The Why And When Of Weight Belts
For those of you who are experienced powerlifters, or for whom barbells are your first love, using a weight belt, and the benefits of using a weight belt during certain times of your training, may seem like a no brainer. However, if you are an amateur powerlifter, and/or kettlebells are your first love, and/or you are a barefoot and beltless kettlebeller like me, understanding why, when, and BELIEVING why you should use a weight belt in certain instances in your training and that it truly makes a difference may take some convincing and personal experience.
Before I started training with the Cressey Sports Performance Women’s Powerlifting Group with Coach Tony Bonvechio last September 2015 I had done some barbell lifting (nothing like the training I am doing at present), but mainly kettlebell lifting, and I had taken a complete break from the barbell for three years, from 2011-2014, to start Iron Body Studios and to train for the Iron Maiden Challenge. I had never used a weight belt before until I started powerlifting last fall 2015. In fact I went through my first six weeks of powerlifting without touching a weight belt and used a weight belt for the first time this past October 2015.
When my coach Tony Bonvechio first had me use a weight belt I asked him, “Does it really make a difference?” He replied, “Yes it does. It can add 50lbs to your lift if you learn how to use it properly.”
I believed him but as someone who is an experienced kettlebell lifter, yet amateur powerlifter, I still wasn’t completely sold. Here’s why…
As humans, our bodies are built to naturally provide us with the support of a weight belt through the musculature of our mid-section. If engaged properly, our mid-section provides us with proper reflexive stability and strength that serves as this built-in weight belt by helping us to brace and stabilize.
In hardstyle kettlebell training we learn tension techniques combined with a diaphragmatic power breath that helps us to brace against this built-in weight belt and maximize its function. Based upon these hardstyle training techniques and my experience as a kettlebell lifter, I believed that your body should be able to do all the work without the help of something like a weight belt. However, as I’ve learned over the past six months powerlifting, as the weights we are lift get heavier, like 300lbs heavy, without having something to tangibly brace against, we can risk losing this brace and not engage every muscle properly that needs to play a part in lifting that weight.
For example, think of how your midsection feels wearing a pair of tight pants with a belt after eating a big meal. You feel your belly pressing against the waist of the pants and the belt and the pressure in your mid-section builds. As soon as you loosen that belt, the pressure releases.
When I used a weight belt in training last October 2015 for the first time, I had a taste of how effective it could be. As I braced and pulled the weight off the floor I noticed that it was difficult for me to lose my brace as my entire midsection from front to back pressed against the weight belt like pressure in a cylinder. Not only did the weight belt help me to maintain my brace but it also increased the strength and power of the brace thereby helping the weight that I was pulling off the ground to feel lighter.
However, at that time I still was not convinced that it was a game changer, and exactly HOW it was a game changer, and that I would need to purchase one for my own training. I am stubborn I know… At that time my max deadlift was 250lbs in October 2015 and then shortly went up to 275lbs on November 5, 2015.
When 250lbs and 275lbs we my max deadlift weights, training percentages without a weight belt were manageable. This changed after December 2015 when I deadlifted 300lbs at my first powerlifting meet. After this accomplishment I set a new goal to eventually deadlift three times my bodyweight at 360lbs, so my goal is to continue to lift heavier and get stronger.
After deadlifting 300lbs and setting this as my new single rep max weight for the deadlift, all of my training percentages went up to high, heavy numbers and I still did not own a weight belt.
I trained heavy deadlifts, with these new heavier and higher weights as my training percentages, for about six weeks through January and February without a weight belt.
I noticed that my back would fatigue and the muscles in my back would be sore for three or four days. NOW, your back muscles should get sore on occasion from training heavy deadlifts as your back builds strength with the rest of your body to deadlift heavy weight. BUT, it should not be an every-time-you-train occurrence.
I finally purchased a weight belt and used it for the first time recently. It was a GAME CHANGER and I am now a believer. Here’s why…
Not only did the weight belt help 240lbs to feel like 220lbs, but also the weights (e.g. 240lbs and 255lbs 80-85% of my max weight for multiple sets of 3 reps) that made my back fatigue quickly and sore for days after training did not make my back fatigued or sore.
Instead of the muscles in my back being sore, my LATS were sore. The weight belt forced me to use all of my pulling muscles, from my hips to my lats, most effectively. Without the weight belt I was losing tension and my brace, and letting my back do more work than it should have been doing. With the weight belt, I felt like I could brace the most effectively because I had the weight belt to brace against.
I am a believer in a weight belt, however, there is some criteria as to when you should use a weight belt. Personally I like to use it in my training when I doing multiple reps and sets starting with a weight that is 80-85% of my max lift. The weight belt helps me to lift stronger for longer so that I can complete all of my training for that day and not need an extended recovery for days afterwards.
As an expert in his field, my Coach Tony Bonvechio provides the following guidance when it comes to using a weight belt,
“A belt is a teaching tool to learn how to brace effectively. You want to brace the same exact way with or without a belt: ribs down, abs and glutes squeezed, and inhale air into your stomach, sides and lower back. The belt makes this way easier because it gives you an external object to brace against.
I don’t like to pick an arbitrary weight or percentage to start wearing the belt, but typically whatever weight is heavy enough to cause technique breakdown is where the belt can be most helpful. For some people that’s 80 percent of their 1-rep max, while others can lift beltless with no issues up to a much higher percentage. I think all lifters should strive to train beltless as much as possible so they can learn to brace without the belt. Then, once they put the belt on for really heavy sets (sets of 1-3 reps at 90 percent or higher), they’ll crush everything with good technique and bar speed.” ~Tony Bonvechio
For those of you who are amateur powerlifters like me, or not quite sold on the benefits of the weight belt, hopefully my personal experience and guidance from my experienced powerlifting coach Tony B. helped you to better understand the Why and When of using a weight belt.
Before I started powerlifting I built a solid base of strength with bodyweight and kettlebell training. After I spent time building up this solid base of strength with bodyweight (e.g. pull-ups, one arm push-ups) and kettlebells I went back to the barbell and deadlifted more than two times my bodyweight, 245lbs, right off the bat.
If you are new to lifting, or looking for something to augment your barbell training program then I strongly encourage you to attend my strength workshop I Am Not Afraid To Lift. At I Am Not Afraid To Lift I teach both kettlebell and bodyweight lifts, as well as detailed program design, that are essential for building a solid base of strength so that you can have success with the barbell, or even add a specialized variety that will help to enhance your barbell training if you are already working with a barbell.
If you’d like to learn more about kettlebell and bodyweight strength training and programming, along with building a strong mindset for lifting and maintaining healthy habits, then I hope that you will join me for one of my upcoming I Am Not Afraid To Lift Workshops on either April 2, 2016 in Severna Park, Maryland at Dauntless Fitness and Health or at Results Driven Fitness Systems on April 17, 2016 in Monroe-Woodbury, New York.
Learn more about the workshop HERE.
Read and watch testimonials and footage from past workshops HERE.
Register for the workshop HERE under the “Events” tab.