Weight lifting belts: 10mm vs 13mm (+3 more tips)

10mm vs 13mm – just what difference can 3mm make? In terms of weightlifting belts, quite a lot it seems!

After dropping some stubborn belly fat recently I had shrunk down to the smallest hole on my 10mm ZuluGlove belt (I still need to do a review on that belt). I was then hit with a conundrum – what exactly should I replace it with?

I’ve ended up with a 13mm SBD lever belt to sit alongside my 10mm ZuluGlove but it wasn’t a straightforward decision, and the difference in the belts now I’ve got them both side by side is pretty amazing. 

Here are some of my thoughts on the 10mm vs 13mm debate.

Weightlifting belts: 10mm vs 13mm (+3 more tips)

At a glance…

  • 13mm belt offers more support, but is less comfortable to wear for longer periods
  • 10mm is more versatile and suits a first belt / general gym belt situation
  • A weightlifting belt works by providing hoop pressure to your core when you brace for a lift
  • A belt is not necessary, but can contribute to higher absolute weights being lifted 
  • Generally lifting the same weight with a belt on will be comparatively less taxing on your body
  • A weightlifting belt should sit between your ribs and pelvis, covering your torso

How does a weightlifting belt work?

A lifting belt helps increase your contractions in the muscles around your core – that is your abdominals and various other muscles around your trunk. The tightening then holds your skeleton in place for the duration of your lift.

How does it help the contraction? It provides something to brace against.

When you take a deep breath you increase the air and subsequently pressure in your core. Without a belt, your abdomen will stick out a little further than usual as a result. A belt provides a big red stop sign to that expansion – no room to expand outwards, so instead pressure in your core will increase as a result of basic physics (the same amount of ‘deep breath’ / air is held in a physically smaller space.)

This increased pressure in your trunk then translates to a lift that generally feels like it has a stronger chain through your body (for most people). 

Is a belt necessary?

Absolutely not.

As ever with health and fitness your training will be shaped by your goals. 

Why should I use a weightlifting belt?

You will benefit from wearing a lifting belt if you are focusing on:

Absolute weight lifted – if your sport is lifting heavy weights, and you are motivated by watching your PR’s rack up week to week, a belt will usually allow you to lift more. Don’t believe me? Look up powerlifters hitting heavy singles and most will be wearing a belt.

Plateaus & progressing trainees – if you’re pretty new to weight lifting you likely don’t need a belt. If you’ve managed to work through your beginner phase and have now hit the wall you would benefit from trying a belt to keep your figures moving and keep your training fresh.

Fatigue management – if you’re looking to manage your fatigue or recovery from lifting you will find that doing an exercise belted or unbelted can swing the pendulum on how tough an exercise is at any given weight. For example I do all my heavy deadlifts with a belt, but I do my deadlift accessories without. During the workout these accessories feel genuinely hard which is good for training, but as they are at a lower weight I am still recovered and in good shape to squat next time I’m in the gym with less residual fatigue kicking around.

Biomechanics (or form creep) – I find it easier to maintain form on heavy sets of squats and deadlifts with a belt. This is particularly noticeable in longer sets where form creep may set in mid-set.

Spinal load management – with the increased abdominal pressure the distribution of load being transmitted in your core will change subtly. You may find a belt transfers some of the weight bearing from your back towards your newly super-braced abdominal cavity. Anecdotally I find low bar squats noticeably more taxing on my lower back when done beltless.

Breaking in my SBD 13mm lever belt by wrapping it around a towel & linen sheet
Breaking in my SBD 13mm lever belt

When shouldn’t I use one?

Equally your goals may mean you would be better served without a belt. For example:

You’re still a beginner – enjoy your training and don’t rush to slap a belt on. Learn to brace properly without a belt and ride out the productive training curve you’re on first. Look to add a belt in once your gains slow down and you become a bit clearer on your fitness goals.

Your form could be improved – if you can’t do a lift properly, adding a belt won’t make it any better. In fact it may mask the issue until it all goes wrong at a higher (and more dangerous) weight. It may help form degradation at higher weights as noted above – but that’s more for intermediate / advanced lifters.

You don’t squat or deadliftthese are the big ticket items in terms of benefiting from a belt. These powerlifts are the ones that usually push the most weight around and therefore logically benefit exponentially from using a belt. If you don’t squat or deadlift it’s likely that your goals are leading you down the route of training beltless. Many successful bodybuilders for example don’t use a belt as absolute weight moved is less important to these guys.

You have a medical reason not to – many people out there have issues with hernias, blood pressure or any other number of old injuries. You should seek medical advice before training, or adapting your training with a belt, in these cases!

Great… So what do belts ACTUALLY help with?

They help with bracing and fatigue as discussed above, but specifically I wear a belt for heavy squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press training. 

All my accessories are done beltless at the moment, but I’ve done them with and without in the past.

Why are accessories beltless? It lets me get in a number of relatively harder work sets at a comparatively lower absolute weight… Fancy talk for getting effective training reps in while not grinding myself into oblivion under maximum absolute weight.

And… How much do they ACTUALLY help?

This depends on each individual. I find it helps a lot with squat and deadlift one rep maximums (>25kg difference if I had to estimate the impact!)

Others may see less benefit – anecdotally various websites report 5-15% improvements, but literature references are lacking.

Where should I place the weightlifting belt on my torso?

For those new to belts – where do we place the belt on the torso? Aim for between the rib cage and the pelvis muscles (right across the abdomen basically) and do a few air squats. The belt will soon work itself into position.

How should a weightlifting belt fit?

Pretty tight – it should initially feel ‘too small’ if you’re not used to wearing one.

For example my waist circumference – on bare skin – is typically around 77.5cm in the morning at the moment. When I workout in a standard t-shirt during the day (so after at least two meals) I wear my belt at 74.5cm circumference.

Pretty amazing that I use a belt that measures 3cm less than my waist circumference first thing in the morning!

That is part of why I like the lever belt – very easy to pop into this super-tight position for the lift, and pop off between sets. I’ve also enjoyed a slightly looser belt from time to time previously. It is personal preference ultimately – but treat the above as a guide and ensure whatever belt you pick has this in the range of fitments and you can’t go too far wrong.

10mm ZuluGlove and 13mm SBD belt side by side
10mm ZuluGlove and 13mm SBD belt side by side

How to pick a weight lifting belt: 10mm vs 13mm?

As we discussed above a belt gives us something for our abs to push against when we’re lifting weights (this is also known as hoop tension.)

As we’re pushing out against the belt then the thicker it is, the less likely it is to deform or ‘give’ under a load. So the thicker a belt, the stronger the support – all else being equal…

Unfortunately all else is rarely equal! These are the three deciding factors when choosing between a 10mm or 13mm weightlifting belt:

  1. Leather vs suede – every good belt will be made of these materials. Of the two, only the leather offers the support benefits and the suede is purely decorative. If you have a 10mm belt with suede on both sides, it is likely to be around 7mm of leather with 3mm of suede. A 13mm belt will have the same suede thickness, but 50% more leather providing support.
  2. Comfort – a 13mm belt will be stiffer and less comfortable than a 10mm belt. This is the price for the additional support. A 13mm will be less comfortable to wear around the gym between sets etc.
  3. Price – speaking of price… Pound for pound a 13mm will be more expensive due to the increased leather. Like for like a Pioneer belt will run you $85 (in the USA) for a 10mm vs $105 for a 13mm belt – so around a 25% premium.

Anything else to consider?

Yep – there are plenty of belts out there. A few of the areas that can catch you out are:

  1. Materials used – you want a leather belt, with suede as a decorative finish if you like it. Non-leather belts I have had have ended up with rips or disfigured so I would not recommend them if you have any way to avoid them. Note some belts use additional synthetic material to make them tougher – this can impact comfort (looking at you Inzer!)
  2. Buckle – I like a lever belt which lets me go a notch tighter than I can with a standard buckle. Many others prefer a normal pronged belt. If in doubt start with a single prong.
  3. Availability – some belts are only available in limited configurations, e.g. the SBD belt is a 13mm, triple-leather, single suede layered belt. Take it or leave it! Pioneer offer some awesome customisation so if you know exactly what you want you can drop them an email and they will price it up for you.
  4. Width – we’ve talked about hoop tension already with the belt giving us something to brace our core against. It serves that the thicker the belt, the bigger the area we can push against. That said, some struggle with the standard 4” thick belt and need either a tapered or a thinner (e.g. 3”) belt. This will impact your choices when buying a new belt.
  5. Breaking in – when you get a new lifting belt it will be pretty stiff and uncomfortable. Over time and through regular use the belt will become a little more malleable and will ‘break in’ to your body shape. Understandably a 10mm belt will break in quicker than a 13mm belt (which as we discussed above has around 50% more leather over a good quality 10mm equivalent.) I’ve recently picked up a SBD 13mm lever belt and breaking it in has been considerably tougher than my 10mm ZuluGlove. Levels of support offered are equally as disparate though – so horses for courses, as they say.
Close up of the SBD lever belt - you can see the single layer of red suede with 3x layers of leather
Close up of the SBD lever belt – you can see the single layer of red suede with 3x layers of leather

Conclusion

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve not said which one is better. That’s because it really depends on how you use it. 

If you like to put on your belt and keep it on throughout your session for every lift then a 10mm would be my recommendation. It will be slightly more flexible as you manoeuvre around. I would also go with a 10mm if you prefer a prong belt over lever – again this is because I simply prefer to put a prong belt on and leave it on for the session.

Whereas if you want to squeeze the maximum weight out of your lifts or are a competitive power lifter then I would suggest a 13mm belt as they offer more support. In these cases I would prefer a lever – but your preference may differ!

In no-mans land is a 13mm prong buckle belt – this is not a combination I would be in a rush to order.

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