Exactly how tight should a weightlifting belt be?

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So you’ve got yourself an amazing belt… Now the real fun can start! 

Your belt needs to be tight enough that you can fill your lungs and brace your trunk muscles (from your abdominals all the way around your lower back) WITHOUT being so tight that it hampers you gathering a deep breath.

Why is that optimal? Let’s take a look…

How tight should a weightlifting belt be?

At a glance…

  • We wear a belt to HELP us brace our core when lifting – it doesn’t replace our own efforts!
  • The breathing technique we use to lift is the Valsalva manoeuvre
  • If you can’t get a deep breath and strong contraction in your abdominals throughout your lift then your belt is too tight
  • Conversely if you can’t feel any additional support your belt is too loose
  • Having a belt too tight is worse than too loose – and can cause more minor injuries too!

Why do we wear a belt?

A belt is NOT a crutch to replace your own bracing. The belt provides a fixed loop around your circumference to brace AGAINST.

In short, it’s a tool to help us increase our inter-abdominal pressure (IAP) which contributes to our stability when lifting.

When you’re wearing your belt it should not be overly tight around your core which is what many people do initially – we DON’T want it to squeeze our abs when we are not actively bracing.

That would be too tight.

How do we brace in a belt effectively?

When lifting weights we need to brace properly to have our muscles effectively support our skeleton through the loaded movement.

If you’re new to lifting (or lifting ‘seriously’) it is absolutely fine to wonder just exactly HOW people brace! 

The secret is learning the Valsalva manoeuvre…

What exactly is the Valsalva manoeuvre?

In summary, the Valsalva manoeuvre is the term to describe taking a deep breath to fill your lungs and then actively pushing (or squeezing) it AGAINST your closed wind pipe.

Our closed wind pipe keeps the air in our core providing support for our lifts via higher air pressure as our SQUEEZE tightens our circumference.

Squeezing it against our closed wind pipe helps increase the pressure as much as possible – our muscles are tightened as part of the squeeze reducing the volume of our lungs as much as possible – thus increasing PRESSURE inside them (same amount of air – just in a smaller space!)

How do we do the Valsalva manoeuvre when weightlifting?

I follow a simple FIVE step process to perform the Valsalva manoeuvre when lifting weights. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it you will LOVE it:

  1. Take a HUGE breath – as big as you can – and then hold it in as if you were away to jump off a board in to a swimming pool.
  2. Actively squeeze your abdominals – tensing my abs while focusing on sucking my belly button in and DOWN works for me. Others like to imagine someone is away to hit them or swing a bat in to their stomach!
  3. Perform a rep
  4. Exhale
  5. Repeat as required for each rep of your set

How does a belt impact the Valsalva?

By providing a solid loop around our mid section our belts make our trunk a LITTLE tighter and therefore INCREASES the pressure in our core and the resulting core support available for us to lift

Having the belt TOO TIGHT will prevent us executing the Valsalva properly.

Having it TOO LOOSE means it will offer us less support.

Is my belt too tight?

Remember, a belt does NOT provide support directly to your trunk. Instead it gives us a firm barrier to push AGAINST.

Your belt is too tight if it stops you filling your lungs and performing a Valsalva comfortably.

Right now, try and do a bicep curl and SQUEEZE your bicep as much as you can. Can you get the same level of muscle contraction pushing against NOTHING as when you have a dumbbell in hand?

Think of this when using a belt – it’s something to push AGAINST, not a DIRECT SUPPORT to replace our own efforts.

Experiencing pain or bruising?

Belts are more likely to hurt you if they are too tight compared to being too loose.

Nipping your skin or bruising are common problems if it’s too tight (assuming you have broken it in properly, of course!)

Is my belt too loose?

It’s easy to know if your belt is too loose – ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can you lift more weight with the belt on?
  2. Is it too tight (see above definition)

If you answer NO to both then your belt is too loose.

The honest truth is that after a few sessions you will intuitively KNOW if your belt is too loose. The support you’re used to simply won’t be there.

Going too tight is a far more common issue! And I would far rather lift with a belt a notch TOO LOOSE over one TOO TIGHT.

Different belt tightness for squats vs deadlifts? That’s OK too

Every exercise has a slightly different range of motion – if they didn’t then they wouldn’t be different exercises!

Each movement will therefore have subtly different mechanics that favour a belt being tighter or looser – higher or lower, thicker or thinner, etc. 

It is absolutely NORMAL to wear your belt tighter or in a slightly different position for some exercises and not others! 

Lever vs prong belts – which is best?

I’ve had both lever and prong belts over the years and PERSONALLY I prefer lever belts. The ability to snap them on and off is very handy for those who – like me – superset exercises frequently and it means I wear my belt a FRACTION tighter than I would with a prong belt as I loosen it off between sets.

The downside to most lever belts is that they are usually set to a single size – so if you are having a larger day you need to adjust them with a screwdriver.

Some designs are working around this – both my Zuluglove and SBD lever belts offer more than one size option.

Close up of the SBD lever belt adjustment mechanism - no screwdriver required!
Close up of the SBD lever belt adjustment mechanism – no screwdriver required!

Both prong and lever offer the same support when lifting so I would just go with whichever you prefer and feel comfortable with. 

Personally, I have a preference for a high quality prong belt over a poor quality lever, but I would choose a high quality lever if money and availability were not an issue.

Conclusion

So in summary we want our weight lifting belt to be tight enough that it gives us some additional compression around our trunk when we perform the Valsalva for each lift. It is too tight if you struggle to fill your lungs and brace strongly – your belt should ENHANCE your ability to tighten your abdominals, not hinder. 

And remember, it is not a replacement for your own bracing.

Personally I would suggest that if you are in doubt run your belt a notch LOOSER rather than TIGHTER as I find the drop off in performance is less severe that way around.

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