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Weightlifting belts are reportedly used by a quarter of recreational weight trainers, and their benefits to lifting performance is supported by a large body of research. The data suggest that belts reduce compressional forces on the spine, with most research implicating increases in intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). One study has suggested, alternatively, that the reduction is due to a moment generated by the belt itself.

Research reports consistently higher lifting velocities with weightlifting belts, and there is even some evidence¹ ², which contradicts the common assumption that they are detrimental to core development, that they may improve lumbar (erector spinae) and abdominal (rectus abdominis) muscle activation. Although this claim may seem dubious—how might an accessory that supports the core muscles bolster their development?—it is not out of the bounds of possibility.

However, all of the research hitherto seems to have been focused on the immediate physiological and biomechanical differences between the belt and no-belt states, and their consequent effect on performance. That is, a weightlifting belt may indeed increase erector spinae activation whilst the belt is worn, but that does not imply, necessarily, that the same activation will occur after the belt is removed. There appears yet to be no evidence that weightlifting belts offer any general benefit to training and adaptation.

From a personal perspective, at my peak, I performed my heaviest squat and deadlift, which represented 230% and 270% of my body-weight, respectively, without wearing a belt. And not once did I ever wear a belt in training. But that was as much personal preference as it was rationale. Clearly we are able to lift heavily and safely without a belt, but that does not imply that it is ideal.

So my question is this: does anyone know of any objective evidence that weightlifting belts either improve or hurt long-term development of core/trunk strength? I am especially interested in their effect on the development of the core muscles (particularly the diaphragm, pelvic floor, multifidus, and transversus abdominis).

  • You may be interested in my response to Why is it easier to lift weight using a belt? – rrirower Jun 1 at 19:52
  • Thank you for your response, @rrirower. I am not so much interested in why belts make it easier to lift; the primary mechanisms, at least, seem to be well understood. I am interested to know whether any objective evidence has been established on their long-term effect on core muscle development. For example, do they improve or hurt the development of the transversus abdominis, diaphragm, or pelvic floor for later lifting without a belt? – POD Jun 1 at 22:06
  • Does doing an exercise with an easier version hurt your progress? Sometimes, sometimes not. – user30019 Jun 2 at 14:11
  • It's like when you can't do handstand push ups so you do them with legs on a wall. One could argue that there are better ways , faster ways to learn free handstand push ups and that doing them on a wall is a waste of time...a waste of time but not a regression in strength. – user30019 Jun 2 at 14:13
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    Thank you for your response, @Kek. I understand what you are saying, but interestingly, there is also evidence that weightlifting belts alter our biomechanics, so even motor learning is possibly impacted negatively. That begs the question: do belts improve our ‘unbelted’ performance? I trust the answer is yes in general, but I suspect the answer is no for the core. This, of course, is what many others believe too. But I am interested to know if there is any research to support that theory, especially given the prevalence of belt use amongst elite lifters. – POD Jun 2 at 22:26
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There currently exists no evidence in the literature to suggest that the use of weightlifting belts during training improves long-term unbelted performance in any way.

Given the prevalence of their use, this finding should be surprising. The premise behind the behaviour, of course, is the assumption that belts support the erector spinae in limiting spinal flexion, thereby mitigating injury. However, this notion is invalidated by the observation that activation of the erector spinae is greater during belted peformance: weightlifting belts force the spinal extensors to work harder—not less. And whilst this might ostensibly appear positive, the strength of the erector spinae is not the only limiting factor in spinal strength. Furthermore, a study of 245 elite powerlifters revealed greater rates of injury to the lumbar spine amongst athletes wearing belts, as compared with those who did not, suggesting that lifters likely overestimate the support that belts provide. Indeed, since trained weightlifters and powerlifters can lift, on average, only around 5% more whilst wearing a belt, and since belts make no difference to the lifting strength of untrained subjects, it is not entirely clear whether weightlifting belts offer any inherent advantage whatsoever, or whether the perceived advantage they afford is the consequence of athletes' being trained to rely on them. It is entirely possible, even probable, that biomechanical changes that occur when a belt is worn force a pattern of motor recruitment, and hence a pattern of distinct muscular development, that is optimised for belted lifting.

Without further research comparing the performances of athletes trained entirely with and without weightlifting belts, or examining the hypertrophy of the core muscles—transversus abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm, and pelvic floor—as a consequence of both training states, any conclusions we might draw necessarily amount to conjecture. However, what is clear is that (1) belts are unnecessary for elite-level strength development and performance; (2) maximal lifts can be performed safely without a belt; (3) activation of the transversus abdominis and internal oblique is positively and significantly associated only with unbelted lifting; (4) belts result in higher rates of spinal injury amongst athletes who are most practiced in their use; (5) belts have little or no effect on power, velocity, or range of motion; and (6) belts offer little or no advantage to untrained individuals.

In view of the evidence, there is currently no scientific justification for the use of weightlifting belts, other than for competition efforts by athletes who have routinely used them in training. It is probable that belts offer no advantage to strength development, and may even hinder it.

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A belt basically is a second transverse abdominus muscle. it looks like the muscle even, and as you wrap it around you, it performs the same function. The belt naturally is stronger so it is capable of protecting your spine more. This being said, naturally, just like with weight lifting straps, you're teaching your transverse abdominus to not activate since the belt is taking over, so naturally the stomach muscle wont strengthen. but that's just during your deadlifting exercise.

This being said, there's ways around this. one is that if you supplement your routine with a healthy core workout that strengthens all your core muscles, you do not need to worry about removing your core from an exercise. The second way is that if you aren't trying to set a new PR, or you're doing more than 8 reps, it should be fine to not use a belt provided that your core can handle the load. This will target the core as a secondary muscle but I'd still suggest supplementary core work. The thing about weak muscles is that usually an exercise will workout your weakest muscles first, even if they aren't the primary muscles. in a DL, if you cant hold onto the weight very long than your forearms get a workout, but you lose out actually benefiting your primary muscles. for your ab muscles though, the exercise wont target it but just make it quit working, so instead of it working your ab muscles, your spine will just take over and possibly get damaged. for that reason if your abs are weak you either need to use a lighter load or use a belt.

Using a belt is recommended for heavy loads and is necessary to make progress, as your ab muscles can only work so hard to protect your spine. Yes, if you use a weight belt say starting from 300 lb to 500lbs and you tried to remove the belt, your abs, while strong enough to maintain the load, will need eased into that kind of a workload without shocking them to fail. Same goes for lifting straps, you lose out on forearm development but you can supplement that anyway.

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  • Thank you for your response. I agree with all of your summary in theory. However, I cannot find any objective evidence to support that theory. I personally disagree with the standard recommendation to wear belts for heavy lifting, since at least according to the theory, we are necessarily creating a weakness in the chain. (We are only as strong as our weakest link.) And I have been able to perform my own maximum lifts without a belt throughout my own training career, and with a feeling of total security—hence my search for supporting evidence for either the theory or common practice. – POD Jun 3 at 3:34
  • Well if you can manage it, then yeah go without it. I don't use a belt but I stick to below 300lbs as well. The weakest link gets worked out more, so if your core is weak, then your other muscles such as glutes and hamstrings aren't really getting worked out until your core is no longer weakest. I definitely use straps because I can lift an extra 50 lbs and my glutes get worked out a lot more, whereas before, it KILLED my forearms but did nothing for the rest of me. So I do deadlifts with farmer carries now to strengthen my forearms like before – Ace Cabbie Jun 5 at 2:08
  • It's also hard to find evidence because the answer is different depending on the spine, and it is difficult to test unless the control group in the study wants to injure their spine for science. I can provide research that shows when you workout your weakest link, the other muscles(primary muscles) don't get the work they deserve, so its better to to a weak muscle focused workout and focus on your weakest link. Its like having weak grip without gloves so you can only bench 100 but with gloves you can do 225. While grip improves your chest won't. It's more efficient to supplement grip exercises – Ace Cabbie Jun 5 at 2:14
  • I have found numerous studies examining the effects of a weightlifting belts whilst the belt is being worn, and I have found studies examining hypertrophy of the various core muscles—transversus abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm, and pelvic floor—in relation to some other variable, but I cannot find anything that has examined the chronic effects of weightbelt use on core strength. This is rather surprising given the ubiquity of their use. – POD Jun 14 at 10:39

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