Data on Weight Lifting Belts are Many Times Anecdotal
There was once a study made with airline baggage handlers and weightlifting belts. They had different control groups meaning, there was a group given belts to wear during their regular lifting activities, a second group was not given belts but, rather, educated in how to lift and, a third group that was not given belts or any lifting education. This convoluted study (not even worth citing) turned out to be inconclusive because many members of the first group who were given belts to wear would not keep wearing them. They complained that they restricted their movements too much, caused discomfort and in some cases, resolved in bruising.
A Personal Account
When I was quite a bit younger, I once had a job palletizing 25 pound boxes after they came off an assembly line. One day I did the math and realized I was stacking between 5 to 7 tons of product daily. I had gotten used to this volume of work over a period of months as the production was being ramped up but although I was in a sore tired back at the end of every work day. Do you think after I got home I iced and rested my back? Far from it. I weight trained for an hour every evening and this kept me in the job. I learned that work and exercise are two different things even when one's work is physically grueling.
Any day, one day the management overheard the grumbling of some line worker (maybe me) and went out and bought some back belts. These were not weightlifting belts. You might have seen them. They are usually blue colored and have suspenders going over the shoulders and are made out of thick cloth that wraps around your middle with velcro to keep it all snug. Vertical bamboo strips are sewn into the material at the lower back to provide both support and flexibility. After I put on one of these, the result at the end of the day was dramatic. To say that my lower back felt better would be an understatement. I felt very little discomfort at all and was able to tolerate that job a whole lot better. Everyone with a lifting job should get one of these back savers!
At the very least, weightlifting belts serve this same purpose. They allow the wearer to tolerate a higher volume of lower back stress. My most humble opinion has been that it is best to get one if you do quite a bit of sets and reps incorporating your lower back.
Some Things to Consider When Buying a Weight Lifting Belt
1) Get the kind that is very wide at the lower back. You will see some models that are quite thin and there are those people who say that the belt is not so much for external support as it is for intra-abdominal pressure (more on that short). Just get the wide kind with the double prongs.
2) A good weight belt will seem to be a bit expensive but considering that you will be training for many more years, this is not that much of a factor.
3) Get a belt that can be rolled very tight.
Put on the belt and pull it as tight as you can. It should not be loose. If it is loose, no problem, just go down an inch or two more and punch an extra couple prong holes. When you have the weightlifting belt on tight, suck in some air and push out your stomach as hard as you can. This builds up what is called intra-abdominal pressure. The belt is useless if you simply strap it on without intra-abdominal pressure.
Belts Help with Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP)
There have been countless studies done on intra-abdominal pressure with a weightlifting belt. Some facts about IAP:
1) Spinal Loading is reduced.
2) The AIP helps to stiffen the trunk contributing to stabilization. This will tend to improve a lifter's explosive power without compromising the joint range of motion.
3) When doing heavy squats it has been observed that there is a residual shrinkage with discomfort but only when a belt is NOT worn.
4) Weightlifting belts help to minimize trunk rotation. Trunk rotation is the cause of many twisting types of lower back injuries.
Again, to use a belt properly, pull it very tight then inhale and push out your stomach as far as you can against the belt. Keep your back arched back while performing a lift. As for breathing during the lift, it is perhaps best to not hold your breath. If you take in a deep breath for purposes of holding it to build up AIP, you are doing what is called the Valsalva Maneuver.
The Valsalva Maneuver
There have been multiple studies detailing the Valsalva Maneuver in weight lifting. This is when you hold your breath and exhale against a closed glottis (the vocal folds in your throat) while performing a lift. You are trying to exhale air forcefully but closing off your throat so nothing comes out. Unfortunately, this also spikes your blood pressure and increases the likelihood of a stroke. There was a study done with subjects doing a double leg press using maximal both with and without employing the Valsalva Maneuver. The mean blood pressure during a maximal lift with the Valsalva Maneuver was 311/284 whereas when the participants exhaled slowly during the concentric phase, the BP for the same lift was 198/175. This is quite a healthy difference. Although the VM works quite well for disturbing maximal weights using large compound movements, is highly recommended here to exhale slowly during the concentric part of an exercise.
What Some People Say
Some people say to not use belt except when doing maximum effort lifts. They even give a percentage of, say, only wear one for squats and deadlifts if you lift over 85% of your one rep maximum. They say that with lighter loads it is better not to wear one because you need to develop your core strength. Some go even so far as to say that if you wear a belt, you are foolishly spoiling yourself, your core will atrophy and you will turn into a wimp.
If you think a belt will cheat you out of getting an iron core then work your core directly with assistance exercises such as crunches, leg lifts, hyperextensions, reverse hyperextensions and so on. You can warm up without a belt before doing heavy squats, deadlifts or overhead presses.
It is Your Back-Not Someone Else's
Remember one critical point here: It is your back and health we are talking about. No one else but you will suffer if you injure your back. If you injure it, you will be at home nursing your hurt while the person who gives you the advice will just shrag their shoulders and walk away muttering, “It happens sometimes that way. Suck it up dude.”
If you take care of your back, it will take care of you. There is a tendency for lifters, however, to not take their back back until after they get an injury. Anyone who has suffered a lower back injury can tell you that education is the key. Learn how to lift and if you use a belt, then educate yourself in how to use it. The proper use of a weightlifting belt can significantly reduce or even negate the possibility of lower back injuries.