With all the work CrossFit athletes put into their training, it’s a wonder more of them don’t show up at their box with a weight belt. Weight belts may seem humdrum compared to flashier fitness gear like speed ropes and Bosu trainers, but they provide a genuine anatomical and physiological advantage. It’s time to learn what they do and how to use them.
First, a quick anatomy lesson: The diaphragm divides the torso into two “compartments.” The upper compartment, called the thorax, contains the lungs, heart, thoracic vertebrae and, more important, the rib cage. When an athlete closes his or her glottis (holds his or her breath) and performs a Valsalva maneuver in a heavy lift, intrathoracic pressure increases. But because the rib cage is solid and surrounds the thorax, the increased pressure doesn’t expand this compartment outward. Rather, the pressure is exerted back against the thoracic spine, stabilizing it and keeping the athlete upright.
In the lower (abdominal) compartment, which contains the intestines, kidneys and lumbar vertebrae, there is no rib cage; in fact, there’s nothing solid there that can be used to create pressure against the lumbar spine. That’s where a weight belt comes in. It acts as an artificial rib cage, providing something for the abdominal muscles to push against, thereby creating intra-abdominal pressure back against the lumbar spine and keeping it stable under a load.
Weight belts should be worn only when downward compressive forces are high. Meaning, they should be used only when athletes are using a weight at or higher than 85 percent of their maximum. If belts are worn during an entire WOD, two things happen.
First, the athlete never gets a chance to feel what the weight belt can really do because it is clearly being worn too loosely. Second, the muscles of the abdomen (obliques, etc.) can become weaker because the belt is doing their work during the training session.
“I am a fan of a properly used weight belt,” says Greg Cosentino, owner of 3rd Street CrossFit in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. “Unfortunately, I think too many people get a false sense of security when they suck in their abdomen and crank down on a weight belt. Obviously, a snug belt and a proper Valsalva maneuver will increase intra-abdominal pressure, protecting the spine, but without this combination [tight belt and Valsalva], I think [a weight belt] can be more of a hindrance.”
Therefore, a weight belt should be worn:
• Only when athletes are lifting a heavy load. “I only allow my lifters to use a belt during maximal or close-to-maximal lifts,” Cosentino says.
• Tightly — as tight as is reasonably comfortable.
• For no more than one minute. In fact, the belt should be tight enough that athletes don’t want to wear it longer than that.
• Properly. That is, athletes should push their abdominals against the belt in order to stabilize their lumbar spine during a lift (i.e., at the bottom of a squat or pulling from the floor in the deadlift). That’s what actually creates the intra-abdominal pressure and maintains the integrity of the lumbar spine.
Ultimately, a weight belt should be regarded as another tool CrossFitters have available to them. Like any tool, there’s a right and wrong way to use it. Used correctly — to stabilize the lumbar spine and help maintain good posture and technique in a lift — a weight belt can literally add kilos to that lift. Once a CrossFitter has become proficient in his lifts, he should try a belt to determine whether it can improve his training efficiency and progress.