Use of Lifting Belts During Strength Training Workouts
The decision of whether to use a lifting belt during exercise should be guided by the following information:
As mentioned in an earlier article on lower back pain, the deep stabilizing muscles of the lumbo-pelvic region (core) are suspected as having a "drum forming" effect - that is the muscles contract simultaneously in a reflex (no conscious thought required in people without back pain) action to help stabilize the low back and allow forces to be transferred from the lower body to the upper body and vice versa. This action also has the effect of compressing the abdominal contents - composed primarily of water and very little gas; thus the name of this phenomenon is the "fluid ball" effect. Water as a liquid is essentially incompressible, so you can see how the presence of an internal pressurized fluid "ball" will lend stability to the pelvis and spine and actually help generate torque in the lift. For example, as you descend into a heavy squat, the muscles of the core and diaphragm begin to contract and generate tension on the fluid ball. As you squat deeper and your knees and hips flex more and more, the pelvis starts to tip forward and the large erector spinea muscles begin to lose their strength advantage due to a decreased muscle length. It is logical then to assume that the fluid ball acts as a "block" to prevent excessive spinal flexion and possible compressive damage to the intervertebral ligaments and discs.
Lifting belts have been demonstrated to have a similar effect of passively increasing intra-abdominal pressure simply by the mechanics of their operation. However, when a lifting belt is used on a consistent basis, it is proposed that the inner stabilizing muscles and deep abdominals are relieved of much of their duty and fail to get stimulated sufficiently. Therefore, even though you may be performing a very functional movement like a squat, you are receiving a source of external stabilization likened to that provided by machine exercise. The risk of using a lifting belt for all lifts is that the core muscles are not trained sufficiently and in the correct motor sequence, so if you attempt a heavy lift without a lifting belt, there may be an increased chance of injuring your back. The best advice then is if you are going to use a lifting belt, use it only when you attempt maximal (1RM) lifts and only when the spine is directly targeted like in a squat. Perform submaximal lifts without a belt to ensure sufficient training of the deep stabilizers of the spine. (It should be kept in mind however that some world class Olympic-style weightlifters never use weightlifting belts).
So if your goal is to wear a lifting belt on the field or track or even while performing regular everyday tasks, then use a belt for all your lifts. If however you want "true" functional strength and power, train your own "internal weight lifting belt" and discard the "fake" one.
David Petersen is a Personal Trainer/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the owner and founder of B.O.S.S. Fitness Inc. based in Oldsmar, Florida. More articles and information can be found at http://www.bossfitness.com
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