What does a weightlifting belt do? How do you wear a weightlifting belt? And how do you find the best weightlifting belt for you?
All good questions, and you’ll learn the answers in this article.
Some folks claim weightlifting belts are essential for avoiding injury—almost like wearing a seatbelt while driving.
Others say that the safety benefits are overblown and the primary reason to wear a belt is that it helps you lift more weight.
And others claim that weightlifting belts are seductive “crutches” that help you lift more weight in the short-term but make you weaker in the long run.
In this article, you’ll learn what science has to say about these conflicting opinions and whether you can benefit from wearing a weightlifting belt during your workouts.
Table of Contents
A weightlifting belt is a thick belt that you wear around your waist while lifting weights.
There are many different types of weightlifting belts, but they’re typically three-to-four inches wide (though some are wider at the back than they are at the front), made of thick, stiff material such as leather or woven nylon, and have a large buckle that secures the belt in place and helps to cinch it tightly around your abdomen.
When you lift weights (or anything heavy, for that matter), it’s important to trap air in your lungs and create pressure in your abdomen, known as intra-abdominal pressure.
This stabilizes your torso and prevents your spine from bending, which enables you to lift heavier weights safely.
A weightlifting belt buttresses your belly so that when you take a deep breath of air “into your stomach,” your abs are pushed against the belt. This increases intra-abdominal pressure by ~15-to-40% beyond what you can achieve without a belt, boosting your performance on exercises like the squat and deadlift.
(And if you’re not currently following a strength training program that includes exercises like the squat and deadlift, you probably should. Take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you and how these kinds of exercises fit into it. Click here to check it out.)
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much a belt helps, but most weightlifters can expect to lift at least 5-to-10% more with a belt than without.
There are a couple of caveats to this rule, though:
- You need to learn to use a belt correctly to get this amount of assistance. Until you become proficient, wearing a belt will have less of an impact on your performance. For example, in one study conducted by scientists at Gifu University, participants didn’t experience an increase in intra-abdominal pressure or performance the first time they trained in a belt.
- A weightlifting belt will only boost your performance on some exercises. Specifically, belts are most effective at augmenting performance on exercises that put shearing stress on your spine (stress that’s applied perpendicular to the spine), such as squats and deadlifts. They’re less effective at boosting performance on exercises where shearing stress is smaller (such as the overhead press, barbell row, and lunge), and don’t do much of anything except make you feel “tighter” during exercises like the bench press, lat pulldown, and one-arm dumbbell row.
In fact, for some people, wearing a belt may slightly increase their risk of injury, but not for the reasons many people think.
The reason for this is thanks to what’s known as the licensing effect: When people believe that a weightlifting belt bulletproofs them against injury, they may be more inclined to take risks in their training that they otherwise wouldn’t. More specifically, they use heavier weights than they can safely handle with good form and use sloppier technique than they would if they weren’t wearing a belt.
Thus, wearing a belt doesn’t directly increase your risk of injury, but it can indirectly by lulling you into carelessness. If you keep your ego and form in check, though, then wearing a belt won’t increase your risk of injury.
In order for a weightlifting belt to help you lift heavier weights, you need to wear it properly. Here’s how:
- Position the belt around your waist so that the bottom of the belt is just above the height of your iliac crests (the bony protrusions at the front of your hip bones). Be prepared for this to feel uncomfortable and leave some bruises until the belt is properly broken in and you find the right tightness for you.
- Adjust the tightness of the belt. Use the tightest notch that still allows you to take a full breath without having to raise your shoulders. Sometimes the ideal tightness is between two notches. My general recommendation for scenarios like these is to use the tighter option for the squat, bench press, and overhead press, and the looser option for the deadlift. That said, you should ultimately use whatever you find improves your performance the most.
- Before you begin a set (and between reps as necessary), take a deep “belly breath” of about 80% of your maximum lung capacity. As you breathe in, imagine your stomach inflating to the front, sides, and back. Your entire torso should feel full of air, but not so much that you have to struggle to keep your mouth closed.
- Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and without letting any air escape, try to breathe out. At the same time, press your abs against the belt as hard as you can. Then begin your rep.
- Once you’re past the “sticking point,” or the most difficult part of the rep, breathe out as you finish the rep.
- Repeat as needed until you finish your set. You don’t need to release all of the air after each rep, nor should you try to hold your breath during the entire set. Instead, most people find they feel strongest when they hold their breath for two-to-three reps before taking a fresh breath. (You’ll also probably find you need to breathe more often as the set drags on, which is fine).
Three more important things to keep in mind when using a belt:
- Don’t overtighten. If the belt is so tight that it prevents you from taking in a full breath of air or breathing between sets, or if it’s physically painful, then you need to loosen it a notch or two.
- Take your belt off between sets. Although it may feel more comfortable to leave it on, it constricts your breathing and makes it harder to recover for your next set.
- Adjust your belt as your body fat levels rise and fall. You’ll probably need to loosen it a notch or two over the course of a bulk, and tighten it a notch or two during a cut. (Check out this article to learn more about bulking and cutting).
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The two most important measurements to look at when buying a belt are its width and thickness:
- Width: Most weightlifting belts come in one of three widths: 4, 3, and 2.5 inches. Four-inch belts offer the most support, so they’re the best option for most people. That said, a 3-inch weightlifting belt might be better if you have a short torso because it’s less likely to dig into your ribs (many women prefer a 3-inch weightlifting belt because they tend to be shorter than men, for example).
I don’t recommend 2.5-inch belts or tapered belts (belts that are wider across the back than the front) for recreational weightlifters and people who follow strength training programs like Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger because they don’t offer enough support.
Remember that the purpose of a belt is to reinforce your abdomen so you can generate more pressure, and removing material from the front of the belt just makes it less effective at doing this.
The one situation where tapered belts might be worth using is when Olympic lifting, because they allow your upper body to move more freely during exercises like the clean and jerk and snatch.
- Thickness: Most weightlifting belts are 9-to-13 millimeters thick. Thinner belts are more supple and break in faster, which makes them more comfortable, but thicker belts offer more support and are more durable.
Competitive powerlifters often use 13-millimeter belts because they live and die by how much weight they can lift, so they want their equipment to be as supportive as possible, even if it’s uncomfortable. Many competitive powerlifters are also gargantuan human beings who generate massive amounts of intra-abdominal pressure, so a thicker belt is appropriate.
For everyone else, a 9- or 10-millimeter belt is normally the best option, because it’s the most reasonable compromise between comfort, durability and support. In other words, unless you’re squatting and deadlifting in the 400+ range, you probably won’t notice a difference between a 9- or 10-millimeter belt and a 13-millimeter one, but the former will be more comfortable.
Weightlifting belts are typically made of leather or nylon (you may also find cheap Amazon weightlifting belts made of other synthetic fabrics, but I don’t recommend these).
Leather weightlifting belts are more rigid and durable than nylon belts and therefore offer more support. Some leather weightlifting belts are also finished with a layer of suede, which is naturally “anti-slip,” so the belt doesn’t move out of position as easily during a set. Leather belts also gradually mold to the shape of your body, making them more and more comfortable over time.
Some weightlifters (particularly CrossFitters) prefer nylon belts because they’re more comfortable and allow you to maneuver your torso and hips more freely during exercises such as cleans, jerks, and snatches. They’re also easy to put on and take off while moving quickly between exercises that require a belt and exercises that don’t.
However, nylon belts aren’t as supportive or durable as leather weightlifting belts, so if you follow a strength training program such as Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger, which emphasizes heavy squatting, deadlifting, and pressing rather than Olympic weightlifting, a leather weightlifting belt is a much better option.
Weightlifting belts fall into three main categories based on their buckle:
1. Lever weightlifting belts: Lever weightlifting belts have a buckle that makes them easy to take on and off. To put one on and lock it, you just insert the hooks on the lever into the opposite side of the belt and pull the lever across your waist.
The downside of lever weightlifting belts is that if you want to alter the tightness, you have to use a screwdriver to reposition the buckle. This is inconvenient if you regularly change the tightness of your belt (if you want your belt to be tighter during squats than deadlifts, or if you sometimes like to wear heavier clothing that makes the belt fit more snugly, for example).
For most people, though, this is a non-issue since you only need to adjust the buckle once or twice per year (typically as your waistline expands or shrinks while bulking or cutting).
2. Prong weightlifting belts: There are two main types of prong weightlifting belt: Single prong and double prong. Single prong belts are easier to fasten and just as secure, while some people feel that double-prong buckles more evenly distribute pressure across their waist. I prefer and recommend single-prong buckles, but both are fine options.
The main downside of prong weightlifting belts is they’re more annoying to take on and off, and weightlifters often have to hold the loose end of the belt around a squat rack with their hands and then lean away in order to get the belt tight enough, like this:
The upside of a prong weightlifting belt is that you can loosen or tighten the belt on the fly without any special tools.
3. Velcro weightlifting belts: Velcro weightlifting belts are almost always made of nylon and are almost always not worth buying. While they may feel more comfortable at first, they aren’t as supportive, secure, or durable as a leather belt with a lever or prong buckle.
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A weightlifting belt’s purpose is to help you lift heavier weights.
It does this by providing resistance to press your abs against while you perform exercises like the squat and deadlift, which increases the amount of pressure inside your abdomen.
Creating this intra-abdominal pressure is important because it stabilizes your torso and prevents your spine from bending, which translates into higher one-rep-maxes and more reps with any given weight.
Contrary to popular belief, a weightlifting belt probably doesn’t protect you from injury.
Most men who are following a strength training program that involves a lot of squatting, deadlifting, and other compound exercises (like my Bigger Leaner Stronger program) will probably prefer a leather weightlifting belt that’s 4 inches wide, 10 millimeters thick, and has either a lever or single-prong buckle.
(And if you’re not currently following a strength training program that includes foundational compound exercises like these, but you’d like to follow a routine that does, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
Because women tend to be shorter than men, many women prefer to use a 3-inch weightlifting belt rather than a 4-inch weightlifting belt, though both are viable options. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re 5’4 or shorter, you may prefer a 3-inch belt, and if you’re taller than this, you may prefer a 4-inch belt.
That said, you should really try both and see what feels most comfortable, since it’s possible to have a short torso even if you’re relatively tall (making the 3-inch belt a better option) and vice versa.
Beyond that, it largely depends on your preferences, although most women will probably be happiest with a three-inch wide leather weightlifting belt that’s 10 millimeters thick, and that has either a lever or single-prong buckle.
Custom weightlifting belt manufacturers allow you to customize the width, thickness, and design of your belt, so you can create and buy a belt that matches your exact preferences.
For most people, though, I don’t recommend buying a custom weightlifting belt, as basically all manufacturers stock a wide variety of belt models in different sizes, widths, and thicknesses, and unlike your height, your waist size can also change over time (which would largely defeat the purpose of a perfectly tailored belt).
FAQ #5: What’s the difference between an Olympic weightlifting belt and a regular weightlifting belt?
Technically speaking, there’s no such thing as an “Olympic weightlifting belt”—an athlete can use any belt they like provided it’s less than 12 centimeters wide (which is the only stipulation).
That said, many people who do Olympic weightlifting prefer to use nylon belts or belts that are tapered because they’re softer and less bulky, which means they’re less likely to pinch their hips or ribs while Olympic weightlifting.
When used correctly, weightlifting belts help you lift heavier weights by making it easier to increase intra-abdominal pressure, which stabilizes your torso and prevents your spine from bending during exercises like the squat and deadlift.
+ Scientific References
- Kingma, I., Faber, G. S., Suwarganda, E. K., Bruijnen, T. B. M., Peters, R. J. A., & Van Dieën, J. H. (2006). Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting. Spine, 31(22). https://doi.org/10.1097/01.brs.0000240670.50834.77
- Miyamoto, K., Iinuma, N., Maeda, M., Wada, E., & Shimizu, K. (1999). Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Clinical Biomechanics (Bristol, Avon), 14(2), 79–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0268-0033(98)00070-9
- J E Lander, R L Simonton, & J K Giacobbe. (n.d.). The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise - PubMed. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2304406/
- A J Zink, W C Whiting, W J Vincent, & A J McLaine. (n.d.). The effects of a weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise - PubMed. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11710410/
- J E Lander, J R Hundley, & R L Simonton. (n.d.). The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise - PubMed. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1533266/
- Fong, S. S. M., Chung, L. M. Y., Gao, Y., Lee, J. C. W., Chang, T. C., & Ma, A. W. W. (2022). The influence of weightlifting belts and wrist straps on deadlift kinematics, time to complete a deadlift and rating of perceived exertion in male recreational weightlifters. Medicine, 101(7), e28918. https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000028918
- Steven B Finnie, Theresa J Wheeldon, Donald D Hensrud, Diane L Dahm, & Jay Smith. (n.d.). Weight lifting belt use patterns among a population of health club members - PubMed. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12930176/
- Mcgill, S. M. (2005). On The Use Weight Belts.
- Church, J. B., Allen, T. N., & Allen, G. W. (2016). A Review of the Efficacy of Weight Training AIDS. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 38(3), 11–17. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000227