This is your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.
Watch an Olympic weightlifting competition, and you’ll notice many athletes sporting a key piece of gear in addition to stiff-soled shoes and circus-strongman singlets: Belts. Big, thick ones.
Some are leather and some are rigid nylon, but they all serve a specific purpose: To increase the athletes’ intra-abdominal pressure, and thus help support their spines when lifting extraordinarily heavy loads.
Weight belts are primarily safety devices, and when used as directed, research shows that they work as advertised. But here’s what else research suggests: If you don’t do Olympic lifting, you’re likely better off not using them.
The reason is twofold. First, your body already comes equipped with its own weight belt. It’s called the transverse abdominis (TA), and it’s located right behind your rectus abdominis, encircling your lower abdomen and all of the organs therein. Together with the other muscles of your core, the TA works to support and stabilize your spine, especially when you’re pumping iron or otherwise challenging your body’s strength and power.
Second, research suggests that while wearing a weight belt can increase lower back stability when lifting, repeated use can decrease the engagement of your core muscles, increasing your risk of injury when you lift without the support.
Your Move: Unless you’re going for max weight in the snatch or clean-and-jerk, or squatting or deadlifting more than 80-percent of your one rep max, ditch the belt. For all those guys strapping in for training days that don’t even come close to engaging your spine—we’re looking at you over there repping out barbell curls in the squat rack—please stop.
Instead, focus on strengthening your body’s natural weight belt (i.e., your TA) and fully engaging it during heavy lifts. Planks and hollow holds are good options for developing this key core muscle, and both will also train you to engage it by drawing your bellybutton towards your spine. You want to do that (i.e., engage your TA) during virtually every exercise you do to boost stability and minimize your risk of back injury. And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you can’t lift the weight safely without wearing a belt, lighten the load.
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