jerk, do you mean that instead of pulling belly button in that you should fill up the gut with air and bulge it out to make it bigger & contracted?

Well, it took me some time and some major pain before I learned to properly brace. Now in retrospect I think that tightening the abs to create the pressure is the most important thing one can do, whether it is lifting weights or groceries, or getting out of a low-sitting car or picking up a toy off the floor.

Seriously, just like in the article on Low-Back Pain which can be found on here, sometimes I would pick my gym bag up and my next step would be a limp.
Likewise, getting out of my car previously used to send a jolt of pain through my lower back, but now that I brace every time, the pain is 100% absent. NOw the process is all but subconcious and is becoming integrated into my daily life. Thus, I don't expect back pain problems for quite a long time!


#7

The only time I ever use a belt is when I do my last set of deadlifts or squats, 3 reps with heavy for me weight.

Is this still not good? It doesnt matter anyway - my belt no longer fits me so I am contemplating getting a smaller one but now that I read this I am wondering if I even need it.


#8

I only used my belt on heavy, heavy squats and deadlifts. Now, I don't use it at all. If I competed in powerlifting, I would probably use it every once in a while on max attempts.

As for the whole "intra-abdominal" pressure thing and how you're supposed to suck in your abs and what not, don't worry about it. As Charles Staley has already said numerous times, your body will do what it needs to automatically. Just focus on lifting the weight.


#9

The overuse of belts is definitely a problem. For the average lifter, wearing a weightbelt will not overcome poor technique in a lift. In fact, it may give them false confidence and increase their risk of injury. For those of you who wear a belt with everything, seek the advice of an expert before losing the belt completely. (And just because someone is certified does not mean they are an expert!)


#10

I have often noticed that the guys who wear belts the most are ones with the most back problems. Hmmm...which came first the chicken or the egg.. Do they wear the belt because of their back problems, or do they have back problems because they are always wearing a belt? (Kinda like always riding a bike with training wheels)

Shadow


#11

thaanks for the post.