Should you wear a lifting belt? The answer to this question may vary, depending on who you ask. Then there are the facts.
Let's take bodybuilders for example. Some bodybuilders are against the use of lifting belts, while others won't take them off, believing that they will stop their waist from growing while training. The rest of the bodybuilding community can lay anywhere in between.
Then you speak to Cross Fitters who, for the majority are proud that they don't wear a lifting belt, ever. And those Olympic Weightlifters, for the most part, well they couldn't care less about a belt.
Powerlifters are without a doubt, the biggest users and proponents of lifting belts. Powerlifters use belts because the consensus amongst them is they aid in performance, helping them move more weight. This is quite important for powerlifters.
So do belts work, and if so, what do they do?
Benefits Of A Wearing A Belt
One benefit of wearing a belt is, it makes you stronger and allows you to preform more repititions. This benefit isn't across the board, wearing a belt probably won't jack your biceps curl up or your lat pull-down, but you probably shouldn't be wearing a belt for these anyway. Belts help you squat and deadlift more, for more reps, which is why powerlifters love them so and how they can benefit bodybuilders.
Belts work by acting as a wall for your abdominals to push against, which increases strength and protects the spine. Belts do this by increasing intraabdominal pressure (stability of the core). This increase in pressure decreases the sheers stress on the spine. Wearing a lifting belt increases intraabdominal pressure about 15% when used with deadlifts and around 40% when used for squatting.
How To Use A Belt Correctly
One of the most overlooked factors when using a belt is using it correctly. When lifting maximal weights, it's important you get things right.
1) Belt Placement
First thing is the correct placement of the belt. Most people wear a belt in the small of their backs (on top of the iliac crest), with the buckle around your lower abdominals. Belts should be worn reasonably low, but not so low it impedes your lifts and gets jammed in the crease of your hips.
When you get more experienced using a belt, you can play around with angles and positions a bit, but to start with you should find a position that is comfortable.
2) Belt Tightness
The next step is getting the correct tightness. You should get the belt as tight as possible, while still allowing you to take in a full breath of air. If you can't take in a full breath of air or have to lift your shoulders in order to take in the full breath, you have the belt too tight.
3) Breathing Correctly
The third and arguably most important part of using a belt correctly to increase strength is breathing properly. Most lifters use a technique known as the 'valsalva maneuver' to maximise the effectiveness of the belt on increasing intraabdominal pressure.
This technique involves taking a large breath of air into your stomach and then forcefully trying to exhale with your glottis (throat) closed. The pressure this creates, pushes the abdominals into the belt, creating the stability.
Belts can increase strength and the amount of reps one can do on lifts like the squat and deadlift and also work to protect the spine, by increasing intraabdominal stability. It's easy to see why bodybuilders and powerlifters would benefit from this.
This does not mean that you should wear a belt for every rep you perform. The general recommendation is that you only wear a belt while performing maximal lifts (generally squats, deadlifts or similar movements). The rest of your training should be done beltless to ensure that the muscles in this area develop correctly and you aren't using your belt as a crux.