The weightlifting belt is often considered standard issue in the weight room these days. From the competitive weight lifters to those of a more recreational interest, all would seem to agree that there is a necessity for such a device. After all, supporting the back in order to help prevent injuries while lifting is a difficult point to argue. It is because of this seemingly obvious benefit that the concept is beginning to be used in other areas as well. Besides the weight room, public and private industry have begun to provide lower back support equipment for their personnel. It is becoming more common to see these devices on stock clerks, warehouse and construction workers, as well as firefighters. While the intention is certainly prudent, is it actually understood how weight belts function to support the back? Do the weight belts in the gym support the back in the same manner as the back braces used in commercial environments? Is there a time for wearing a weight belt or back brace that is most appropriate? Furthermore, is there ever a disadvantage to wearing a lower back supporting device of any kind?
The answers to these questions could very possibly alter the thinking as to the use of a weightlifting belt or back brace. Likewise, the following information could lead to a decision not to use a weight belt or back brace at all.
The Function and Benefits of Lumbar Support
Back braces differ from weightlifting belts in the overall objective to support the back. In normal populations back braces are successfully used to offer support in conditions where low back pain reduction is the primary
goal. (1,2) Physical support as well as psychological comfort have been noted with these devices. (3) Even people that have not injured their back often use these corset style braces to assist them in carrying out their everyday lifestyles. It is the rigidity of the brace itself that serves to immobilize the area in a splint-like fashion thus lending support to the lower back. (4,5,6,7)
The weightlifting belt, contrary to popular belief, supports the back in a different manner. While there can be some support due to the rigidity of a weight belt, the benefit is minimal compared to the support offered by the increase in the intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). (8,9,10)
During a normal lifting maneuver such as the squat; the diaphragmatic muscles along with muscles of the torso contract generating pressure on the abdominal cavity. The abdominal cavity together with its predominantly fluid contents, known as the "fluid ball", are kept under pressure by the surrounding musculature. It is this natural intra-abdominal tension that supports the spinal column. (11) Several studies have shown that weight belts increase intra-abdominal pressure and therefore assist in this natural stabilization mechanism. (3,8,12,13,14) Other studies have shown that increased IAP by use of the weight belt not only relieves the load of the musculature of the lower back, but also reduce the compressive forces on the spinal discs. (15,16,17) Furthermore, it has been reported that the reduction in these compressive forces can be reduced by as much as 50% when utilizing a weight belt. (16,18,19)
Additional benefits exist with the use of the weight belts due to IAP. Subjects demonstrated faster lifting movement (12,13,20) , greater emphasis on hip extension relative to knee extension (12) , as well as greater comfort and sense of support. (12,13,17,20,21)