If you’re new to squatting and lifting heavy in the gym, have had some recent back pain under the bar, or are looking for ways to break through your plateau, you may find yourself wondering:
Should I be wearing a lifting belt for squats? The simple answer is: yes.
Research states that a lifting belt can help you squat 5-15% more weight. Also, wearing a belt for squats can reduce shear forces on the spine, which decreases your chance of injury. It’s also been proven that belts can increase the activation of your core and leg muscles, which increases overall training effectiveness.
Below, I’m going to discuss the science behind these factors in more detail, as well as talk about how you should be wearing your belt to make sure that you’re getting the most out of it.
- A lifting belt will help you increase squat performance and build more muscle, but only if you know how to properly brace into it.
- Anyone that wants to lift more weight for more reps should wear a belt for squats, but make sure to incorporate beltless work in your warmups so that you don’t develop an over-reliance on using a belt.
- A leather belt is going to be stiffer and give you more support than a nylon belt, and leather will typically be better for improving your squats.
The Science Behind Wearing A Belt For Squats
There are 3 ways that wearing a belt for squats has been proven to be beneficial:
1. Increased Intra abdominal Pressure
Wearing a lifting belt (and using it properly) increases intra-abdominal pressure, which provides a stable base for the spine, and can help reduce the risk of injury.
Intra-abdominal pressure essentially refers to a person’s ability to create tension within their core so that they can keep proper positioning throughout the squat.
Intra-abdominal pressure is created when a lifter is “bracing” and the belt helps by providing a rigid surface to push and brace against, which then helps the athlete learn how to squeeze and contract their abs properly.
Some argue that lifting belts act as a crutch, in which the lifter relies too heavily on the belt and actually utilizes its core less; however, science says that the opposite is true.
The major effect of wearing a belt is increased intra-abdominal pressure, and research suggests that this pressure is increased by about 30-40% when performing squatting movements.
The main effect of an increase in intra-abdominal pressure of this magnitude means that there is much less shear stress on the spine.
Essentially, shear stress (or force), occurs when one vertebrae is sliding backward or forward on the vertebrae below it.
Shear force on your spine is most prevalent when the spine is compressed by load, or when the torso/spine are bent or twisted in any way.
Shear stress is not inherently terrible.
Your spine is designed to withstand it.
However, the more shearing forces that you place on your vertebrae means the higher likelihood that you will have a disk herniation.
Accordingly, reducing this shear stress on your spine when lifting with a belt can directly reduce your risk of injury.
2. Enhanced Muscle Activation in your Legs and Core
According to multiple studies that researched muscle activation, wearing a belt increased the percentage of spinal erectors (muscles in your low back) that were firing when squatting.
This is important, as there is good reason to believe that higher muscle activation is a reliable predictor of long-term training effectiveness.
In addition to the erectors, the research strongly suggests that wearing a belt while squatting increases activation in your rectus abdominis (your 6 pack muscles).
This means that it is very unlikely that squatting with a belt makes your core weak.
In fact, due to the increased muscle activation in your core and low back when bracing into a belt during your squats, there is a higher likelihood of you developing a stronger torso. .
Experts in the field do think that the increased activation of your core and low back muscles coupled with the increase in intra-abdominal pressure, means that wearing a lifting belt can decrease your risk of injury during heavy lifts such as squats.
This is primarily because all of this activation reduces stress on your spine, reduces low back fatigue, and means that the lifter is less likely to experience technical breakdowns when squatting with a belt.
Further to the benefits of recruiting more muscular activation in your core, studies also find greater quad muscle activation through the sticking point of a squat when wearing a belt, and greater hamstring muscle activation as a set progresses.
Overall, this means that more muscle fibers in the legs seem to be recruited when squatting with a belt, making the athlete stronger at the movement.
3. Increased Lifting Power
There is scientific evidence that indicates that properly utilizing a lifting belt can directly increase lifting power.
To put it simply, power = speed + strength.
Power is the ability to exert as much force as possible in the shortest amount of time, and we usually see an uptick in power when a lifter can either lift heavier weights at the same speed, or the same weights faster than they could before.
This increase in lifting power is easiest to see when looking at bar speed, where several studies have found that people complete lifts faster with a belt versus without one.
This is key to note, as there is a tight relationship between bar speed and the percentage of an athlete’s one-rep max.
For example, in an often cited study conducted by Everett Harman, Ph.D., there were conclusive findings that people were able to generate maximum force quicker with a belt rather than without one.
This means that, by wearing a lifting belt, people can break through their sticking points with more speed and force, which can lead to lifting more weight for more reps over time.
Think about it like a sprinter who is able to get to top speed faster than their competitors, so they can stay at top speed longer and finish their race quicker.
This corresponds with another study on the effectiveness of weight-belts when squatting, which concluded that experienced lifters accomplished squat reps about 6% faster when wearing a belt, and the gap widened the more sets that the participants completed.
Even though bar speed isn’t necessarily the only metric for strength, this evidence indicates that wearing a belt improves performance in experienced lifters who know how to use the belt properly.
After analyzing multiple scientific studies, Greg Nuckols (Master’s in Exercise Physiology) indicates that this overall increase in load seems to be 5-15% heavier maxes with a belt.
Who Should Wear A Belt For Squats
Anyone that wants to build a stronger and safer squat should wear a lifting belt.
This is especially true for all powerlifters, bodybuilders, and Olympic lifters.
Regardless if you compete in a sport or not, wearing a belt will still help you perform the movement safer, especially if you have goals to lift heavier weights and increase strength.
Bracing your torso is a highly pattern-specific skill.
It takes lots of repetitions over time to truly get good at it.
Practicing your brace with a belt gives you some external feedback, so it is easier to feel whether or not you're doing it correctly.
With a belt, you can actually feel your ribs and core expanding into the leather, feel it get tighter, and learn what that stability should feel like.
This then reinforces bracing and lifting with proper technique, so you are more confident when bracing with or without a belt.
When Should You Start Wearing A Belt For Squats
Wearing a Belt for the First Time
Some people throw around numbers like being able to squat 315lbs, or some multiplier or your bodyweight, before thinking about training with a belt.
I don’t believe in arbitrary standards or random numbers that a person “should” be able to lift without a belt before they start training with a belt.
There is really no good physiological or psychological reason that a person shouldn’t start using a belt whenever they want to.
Rather than being a crutch, belts help people get comfortable lifting and teach them how to brace their core properly and effectively.
Building the skill of developing and maintaining solid bracing and positioning is a good thing for any athlete, and should be incorporated ideally from the very beginning of training.
Squatting with a belt, and being able to use it to its full potential, is a skill that takes a while to acquire.
As such, I don’t know why some people would want to push that learning process back to an arbitrary date when you could reap the benefits of training with a belt from the very beginning.
Incorporating a Belt into Your Warmups
Typically, you want to save your belt for heavier loads, especially if you are comfortable using your belt and have broken it in.
You should really be using your belt once the weight starts to get heavier for you.
When I’m ramping up for my heavy sets, I’ll put my belt on once I reach weights around 65-70% of my max squat.
The only time I differ from this strategy is if I am doing a very challenging set with a relatively light weight.
For example, if I am doing as many squat reps as possible with 50% of my max. As this will be a “top set” and quite challenging, I will utilize my lifting belt earlier in my warmups.
This strategy helps you learn the movement pattern and bracing mechanics as your warmup without a belt, which has a few benefits:
- It breaks in your belt quicker, as more sets using your belt equals more time for the leather to mold to your body.
- It helps keep you from being too reliant on your belt, but also gets you a few warm up sets to practice with your belt before you get to your heaviest sets.
- It can also help you avoid injuries, as you now have the benefit of your belt once the weight starts to get challenging.
I strongly recommend against only throwing your belt on for your heaviest set, as the squat can become very different with a belt versus without one, and you do not want to shock your body with sudden change when trying to squat a weight that is challenging for you.
How Should You Wear Your Belt For Squats
Wearing your belt for squats will depend on your technique, leverage, and sport, but a general rule of thumb is that the belt should be placed near the bottom of your ribcage or covering your belly button.
This is an ideal position for many people to start, but feel free to move the belt up or down a few inches to find a fit that feels both comfortable and strong.
Once you have placed the belt in a comfortable position, I recommend executing a few bodyweight squats with the technique that you will use for your weighted squats.
While doing this, make sure to assess whether or not you are hitting depth and feel comfortable.
Note any pinching, pain, or other discomforts, and be sure to adjust your belt accordingly and repeat the process until you find a spot where the belt feels comfortable throughout the whole squat movement.
Discomfort is going to get magnified under heavier loads, so sort this out before you go up in weight.
Finally, it is completely acceptable for your belt to be placed in a different spot when you’re squatting than when you’re deadlifting. These are different movements, and you may find yourself having to adjust.
Be sure not to cinch your belt too tightly.
Your belt should be loose enough that, when fastened, you can still fit a finger or two between it and your abs.
This means that whatever notch or lever position you choose, it should still allow for a full intake of breath when your belt is done up.
If you cannot get a full breath, you won’t be able to brace properly, and you won’t get all the wonderful benefits that your belt is there to give you.
On top of that, having your belt too tight may reduce the overall amount of oxygen that you can get in during a set.
Reducing your ability to take in oxygen with weight on your back in the squat is a recipe for disaster, and may result in a poor set, or even dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting.
With that said, most people wear their belt slightly tighter for squats compared with exercises that require you to bend over - like deadlifts.
How To Use A Lifting Belt For Squats
Brace as you Unrack
You want to make sure that you properly set your brace and gain tightness before you even unrack the bar.
My personal routine is to get my wrist wraps on, latch my belt, set my grip on the bar, and then wedge myself tightly underneath the bar.
Once my back is tight and my feet are in a good position to unrack the bar, I will take my breath and get as tight as I can as if I'm going to actually do a squat.
Breathe and Reset Your Brace Before Every Rep
Once my brace is set and I’ve stood up with the bar, I will take a couple of steps backward, set my feet, and get ready to brace again.
Make sure to get another breath here before initiating the squat to avoid being dizzy.
Typically, I will tighten up and brace into my belt at the top of each squat rep, hold my breath as I go down, and start breathing out once I am out of the bottom of the squat and more than halfway back up.
From here, I'll take a couple of short breaths as a small break and then do the whole process again.
Are There Any Cons To Wearing A Belt For Squats
Pain and Pinching
For most people, especially when using a wider and thicker leather belt, bruising, pain, and pinching are almost inevitable.
This is especially true for shorter people or those who can more easily get their torso skin pinched by the edge of the belt.
Getting your skin caught by the belt is no fun, and using a leather belt (especially one not broken in yet) can be uncomfortable.
However, the benefits gained from the consistent and proper use of a belt for squats far outweigh the minor pain and pinching.
On the bright side, belts get easier to use as they get broken in, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Just make sure to get one that fits your body correctly to minimize any drawbacks.
Higher Blood Pressure
Since lifting belts increases your intra-abdominal pressure when squatting, this causes athletes to have higher blood pressure during their more difficult sets.
This is something to monitor if you are someone that already has high blood pressure, or has health complications that can be affected by an increase in blood pressure.
I recommend monitoring yourself closely for any signs and symptoms that can indicate a blood pressure irregularity, including dizziness, headaches, blurry vision, or shortness of breath.
Squat Belt Characteristics
A good squat belt is going to depend on what your sport is, or your specific style of lifting.
Most squat belts are made of either leather or nylon materials.
Leather belts are best for powerlifters, or those looking to squat heavier weights. They are stiffer, more durable, and can provide a rigid and secure material to brace against when you are squatting.
Typically, leather belts are either 10mm or 13mm thick and 4-6 inches wide.
Thinner belts are typically more comfortable and break in faster, but thicker belts are a little bit more durable and more secure.
I typically recommend 10mm leather belts for the majority of lifters, as anything thicker is really overkill (unless you are an elite-level powerlifter, or are a very large individual).
Also, leather belts either come with prongs or levers to latch them.
Levers have the advantage of being faster to put on and remove; however, they lock you into one size and require a screwdriver and a few minutes if you want to adjust their tightness.
This can be inconvenient if you share your belt, or adjust tightness between squats and deadlifts.
On the other hand, prong-latching belts are very similar to a belt that you would wear to hold up your pants.
They aren’t as quick to take on and off as levers, but they offer much greater adjustability and are usually just as safe and secure as their lever counterparts.
All this being said about leather squat belts, you can also choose to go with a nylon belt.
However, I would not recommend a nylon belt if you’re looking for something that will specifically aid your squat.
They do not provide nearly as much support, and you will not be able to get the same level of pressure and tightness as you will with a leather belt.
Best Belt For Squats
Some examples of high-quality lifting belts that are going to be great for your squat are:
Any of these belts by Gympreapers will be great in meeting your squatting needs.
They are designed with performance, durability, and longevity in mind and have been constructed out of premium-grade materials to provide the support and stability that athletes need to take their performance to the next level.
Note: All Gymreapers leather belts are approved by the IPF for powerlifting competitions.
Frequently Asked Questions
At What Weight Should You Start Wearing A Belt To Squat?
You can wear a lifting belt at any weight or strength level! I typically start to wear my belt in my warmups once I am over 60% of my one-rep max, or am going to perform a very hard set.
How Much More Weight Can You Lift By Wearing A Belt For Squats?
Most athletes can lift 5-15% more weight by wearing a belt for squats. This is because they are able to brace harder, create more pressure, and recruit more muscle fibers in their core and legs.