I’ve been an avid weight lifter for the better part of my life. I became hooked on weights at the age of 13 and as I quickly approach my 54th birthday, I can honestly tell you that since then, I haven’t missed more than five consecutive days in the gym. During much of this time, a weight lifting belt was basically an additional appendage. I would drag a belt around with me to the gym on a daily basis and I would rely on it for support during heaving bench presses, squats and deadlifts. Just knowing that I had the extra support would give me the confidence to approach loads that I wouldn’t otherwise consider.
Then one day, while training in my gym, a huge guy rolled in on a wheel chair. He was one of these guys who’s presence was immediately felt by the entire room. His shoulders spilled out over the sides of the chair and his 6’6” frame still bore the signs of a serious athlete. It was clear this guy wasn’t your run of the mill neighborhood gym rat.
I recognized him immediately. It was Mike Utley. Mike had been a menacing force in the National Football League. Mike was a standout player at Washington State University who earned consensus All-American honors his senior year. He was picked up by the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 1989 NFL draft. I remember watching Detroit play the LA Rams on November 17, 1991. Mike was in his third year of a stellar NFL career when he was injured during a routine play. I recall how eerily quiet the crowd grew as Mike was carried off the field and how devastated we all were to later learn that he’d been paralyzed from the chest down.
I walked over to Mike and introduced myself. Over the course of the next hour, we chatted between sets. He told me how he refused to let his injury slow him down. Unable to play in the NFL he now enjoyed sky diving and still managed to workout with weights on a daily basis. Before long he pointed to my belt and asked why I bothered to use one. I tried my best to explain, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He explained how in the real world, we don’t have the luxury of reaching for a weight belt if we’re required to lift anything heavy in an emergency. “What if you had to push a car off of an accident victim? Would you ask them to wait while you ran home to grab your weight belt?”, he asked. As crazy as it sounds, it made sense to me. Mike went on to explain how he never trained with a belt and none of the guys on his teams used belts either. “They’re a silly psychological crutch. Toss it aside. You don’t need it,” he said.
That was the last day I ever used a weight lifting belt and I can honestly say that I lift heavier weight today than I lifted back then, and that was about 15 years ago. So whether you use a belt or not, it’s really just a personal choice. Strength experts tend to be divided on the issue. Powerlifters, for example, obsess over the use of highly specialized weight lifting belts, while CrossFitters wouldn’t be caught dead in one. Bodybuilders are split with some believing belts essential for both safety and performance reasons and others believing them to actually increase your risk of injury over time. Olympic lifters don’t really care one way or another.
According to an interview in T-Nation, leading strength coach, Mike Roberts isn’t a fan of the belt. Roberts says, “An athlete really doesn’t get anything out of using a belt. And many times it works against them because the goal is to build a balanced body that works as a functional unit. When we assess our clients, they almost universally come in with a weak or underdeveloped core. As such, we have to rebuild this over time with smart coaching and exercise progressions.” The bottom line: An over-reliance on belts can lead to a weakened core. Think of a belt like a crutch – use it too much and the muscles don’t respond because the belt is there.
As with most things, I believe the right answer lies somewhere in the middle. The majority of people shouldn’t be wearing lifting belts the majority of the time. You should use a belt only when you are going for a max or near max lift in the squat or deadlift, and the weight on the bar is significant. In this case, a belt will certainly help you complete the lift by providing more support to your abs and lower back. But the belt shouldn’t be a part of your every day training. And it should never be used while performing a movement that has you lying down or in a seated position.
In my case, weening myself off the belt was the right decision. I didn’t really need one. At my age, I’m no longer handling excessively heavy weight. Today, it’s more about remaining injury free, as even a minor injury can keep me sidelined for longer than I’d like. So consider weening yourself off the belt. It worked for Mike Utley and its worked for me. Plus, you never know when you might find yourself rescuing someone from under a heavy car. You’d hate to be the guy who needs to run home and grab his belt, while the victim lays pinned under that car!