I love the typical vision of the dude in the leather weight belt. You know the one, neck as thick as my thighs, covered in chalk, slapping his chest and grunting as he leans down to pick up a barbell. This character entertains me.
As much as the sight of that medieval looking contraption around his waist makes me giggle, I know it’s doing more harm than good. Logically, if I’m lifting with the assistance of a belt, my body isn’t doing all the work and can’t be firing at maximum capacity. It’s like using a cane to hike even though you’re training to climb the mountain without it. From livestrong.com:
A common misconception about the weight belt is that is supports your spine during normal, moderate weight training. However, the weight belt is too narrow and rigid to provide proper spinal support in this case. If you have a previous injury or feel you need spinal support, talk to your doctor about an appropriate back brace for training. Weight belts, when used improperly, discourage the use of your own core and abdominal muscles, muscles that are necessary to build and help protect your spine. When they are used as a crutch, they can actually weaken your abdominal muscles.
In other words, not only are you not maximizing the benefit from your training sessions, you might be hurting yourself too. Weight lifting properly requires learning to incorporate and tighten your abdominal muscles. Your body will only learn if you demand it to do so. Wearing a belt means your body can be lazy and never develop the proper form.
Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics, studied the impact of weight belts and drew some alarming conclusions:
• Those who have never had a previous back injury appear to have no additional protective benefit from wearing a belt.
• Those who are injured while wearing a belt seem to risk a more severe injury.
• Belts appear to give people the perception they can lift more and may in fact enable them to lift more.
• Belts appear to increase intra-abdominal pressure and blood pressure.
• Belts appear to change the lifting styles of some people to either decrease the loads on the spine or increase the loads on the spine.
There is a camp which believes that you may be equipped to lift more weight for a one rep max utilizing the help of a belt. From T-nation.com:
Lifting belts can help performance on big lifts involving the lower back. If a lifter is squatting heavy or pulling big, a belt may be able to increase performance on those lifts.
Whether or not this is true is immaterial in my opinion. Our goal is to be healthier and stronger, not developing dependence on a material tool for said strength. Adding an extra five pounds to your bar is meaningless if you can’t get back into the gym for your next workout.