When it comes to lifting heavy, a weight belt is more often a fashion accessory than an essential piece of workout gear. How many of you remember the only time anyone wore a weight belt was in the gym and only when they were performing heavy squats, heavy dead lifts or heavy overhead presses? Now it seems virtually everyone is wearing a weight belt! Regardless of how heavy someone’s lifting or what exercise they're performing men, women, Arnold wannabes, weekend warriors, and even the elite few who make the cover of Powerlifting USA are all wearing weight belts.
You’ve all heard the mentality. Squats? "You MUST wear a belt." Bench presses? "You should probably wear a belt." Biceps curls? "To be on the safe side, wearing a belt may be a good idea." Getting a drink of water from the drinking fountain? "Hell, you may as well leave it on since you’ll be wearing it for your next set." This scenario does not pertain to everyone, but the point I’m making is a trend we never used to see in a gym is one we’re seeing more and more everyday.
It's getting ridiculous and way out of hand.
To make matters worse, the trend to wear a weight belt has extended beyond the gym. Trash collectors, truck drivers and construction workers often spend their entire workday wrapped in a weight belt. Some companies have gone so far as to make it a mandatory safety policy that all their employees wear a back harness. Visit any Home Depot, Office Club, or take a look at the waist of your local UPS driver. What do these employees all have in common? They’re all wearing weight belts! Next thing you know, it will not only be against the law to drive without a seatbelt, it will be against the law to operate a vehicle without a weight belt!
What's going on here? Do weight belts really protect our back? Will they make us stronger? Can the estimated 35-40% of people reporting back pain each year, or the 70% of the population who will suffer from at least one episode of back pain in their lives (1) find relief, and possibly even avoid surgery, by making a weight belt a habit?
Before I answer these questions, try to dig up recent pictures of the world's best Olympic weightlifters in competition, but not the American weightlifters who are losing the struggle to achieve international respect. Look at photos of European weight lifters who are continuously breaking records and winning world and Olympic titles. Isn't it interesting that Europeans never use belts when they perform the snatch lift? They’re rarely seen using one for the clean and jerk! Even during training you'll find that many of these lifters prefer to train without any forms of artificial support. In fact, IronMind Enterprises (2) sells videos of these athletes squatting over 300kg (660lbs) without a belt! Either these athletes are asking for an injury, or they know something we don't.
WHEN DID BELT USE GET STARTED?
A look through David Webster’s book, The Iron Game, demonstrates that there is a long history of belt use in connection with heavy weight training (3). Thomas Inch, publisher of Scientific Weight Training (1905), is shown pressing two adult females overhead with one hand, "while wearing a weight lifting belt". This guy was no slouch either. He could clean and jerk 203.5 pounds (92.5kg), perform the "Right Hand Anyhow and Bent Press" lifts with 213 pounds (96.8kg), and he could snatch 148 pounds (67.3kg). Not impressed yet? Perhaps I should mention that he performed all these lifts using only one hand.
American Olympic lifter J. Terpak is pictured wearing a weight belt during his gold medal performance in the 1937 World Championships in Paris, France. Later during the 1958 World Championships held in Stockholm, Sweden, an American athlete named Berger is pictured on the Bantamweight winner’s platform wearing his weight belt. It’s interesting to note however, that even though there are numerous pictures showing winning and highly accomplished lifters wearing weight belts in David Webster’s Iron Game, there are even more pictures that don’t.
One has to wonder, what is it that leads a lifter to use a belt? Is it direction from coaches, did these particular lifters have back pain in their lifting history, did they only wear the belts when performing competition or "max" lifts, or was a belt simply looked upon as an insurance policy?
With a long history of corset use in the medical field, particularly for back injury, perhaps the lifters have been influenced by the medical approach to treating back pain. Corsets have been used since the early 1900’s for the treatment of Scoliosis (4) and back pain (5) and quite possibly much longer. Therefore it is logical that a lifter, wanting to make the right decision, would choose to use a belt based on the medical establishment’s use of belts, especially considering the history and treatment of back pain dates all the way back to 1500 BC (1)!
DID DEVELOPMENTAL MAN WEAR WEIGHT BELTS?
Regardless of your opinion about the origin of man, if you believe in God, you have to wonder why he didn’t provide weight belts as standard-issue equipment (Figure 1). On second thought, maybe he did, and we just don’t know how to use them correctly. Perhaps we abuse our bodies which creates a dysfunction in our natural weight belt and causes us to be reliant on an artificial one.
A LOOK AT THE BELT GOD GAVE YOU
Today, our understanding of the stabilizer system is at an all time high, thanks to the works of people like Richardson, Jull, Hodges, Hydes (6), Vleeming, Snidjers (7) and Gracovetsky (8). Because of them and others, we have been able to progress beyond the developmental knowledge of medical doctor Robert W. Lovett (4) and Anatomist Raymond Dart (9). In 1912, Lovett created detailed diagrams indicating how the musculature of the torso worked together to stabilize the spine. Later, in 1946, Dart described the double spiral mechanism of the spinal musculature, expanding beyond the concepts described by Lovett.
What modern researchers have been able to do is more clearly define two major stabilizer systems of the body, the inner unit and the outer unit (6,7,8). The stabilizer system considered as our "God-given weight belt" is the inner unit (Figure 2).
The Inner Unit serves to stiffen the axial skeleton in preparation for work. The Inner Unit muscles are A) Transversus Abdominis and the posterior fibers of obliquus internus, B) Diaphragm, C) Deep Multifidus, D) pelvic floor musculature.