More women are strapping on weightlifting belts to squat and deadlift—here are the benefits and drawbacks of wearing one.

By By Gabrielle Kassel
Updated: December 19, 2018
Photo: South_agency / Getty Images

More women than ever before are loading up the barbell and squatting and we are (ahem) pumped. Beyond just sculpting your butt, there are hella health benefits to the barbell back squat (and to lifting weights in general, for that matter).

As more women take on the squat rack, you may have noticed-at your CrossFit box, at the gym, or on your social feeds-that some are cinching themselves into a weightlifting belt. (For the uninitiated, these belts are usually 4 to 6 inches tall, made of leather, neoprene, or nylon and secured around your waist with either Velcro or a buckle. Think: If Thor wanted to accentuate his waist, this would be his pick.)

But ever wonder what these belts really do and if you need to be wearing one? Below, everything you need to know.

The Benefits of Wearing a Weightlifting Belt

Weightlifting belts are basically the Spanx of strength training. "They increase intra-abdominal pressure, which provides more stability to the spine and rigidity to the core when you perform a movement like a squat, deadlift, or overhead press," says Morgan Olson, an ISSA-certified trainer, CrossFit Level 2 coach, and founder of Babe, Go Lift. Translation: They hold everything in.

"This can be especially beneficial if you're lifting a very heavy load or trying to hit a one rep max (1RM)," she says. What's considered a heavy load? Anything above 80 to 85 percent of your 1RM. (Related: How to Work Toward Your One Rep Max If You're New to Lifting Heavy)

So, no, these aren't exactly for beginners. Rather, they're a great tool for seasoned lifters and competitors, says Kendall Janicola, a personal trainer and instructor at Fhitting Room, a high-intensity training studio in NYC. "When you want to hit a PR or are competing, the added stability can help you lift heavier." In fact, research has shown that wearing a belt can increase your performance by up to 15 percent. However, she suggests only using the belt once in a while when testing your lifts. "You always want to be able to confidently and safely lift 'raw'-or without equipment." Read on to find out why.

The Downsides to Wearing a Weightlifting Belt

We're all for lifting heavy-it's key to building metabolism-revving muscle, staving off osteoporosis, and feeling stronger and more badass than ever before. But sound form and technique when you lift are crucial, and that starts with lifting light. Full stop.

"A weightlifting belt cannot compensate for a weak core, bad technique, or improper bracing when you lift. It's not magic," says Janicola. (ICYDK, bracing your core is strength training speak for "engage those abs" or "draw your belly button to your spine.")

Plain and simple, before you start lifting heavy (with or without a belt), you need to be able to do the movements with good form, know how to breathe to brace your core, and how to create intra-abdominal pressure. To practice bracing your core as you read this, stand up, roll your shoulders back and open your chest. Gently tuck your pelvis and squeeze your glute muscles. You should be able to feel the lower part of your abs engage as you do this.

Okay, but what if your form is sound and you're ready to lift heavy-or you're already lifting heavy? Use the belt sometimes. "If you use the belt too often or rely too heavily on it for spine support and core stabilization, you stop actually using or strengthening the muscles needed to naturally support the spine," explains certified personal trainer Katie Dunlop, NCCPT, founder of Love Sweat Fitness. "If the belt becomes a crutch, it can actually result in a loss of abdominal strength."(Related: How Often Should You Be Lifting Heavy?) So, as with many things in fitness, more isn't always better.

Finally, let your body be your guide. While most people wear a belt to prevent injury, it may actually have the opposite effect. "A belt can mask lower-back pain," says Janicola. "If you have back pain, make sure you're not using the belt to make squatting hurt less. The belt isn't curing the injury and eventually will exacerbate it even more."

So Should You Wear a Weightlifting Belt?

Generally speaking, you probably don't need it. First focus on building core strength and improving your squat technique-even if that means not lifting as heavy. And even if you are going max-effort and want belt support, you shouldn't need to strap one on very often. "One rep maxes are an occasional part of programming for CrossFitters and powerlifters, but they're not something you need to be incorporating into your regular workout routine often, even if you're a competitive powerlifter," says Olson.

And remember, says Janicola, when it comes to adding any lifting accessories-a weightlifting belt, lifting shoes, knee wraps, wrist wraps, or grips-it's important to make sure you don't need them.

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