I remember being extremely rebellious and skeptical to wanting to use a belt when I began my journey with a barbell – mainly because I thought using a belt would prevent building up a strong core necessary for supporting heavy lifts. If you’re always reliant on the support and stability of a belt to press your core against and keep you more upright (and tighter in the bottom of a squat), how will you ever teach your body to develop that stability without it?
What good is adding an extra 5 – 10lbs on your squat with a belt when your body certainly isn’t capable of doing it without the belt? Aren’t we trying to train our bodies to be stronger without the safety belt?
That was my logic for a long time – comparing lifting with a belt to using “steroids”, and I was always skeptical about ever needing a belt (or wrist wraps, or knee wraps, etc).
So I brought this topic up because…
…I just realized a couple days ago how having a belt really does matter when it comes to my lifts.
But not all the time.
In the last few weeks, my programming has required me to do sets of 5 squats twice a week, with each day getting heavier and heavier.
Twice now, I’ve done 3 sets of 5 at 235# (a few weeks apart) without fail. Just recently, I was supposed to repeat that weight for even more sets of 5. But I left my belt and knee sleeves at home and didn’t think the extra 10 minutes to drive home and back to get them was worth it. Except, I think it really was worth it.
I went ahead with the mentality of “I can still totally do this because 235# wasn’t that bad and I’ve squatted heavy before without a belt & knee sleeves”. How did I do? Only got to 3 reps, then failed. Those 3 reps felt extremely heavy and I didn’t feel as stable or as tight coming out of the bottom of the squats (despite me going into the lifts thinking I could nail them all).
I started to think maybe it was an accumulation of heavy CNS work and lifting on Sunday, plus the fact that Tuesdays were my long grueling days where I get an hour less of sleep because I have to coach 5:15am AND two classes in the evening. Not only that, I had to cram my workout in before evening coaching (so no time to get the belt).
But was my failed squat workout really due to the lack of belt and knee sleeves?
When (or why) does someone eventually decide to purchase or use any of these supportive pieces of gear?
I know a lot of people who take on using a belt early on to “help support their lumbar and lower back.” They think they might severely lose their form or lose the flatness and tension in their backs during a heavy set of squats or a heavy deadlift. Most people start using wrist wraps because their wrists feel lot of pressure or pain while holding a overhead (either in a snatch or jerk grip) and the wrists seem to be one of the narrowest and weakest areas of our bodies. As far as knee wraps, I think most people start wearing them due to a knee injury or knee pain (either mild or severe) or because of excessive joint stiffness or cracking that happens due to “aging bodies.” Although, I have talked to a few people who say they love knee sleeves because it warms up their joints for heavy lifting later on, and also keeps them more mindful of staying tight in the bottom of a squat.
Generally, it seems most people either start using these to:
- support a weakness or prior injury, or
- to prevent injury from happening later on.
I think I succumbed to getting a belt eventually because I fell into the second category above, but also because of competition. To me, it seemed that everyone who was lifting heavy on the platform had a belt – I didn’t necessarily feel like I really needed to “support my lower back” but I thought it would keep me a little more upright and stable in terms of core strength when it came to squatting (and if it happened to add 3kg onto my clean & jerk I’d be happy with the result.)
Some people will literally treat these things as “safety belts” where it becomes mostly a mental assurance that they will make the lifts when wearing these things. If they suddenly forget to bring their belt or wraps to the gym they feel slightly incapable and less confident of physically being able to complete the task as strongly – but question is, can they still do all the reps and sets without necessarily needing to rely on these things? When does having a belt, wraps, or knee sleeves become a mental brace versus being a true physical brace?
The Mentality of a Safety Belt
I do really think mentality, when it comes to lifting, will certainly make someone better and stronger at lifting. If you go into a lift 100% confident that you’ll make the weight and know you have the strength to make it, chances are you’ll probably make it given you’re physically ready. You’ll feel a flow of energy and vigor, and will be able to attack that weight as you intended.
On the other side of it, your body may physically be capable of making the lift, but if you start to have mental doubts that you won’t make it then you’re increasing the chance of not making it. You’re constantly linking your brain’s activity to your muscles – and any lack of sureness or uncertainly during a lift may cause a sudden drop in stability or tightness that leads to a failed attempt.
This type of visualizing and thinking: “yes, I can make the weight!” or “I might not be able to” can happen with or without necessarily having your props – but for some, having that repeated stimulation of a belt, or feeling of wraps on their wrists and knees can keep their mind at ease because it’s a feeling they are using to having. When they forget their belt or wraps at home they just have this strong thought that “something is missing” and they can feel that something is missing because it’s usually been there.
I knew while I was doing the lift that something felt missing – that I was missing the stimulation of extra padded layers of neoprene around my legs or missing the feeling of rolls of fat around my abs pushing out around a thick block of stiff fabric cinching up my waist.
Reoccurances or habitual stimulations are comforting to us because we expect them – anything that breaks that expectation or pattern makes us mentally aware of the situation (OMG, combo breaker!) and thus, less certain and confident of the outcome. I’m more confident knowing my belt is there when the lift is heavy because it’s one less non-constant variable I have to deal with.
The Physical Stimulation of a Safety Belt
I started wearing knee sleeves not because of injury, but because I think it reminds me to stay tighter in the bottom of a squat and makes my knees more stable. The extra 1/2″ of neoprene padding does actually prevent me from going as deep in my squat (and staying a fraction of an inch higher DOES matter when it comes to leveraging weights close to your max). I also found other benefits to the sleeves – my knees are less scraped from the knurling on the barbell and they also make a great matching accessory to other pink gear that I own.
A belt, for me, provides a much more upright position (less slouchy). This upright positioning is incredibly key to retain at the bottom of a squat when the tendency might be to lean forward due to slight lack in hip, ankle, or thoracic mobility. The belt gives my core something strong to press against so it stays full and supportive of the load when at the bottom and while trying to drive upwards.
Another benefit of a belt is my clean and snatch pulls are noticeably higher and more powerful. For example, the left image shows the difference between a clean pull at 220# (+100%) without and with a belt – those couple of inches will make all the difference when it comes to how much time I have to pull myself under the bar (and how high I catch the barbell).
I force myself only to use a belt when I know I’m going heavy (above 90% clean & jerk) or heavy on back squats. So when I am on a “heavy” training day and I forget my belt, I can physically feel that the brace is missing – that my mid section is much softer, squishier and less held in during my lifts. On lighter lifts (below 85%), I don’t feel I need to rely on the belt to make the lift since I have enough base core strength to support that load.
When the lifts get heavier (and on days that I might feel more fatigued or at the heavy end of a training cycle), having that extra bit of support or brace there can make all the difference whether I make all of my heaviest lifts or partially make them.
Figuring out when you don’t really “need” the safety belt anymore
Take a guess…when do you realize you actually don’t NEED something?
…When you are able to successfully complete the thing you were supposed to do without actually having the thing that was “needed” and without any issues at all.
For this reason, I don’t wear wrist wraps anymore. One day, I simply forgot them and didn’t think about it. I ended up PRing both my snatch and clean & jerk on the same day without a single wrist wrap in sight (and without noticing). Therefore, I was questioning why I needed them in the first place…especially since I felt like they did limit my range of motion in terms of elbow turnover in the cleans. I thought I needed them “for support” and to reduce soreness, but clearly I had all the wrist support already built into my wrists from thousands of repetitions of holding heavy weight overhead, and thus my wrists becoming used to holding that load.
I thought this same way a few times in regards to my belt and knee sleeves.
Oops, I forgot them at home. WELL, If I was able to PR this and that without these other things, then I should be able to do OK without them, right?
The only way you’ll ever know if you really need that belt, or those supports, wraps, or sleeves, is if you just try without them and let yourself be OK with that. I will say that by constantly relying on that stimulation of a belt that you become both mentally and physically reliant on that stimulation and will find it tougher to have the confidence to lift without it.
A belt shouldn’t also be used to “fix” or correct bad form. It should only supplement great form you’ve developed without it to start (at lower weights).
But try lifting with and without a belt various times and in different situations, because some days you’ll be more fatigued than others or have less strength because of where you are in the strength cycle – and you wouldn’t want to make any assumptions based on your “one time” experience.
Learn how your body manages itself with and without supports – and once you know how much your body can tolerate raw without the extra belts or sleeves or wraps, train yourself to that threshold without your supports as much as possible to develop that raw *unsupported* strength as fully as you can.