Weight Belts and Bracing Your Core

I played football from 4th grade through college. My goal was always to get as big, strong and powerful as I could. I lifted heavy. When I was lifting weights, I cinched up my weightlifting belt (so tight I could barely breathe) made my lift, and immediately undid my belt. I did this, of course, so that I wouldn’t hurt my back (and because every other lifter did it). The idea of wearing a weight belt became accepted practice and men, women, and even children started wearing them as a standard requirement for working out.

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So, here’s the question, do weight belts prevent back issues or not. Well, they can help and here’s how. The cinched belt creates intra-abdominal (internal) pressure. This internal pressure helps to support the low back. Sounds good, right? Should we, in fact, all be wearing them when we lift? Let me ask you this, what happens when we need to lift something heavy during our daily activities? Will you slap on a weight belt before you lift it or, as is more likely, just lift it?

I guess it was a couple of decades ago when the fitness world started moving away from using weight belts. It was about that time that I stopped using one. The rationale, for me and much of the fitness industry, was that if you can’t lift it without a belt, you probably won’t be lifting it outside of the gym. Wouldn’t it be better to train your core (which, when contracting/bracing, can also create intra-abdominal pressure similar to a weight belt)?

That’s kind of where we, as an industry, stand now with the use of weight belts. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a time and place for them. When you are lifting competitively or doing maximal or near maximal lifts and you challenge the limits of what you might be able to control with your core, it would still be appropriate to use that extra support. This post is really about not defaulting to those external tools and relying more on building the strength and support from your own body.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Got Back Pain?

In all likelihood you have experienced back pain at some point in your life, especially if you are over 50. Here are a few quick facts about back pain:

  • Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide.
  • One-half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year.
  • Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work.
  • 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some time in their lives.
  • Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on back pain

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According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors for back pain include:

  • Age. Back pain is more common as you get older.
  • Lack of exercise. Weak back and core muscles can lead to back pain.
  • Excess body weight puts extra stress on your back.
  • Diseases. Some types of arthritis and cancer can contribute to back pain.
  • Improper lifting techniques can lead to back pain.
  • Smoking can keep your body from delivering enough nutrients to the disks in your back.

So, where do we start to reduce back pain? See your doctor first! Get a diagnoses to establish if there is any risk to starting a core strengthening program. (Yes, the core is where your training should begin.)

The first exercise for most individuals (everyone’s case is different) is to learn and practice core bracing. This is where you draw in the waist as if you are trying to fasten pants that are a bit too tight. This girdling creates pressure inside the abdomen which, in turn, supports the low back. Because this exercise supports the back and doesn’t bend and/or rotate the spine, it can usually be done with no harm to the back. You need to practice this to both strengthen the core muscles and to be able to call on that strength when needed.

In my experience, one of the best ways to “find” this bracing is to sit on the edge of a chair and then, while keeping your face straight forward, push the top of your head toward the ceiling. I call these “sit-talls” because that’s what you’re trying to do, sit as tall as you can. In order to be tall, you need to lengthen your spine. To do that, you need to draw in your navel toward your spine and that is the core bracing.

Once you learn what bracing is and how to do it, other static (non-movement) exercises can be incorporated to get you started on the road to better back function with less discomfort.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Mark