A common question we get asked is, "What is your opinion on using a belt when lifting?" Lots of people use belts, but is it a good idea, and when do you really need one?
The first point to think about is why we are lifting heavy in the first place (a belt should definitely not be used at low RPEs). If you are a pro body builder, you will be lifting heavy to grow a certain muscle group, which is determined by your personal progressive overload thresholds. In this instance you might use the belt as support in order to grow bigger legs whilst squatting without developing a thicker midsection. If this is you, this blog is not for you. However, if you're trying to become stronger in lifts as well as functionally stronger in a more broad perspective then read on. (This should be everyone unless you are a bodybuilder!)
Becoming stronger can mean a number of things. Lifting heavily in one lift, being stronger in all your lifts or just generally trying to be stronger in everyday life. To achieve strength in most formats, compound exercises are imperative. So, if you train regularly and perform the big compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and bench, you should understand the term bracing on at least a basic level.
Bracing is all about bringing as many muscle groups into a lift as possible, by 'bracing' your whole body, and especially your core. Your torso may not be the main area firing in order to complete a lift, but it will be the bridging point that allows you to recruit all the necessary strength from every muscle group. For example, when you deadlift, if you can't brace your mid section then there is no link between your shoulders (connecting your arms to the bar), your hips and your knees (driving away from the floor). This is why the strongest lifters have an incredibly strong midsection.
So now that we know why we need a pressurised torso, how can we create it?
To put this into practice, the best way to describe how your torso should be used is as a piece of steel between two hinges (hips and shoulders). What you don't want is a fishing rod that is flexing under pressure and unable to maintain rigidity.
There are three elements to this. One is muscular tension, two is posture/mobility and 3 is air pressure.
Posture - If you have an over arched back or tilted hips that you are unable to correct then the port of call will be to correct this, before you even think about getting into a strength program.
Muscular Tension - Before we deadlift we have to make sure that the abs, obliques, lower back, upper back and TVA are all being contracted to give us a strong, stable torso. Once we have done this we will be able to squat to a relatively heavy weight if our legs and glutes are strong enough. (Most people blame a weak squat on their legs, but normally your core will fail first!)
Air Pressure - Before you perform a rep, take a deep breath in, open up your diaphragm and then hold that tension. This new air pressure inside you will help you keep stability in your core as your knees and hips hinge.
So where does the belt come in?
We have to work against our abdominal wall in order to keep the pressure. So inevitably we are pretty limited here. If we lose tension in our abs then the air pressure fails too. The reason for the belt is that it provides an extra strong wall for us to use against our air pressure, kind of like having extra core muscle that you can involuntary control, and always remains rigid no matter how tired you are. This is great for big lifts, but if a belt is used all the time than we will never develop that strong core we need.
A strong core is so vital and I encourage all of my Personal Training clients to never use a belt in order to develop well rounded and balanced athletes who can transfer the strength gained in the gym into everyday life.
So in conclusion, if you are going for a huge PB, and your posture, core strength and air pressure are good to go, then belt up and go for it. But otherwise, learn to not need it and develop a stronger core so that when you do use it you have that extra edge.