The weight belt is commonly thought of as the safe way to lift and many times, unfortunately, is used wrongly and for the incorrect purposes. The belt brings reassurance for many people as they feel “safe” when they face the barbell with high numbers on it, however, the belt itself is an aid, a mental safety net, but it should NEVER be a substitute for the “real belt”, in other words, embracing the core muscles.
The belt is shown to help stability for lower back and help the core muscles, but it will never be the cure of a back pain, nor a help into the recovery process. That being said, before even thinking about using the belt, learning how to embrace the core muscles should always be the fundamentals of any person who trains, athlete or not. Breathing and bracing the core is important in every single exercise, regardless of being a barbell movement or not.
A valid and important question is, how to breathe? Many people do not think of this, which can decrease the potential of their lifting activities. As taking the breath in, it needs to be accumulated and expanded into the gut, not the chest area, as the lover part of the torso is where the bracing occurs.
Commonly a wrong cuing is given by saying “breathe in and go down, and exhale as you go up”. This is wrong and dangerous, the same stability on descent of the movement is needed to come back to the initial position. The proper transition is to hold the breath during single repetition, and releasing the breath at the top, not releasing the bracing. To maintain the stability, breath needs to be held until passing ¾ of the way at least and is then when it is slowly released. If it is too soon, stability will be compromised.
A way to imagine this is a can of soda, the pressure into the can does not let it bend if you try to stand on it (the barbell putting pressure on the back and spine), because the pressure inside, however, if the can is opened (the bracing does not occur), the can will bend and collapse (back pain and injury).
The belt is no other than the material version of our natural weight lifting belt (core). It is not a replacement for it. The belt will be beneficial to lift tremendous amounts of weight, think towards a PR or very close to a PR number, and is only when these two factors are COMBINED (core and belt), the belt can be beneficial towards the lift.
HOW TO USE THE BELT CORRECTLY: Tighter is not enough, if so, it is not helping at all. The belt should let room to breathe against it, rather than just being as tight as possible and not even worrying or thinking about embracing the core. Once again, the belt can be an aid, if used properly, but will never be a replacement for core engagement.
WHEN TO WEAR IT: Commonly, because other people use it, then people think they need to use it, and or, the back is sore and think as the belt as a cure
Even if competing in a strength sport, the first years of “career” should be focused on developing and working on natural bracing technique. A belt will not make a person be at the level of a professional weightlifter just like that, when those lifters themselves spent years developing their technique. Not because they are experienced, they forget the basics. If they still do the basic and important work, and they compete, why wouldn’t other people do it too?
For sports athletes (baseball, soccer, tennis, ect) the use of the belt is not very recommended. When performing at the sport, the belt will not be there. Instead, focusing on technique and overall body movements that translate into the field, will be what will benefit the athlete the most. Wanting to wear a belt is bad? No, but once again, it should never replace technique. If the body gets used to wearing the belt constantly, no matter the lift, the body will start relying on the belt, taking away awareness from constant and improved bracing and, potentially, regressing it.
The belt should not be used for back pain purposes, it does not solve the issue. It would work as a band aid, and just like a band aid, it will not last long. A belt has no place in back pain recovery. For back pain recovery, there is no fit all as a solution, every person will not have the same reasons for back pain. A screening process is necessary to determine where the problem is, assess, and take action into recovery. Nothing wrong with using a belt, but always be clear on why to use it, how to use it, and when to use it.