[This is a guest blog by Zach Rossitch. Zach is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the National Personal Training Institute. He is also a part of the Coaching Mentorship Program at Athletic Lab.]
The use of weight belts has long been a hot topic of discussion in the fitness world. There have been lots of debates as to when one should use a weight belt and as to their effectiveness in assisting the core with spinal stabilization. The primary reason lifters wear weight belts is to support their lumbar spine and to avoid back injury. This makes a lot of sense, as the spine is very susceptible to injury. It is capable of moving in all three planes of motion, and it contains 33 vertebrae, 24 of which are not fused together and have the potential to slip out of place. Exercises such as squatting or deadlifting place a great amount of stress on the lower parts of the spine. Research has demonstrated a strong relationship between the use of weight belts and an improvement in intramuscular stiffness of the spinal stabilizers among trained individuals (3). This enhances their ability to maintain correct posture when reaching maximal loads (2). However, enhancement and development can mean two different things. It is important to develop a strong foundation before using a weight belt to enhance it during heavier lifts.
The main controversy over weight belts is not necessarily should we use them, but when should we use them. Many specialists believe that they can be restrictive in core strength development especially in early stages of lifting where the intensity is not very high (1). Without a strong foundation, one will never reach their maximal potential. In order to protect the spine, it is important to strengthen all of the muscles involved in stabilizing it. While the spine is capable of moving throughout all three planes of motion, more often than not, it is going through flexion and extension when it comes to weight lifting. Therefore, strengthening trunk flexors and extensors is vital to developing spine stabilization. These muscles include the rectus abdominis, the transverse abdominis, the erector spinae muscles, the obliques, and the quadratus lumborum. In fact, the transverse abdominis is commonly referred to as “nature’s weight belt.” It would make sense that we should strengthen that prior to using an external weight belt. By strengthening these muscles and adding stability to the spine, we begin to eliminate muscle imbalances and to develop proper posture.
The optimal position of the spine, when lifting, is to be in the middle of its range of motion (2). Being too flexed or too extended will result in injury. An example of this would be excessive trunk flexion during a squat. When this happens, the moment arm of the resistive force becomes longer and the torque applied to the lumbar spine becomes greater putting the body at a grave disadvantage (2). In this case, the excessive flexion is most likely a result of weak trunk extensors or inflexible plantar flexors that inhibit the lifter from dorsiflexing in the eccentric phase of the squat (2). This brings us back to the importance of strengthening core muscles in order to eliminate imbalances, provide stability, and ultimately develop posture. Posture can also be improved by working on neuromuscular coordination. This can be achieved via high repetitions at a lower intensity. Once the body becomes familiar with a movement, it is likely to maintain correct posture even as the load becomes greater. Then as we reach maximal loads, we can use a weight belt to help enhance posture and add even more stability to our now developed core.
- Baechle, Thomas R., and Roger W. Earle, eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. Print.
- Durall, Christopher J., and Robert C. Manske. “Avoiding Lumbar Spine Injury During Resistance Training.” National Strength and Conditioning Association 27.4 (2005): 64-72. Web.
- Kei Miyamoto, Nobuki Iinuma, Masato Maeda, Eiji Wada, Katsuji Shimizu, Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intramuscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles, Clinical Biomechanics, Volume 14, Issue 2, 1999, Pages 79-87. Web.