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How to Know If You Need a Weightlifting Belt (and How to Use It)

Belts are useful tools for weightlifting (and I have recommendations on my favorites here), but who should be using them? And when? And how? Read on to get all your belt-related questions answered, and to figure out whether you, personally, could benefit from wearing a belt when you lift weights.

What a weightlifting belt does

The main purpose of a belt, when lifting weights, is to help you brace better. Bracing, as I’ve written before, is when you contract the muscles all around your torso. It feels like what you’d do if you were lying on your bed and saw your cat or toddler running in to jump on your belly. You’d tense your abs and hold your breath, trying to make your torso rigid instead of squishy. 

When you’re about to do a heavy squat or deadlift, you’ll do something similar. Bracing involves tensing the muscles all around your core (including your back and the sides of your belly), and visually it may look like you’re expanding your belly, pushing it outward in all directions. 

When you wear a belt, you’ll find that bracing your torso results in you pushing your belly against your belt. The belt helps to make your torso even more rigid, like a stone pillar standing strong. Good bracing helps you lift more than if you didn’t brace; bracing against a belt helps you lift even more than bracing without one. 

To put this another way, when you tense those core muscles and hold your breath, you’re creating intra-abdominal pressure. Think of how a pool raft can hold more weight if it’s fully inflated than if it’s got a slow leak. The belt helps you to keep a strong, solid amount of pressure in your torso. 

This, in turn, helps you to lift more weight, whether you’re stacking that weight on top of your torso (as in a squat or an overhead press) or leaning your torso over to move the weight like a crane (as in a deadlift). In short: the purpose of a belt is to help you lift more weight. If you’d like to geek out about the science behind this increased performance, I’ll refer you to the Belt Bible, which details the results of several studies on belted versus beltless performance. 

Don’t expect a belt to protect you from injury

But a belt also protects me from injury, right? (I can read your mind. I know this is what you’re thinking about.) Unfortunately we actually don’t have evidence that a weightlifting belt will protect your back when you lift heavy. 

Most of the evidence we have on belts and injury risk comes from occupational studies. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) explains here why we shouldn’t expect belts to prevent back injuries. A 2005 review article agrees that “there is no conclusive evidence” that belts prevent back pain.

But if you believed that belts prevent injury, you’re not alone! A 2003 survey of health club members found that 90% (!) of belt-wearers said they wore the belt to prevent injury. 

Basically, even though it makes sense that increasing intra-abdominal pressure should help to protect the spine, studies just don’t tend to find that people using belts get fewer injuries than people who go without. 

More benefits of wearing a belt

Even if they don’t actually prevent injury, many lifters feel more secure or comfortable when lifting a belt. You’ll commonly hear lifters say that:

  • They like the feeling of something to brace against.

  • The belt provides feedback so they know when they’re bracing well.

  • Putting a belt on is part of their routine when they lift heavy, so it counts as mental preparation (which can help performance).

  • Believing the belt prevents injury can increase confidence, even if it’s not really true.

Since most people can lift more with a belt than without, putting on a belt is a way of decreasing the difficulty of a lift. For example, if you can squat 200 pounds beltless and 220 pounds with a belt, a beltless 200-pound lift is a maximal effort. But a belted 200-pound lift is just 90% of what you’re capable of. In that way, putting on a belt can mean you’re doing a slightly easier lift, which you could argue helps to manage the stress on your body in a way that might reduce your risk of injury in the big picture. 

I’m not going to say it does reduce injury, since we don’t have direct evidence of that. But an experienced lifter who uses a belt appropriately is probably being smart about their training in a way that may well keep them healthier and stronger in the long run.

How much does a belt help?

As a rule of thumb, you can probably expect to lift about 10% more with a belt than you can without. (Some lifters say 5% to 15% is the expected range.) So that would bring your 200-pound lift up to 220 pounds, for example. Or to put it another way, if your best squat is 285 pounds, you can probably hit that three-plate milestone (315 pounds) just by putting a belt on and learning how to use it. 

And, yes, you do have to learn how to use it. If you’re good at bracing, you’ll pick it up quickly. But coaches often recommend beginners learn to lift without a belt first, to make sure they have good habits and technique.

How heavy should I be lifting to need a belt? 

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how many pounds your lifts need to be (or how heavy relative to your body weight) before you start belt shopping. In my opinion, if you’re squatting and deadlifting regularly, and you can already brace effectively, it’s worth getting a belt and starting to train with it at least some of the time.

Which lifts benefit from a belt? 

Squats and deadlifts benefit the most from using a belt. For standing lifts, like overhead press, most people find that a belt helps there as well. Olympic weightlifters often use a belt for clean and jerks, but not usually for snatches.

It’s less clear for bench press. Some lifters find that a belt helps; others go without. (Note that people who wear a belt for this purpose for bench press wear a normal belt, the same one they use for squats and deadlifts. Skinny “bench belts” are a completely different animal, used in equipped lifting to hold your shirt down, and have nothing to do with what we’re talking about here.) 

If you are not supporting a large weight on your body, you don’t need a belt for that lift. People do not typically need a belt for pullups, curls, rows, or most dumbbell work. That said, you can always try a lift with and without your belt, and see if you feel stronger when you wear it. 

Should I always use a belt when lifting heavy, or only sometimes? 

This is a matter of preference and coaching philosophy. I can’t give a universal answer, but I will say that a typical way of wearing a belt is to wear it for your heaviest “regular” squats, deadlifts, and presses. 

I say “regular” because it’s pretty common for a program to have a belted squat as your main type of squat, and then squat accessories (like tempo or pause squats) done beltless. You can’t move as much weight without a belt, so this is a clever way to reduce the load on your body while still asking your muscles to work hard. 

You may also be advised to lift without a belt sometimes to strengthen your core. It’s arguable whether that’s true (your core is very active in bracing whether you wear a belt or not), but regardless of the reason, some coaches like to program beltless lifts. Beltless lifts can also build your confidence: if you can lift this weight now without a belt, that you could previously only lift with a belt, that’s a clear sign that you’re getting stronger. Definitely celebrate your beltless PRs.

Finally, there’s the question of which lifts in a session should be done with and without a belt. If you want a rule of thumb, many lifters put on a belt when the lift is over 85% of their max (for example, lifts over 191 pounds if their max is 225). That said, plenty of lifters will put the belt on for any heavyish lift. 

Is it bad to lift heavy without a belt? 

No, because the belt isn’t protecting you from injury, remember? It is fine to lift heavy without a belt. Just remember that if you forgot to pack your belt in your gym bag, you won’t be able to lift the same weights beltless that you do belted. So if you’re used to lifting heavy with a belt, but you have to go without, remember to reduce the weight by about 10%. 

On the other hand, if you don’t normally lift with a belt, it’s fine to continue going beltless. Just be aware that you would be able to lift more—thus giving your muscles more work—if you did start using a belt.

How should a weightlifting belt fit? 

A weightlifting belt should fit tightly enough that, after the lift, you’ll want to take it off. You don’t wear a belt for your whole gym session; you tighten it, lift, then take it off or loosen it. (I like to leave mine buckled on the loosest hole between sets, just so that I don’t set it down and then forget where I put it.) 

When the belt is buckled, it should feel snug. You should be able to shove a few fingers under the belt, but it won’t be comfortable to keep it on that tight for that long. 

When you do your squat or deadlift, the belt should be in a place where it doesn’t pinch against your skin. You may want to wear the belt higher on your torso for deadlifts than for squats; try different positions for each lift and see what works best for you. 

It’s okay for the belt to cover your lower ribs, as long as it’s not uncomfortable there. Most belts made for lifting are four inches wide. Some people, especially those with shorter torsos, may prefer a three-inch belt. Speaking generally, almost everybody likes a four-inch belt for squatting, but some people prefer three inches for deadlifts. 

What kind of belt do I need? 

You’re in luck—I have a whole guide to buying your first lifting belt. Most people will want to go with a belt that is either three or four inches wide (and the same width all around), either velcro or leather. If it’s leather, 10 millimeters is a good thickness for most people. And for a closure, if it’s a leather belt, you’ll probably want either a single-prong buckle or a lever. Read my recommendations here.


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