A lifting belt is a great piece of equipment to have in your gym bag, but it shouldn’t be used every lifting session. Just as any other piece of equipment there is a time and place for it. Training without a belt will lead to a better ability to strain under a heavier weight while at the same time increasing core strength.
The purpose of the belt is to increase intra-abdominal pressure which in turn will allow the core to brace harder. A better brace will allow for more weight to be moved while protecting the back. No, it doesn’t just protect your low back as many people think, it allows you to brace against something, which in turn will protect your low back.
So let’s get to when you should use it:
You’re Going for a Max Weight or Rep Attempt
This is when you are attempting to get max weight on the bar for a given rep scheme, or max reps for a given weight. Max attempts will often result in a little bit less than perfect form, and the belt is able to add a few more pounds to your squat, bench, or deadlift. It does occasionally help to go for max attempts without a belt, as you may want to do a beltless block of training. The belted max would not be accurate for a percentage based program when going beltless.
You Have a History of Hernias or Injuries
If you have had hernias caused by lifting or anything else, then lifting heavy may only be possible with a belt. In this case, it is entirely acceptable to use a belt often in order to protect you from re-injuring yourself. The same goes for back injuries. If there is literally no other way that you can lift the weight you want to lift, then, by all means, put a belt on. It is sometimes better to be safe than sorry, but the belt shouldn’t be a crutch.
You’re Working With Over 75% of Your 1RM
This is a weight that will likely challenge you, and a belt is acceptable to put on once you near 80%. It isn’t something you should put on during your warmup set. Allow your core to feel the weight at least as you’re warming up. I usually will get to my top working sets, do one without the belt, and then put it on for the final few sets. As you get stronger and stronger, 75% will be more and more weight, so instead of a straight number in pounds, it’s better to work off of percentages.
A lifting belt can be a great tool, but should not be worn by beginners or people that they look cool. Work your way up, figure out how to strain and use the belt when necessary.