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Weight Belts - Should you use them?

When I was a kid, we used to play a game called "telephone." You form a line, and the first player in line is given a sentence written down on a piece of paper. They read it and then whisper it to the person beside them. Each player can only whisper the phrase once, and then the person they told it to has to pass it on. This continues as one person after another whispers the sentence to their neighbor until it's finally at the end of the chain. Then the last person says it out loud.

What made the game so much fun is how distorted the original sentence became because of the cumulative effect of mistakes along the way.

Advice handed down in gyms can mimic the game of "telephone."

Thirty years ago, when people worked out, they would use a weight belt primarily when performing squats or deadlifts with the heaviest weights. Over time, people figured if the belts helped with heavier weights, maybe they would help while doing bench presses, bicep curls and other exercises that don't engage the back muscles. As the years went by, more and more people began wearing weight belts regardless of the exercises they were doing.

Corporate America jumped on the bandwagon and started providing weight belts (they called them "back belts") for delivery drivers, warehouse workers, mail carriers and grocery clerks. It continued to spread until some workers were spending their entire day wearing weight belts to "prevent injury."

Unfortunately, the science didn't back up the mythology. Here's what really happens when you use weight belts extensively.

  • Like any muscle, the abdominal muscles grow when being challenged. If they're continually being supported or assisted by a weight belt, they won't grow in proportion to other muscles doing the lifts. Should the day ever come where you forget or decide not to use the weight belt, your under-developed abdominal muscles won't be able to keep up with the rest of your over-developed muscles. Injury is often the result.

  • Additional problems happen when the weight belts are extra wide. When you bend forward doing exercises like a squat, a tight and wide weight belt can partially immobilize your upper lumbar segments, forcing the lower lumbar disks to do even more work. This can cause accelerated degeneration of the lower disks.

  • It doesn't stop there. When you reduce the natural rotation of the lumbar spine, you also reduce the workload on the lumbar stabilizer muscles. This can also accelerate disk degeneration.

  • Finally, using a weight belt for extended periods can change your diaphragmatic breathing pattern. Basically, you don't breathe from the belly as much as the chest, which can cause tension headaches, poor posture and even accelerated degenerative changes in the cervical spine.

Studies were conducted to find out if all this weight belt use was reducing injuries. In one report after another, the conclusions were the same. Weight belts did NOT provide any significant improvement in performance or a reduction in injuries. Several organizations, including the United States government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, have come out against their use in the workplace because they just didn't do what they were supposed to: Reduce or prevent injuries.

Let me be clear. When working out in a gym, there is a time when using a weight belt is appropriate. Here it is.

If you're using more than 85% of your one-rep maximum on exercises like deadlifts, shoulder presses and squats, a weight belt can help prevent injury while helping you safely build muscle.

Don't rely on the myths and misinformation handed down through a decade's long version of "telephone." Just because everybody else is wearing one doesn't mean it's going to help. Put the weight belt away and use it only if necessary and when appropriate.

For those of you who currently use weight belts extensively, a word of caution. Slowly taper off your use, don't quit cold turkey. If you simply stop using one and try to move the same weights as before, you might seriously injure yourself. Concentrate on transverse abdominus conditioning to build your body's natural weight belt.

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  • How do weight belts work?

    It all starts with your spine. When you bend forward, pressure in your lumbar disks increase in proportion to the degree you're bending forward. Moving heavy weights during squats, dead lifts and shoulder presses can cause extreme intra-disk pressure and dramatically increases the risk of herniation.

    Your body helps prevent herniation by contracting your abdominal muscles as you bend forward, compressing internal organs and increasing the intra-abdominal pressure.

    A weight or back belt, when wrapped tightly around your torso, increases intra-abdominal pressure artificially. The mechanical phenomenon is known as "hoop tension" and it enables you to lift more weight.