This belt is the most abused and misused lifting accessory. As polarizing as the topics of core strength and lower back pain are, this tool sits right at the heart of a hotly debated question:
"Will the constant use of a lifting belt weaken the core?"
The true answer is almost always somewhere in the middle of the polarizing viewpoints. And in this case, it's highly dependent on the individual lifter and his or her unique challenges.
When To Use A Belt
Everyone wants a specific number when it comes to using the belt on the big lifts. Should you start using it once you hit a 400 pound deadlift? Or should you use it every time you plan to lift 90% of your max?
But since every lifter has individual body types, goals, and a unique history of training experience and injury, there are no strict rules on the use of belts for the squat and deadlift. The best indicator is a combination of training age on the big lifts and the ability to create a hard and stable brace through the pillar unit (your shoulders, hips and core).
Serious strength training – consisting of periodized barbell lifts for two-plus years – is the training age at which a lifter can potentially have success implementing the belt. If that seems like a long time to you, you haven't been lifting long enough. Proper bracing technique during compound movements takes years, if not decades, to master. It's an ongoing process. But this leads to the next predictive criteria of belted training success: the brace.
Bracing is the ability to create maximal torque around the ball and socket-based hip and shoulder joints in conjunction with 360 degree active expansion through the torso, core, and thoracic cage. It needs to be a prerequisite to adding a belt into the training equation.
Force or tension leaks that occur with lifters who haven't mastered pillar bracing can actually be exacerbated by the addition of a belt. Just as we don't add weight to a faulty foundational movement pattern, we should also not be adding an external brace (a belt) to our own faulty bracing mechanism.
Once you've mastered the ability to brace, and you've decided to strategically implement the belt, the next question is when to use it for maximal benefit.
A vast majority of barbell sport athletes and seasoned recreational lifters will have success using a belt for working sets (not warm-up sets) of squat and hip hinge variations. So if you're working at a top-end load or relative intensity in these two movement patterns, use the belt to enhance your performance and maximize your brace.
When NOT To Use a Belt
Most lifters who use the belt have no clue what it's there for or how to use it. It's just another trend among morons who strap up their midsections right before they injure their lower backs.
If you're a novice, or have a lower back problem, make sure you know how to properly brace, stabilize, and maintain tension through the midsection. Your lack of basic stability requirements throughout the core may be the exact reason why you're always messing up your back, even with the belt on.
The lifting belt is an advanced training tool for advanced athletes who have earned the right to apply it to their training in order to enhance the feel and stability of a big lift. It's not a fashion accessory.
It should not be put on in the locker room before a workout and only taken off after hitting the showers. And it for damn sure shouldn't give you the confidence or false security that it will protect you from injuries. A 6mm piece of leather can't hold together poor movement execution, nor was it designed to.
Even for advanced lifters there are times where lifting 100% raw is still the preferred method. If an exercise is targeting core strength, like a loaded carry, skip the belt and go raw. For upper body work like presses and pulls, along with unilateral lower body work like lunges, split squats, and single-leg hinges, go beltless. And this should go without saying (but hell, I've seen it) if you're doing cardio or training arms, lose the belt.
Decreasing the dependency on a belt will enable you to create more authentic and functional full-body tension in all of your exercises, and give you a new appreciation for what it means to generate internal tension through the musculature, fascia, and soft-tissue connections of your body that you have control over.
And as we say with our geared powerlifters, the stronger you are raw, the stronger you'll be when you put the equipment back on.