The trend to wear a weight belt has extended beyond the gym. Trash collectors, truck drivers, and construction workers often spend their entire workday wrapped in a weight belt. Some companies have gone so far as to make it a mandatory safety policy that all their employees wear a back harness.
Visit any Home Depot, Office Club, or take a look at the waist of your local package delivery person. What do these employees all have in common? They're all wearing weight belts! Next thing you know, it will not only be against the law to drive without a seatbelt, it will be against the law to operate a vehicle without a weight belt!
What's going on here? Do weight belts really protect our back? Will they make us stronger? Can the estimated 35-40 percent of people reporting back pain each year, or the 70 percent of the population who will suffer from at least one episode of back pain in their lives find relief, and possibly even avoid surgery, by making a weight belt a habit?
Before I answer these questions, try to dig up recent pictures of the world's best Olympic weightlifters in competition, but not the American weightlifters who are losing the struggle to achieve international respect.
Look at photos of European weight lifters who are continuously breaking records and winning world and Olympic titles. Isn't it interesting that Europeans never use belts when they perform the snatch lift? They're rarely seen using one for the clean and jerk!
When Did Belt Use Get Started?
A look through David Webster's book, The Iron Game, demonstrates that there is a long history of belt use in connection with heavy weight training.
Thomas Inch, publisher of Scientific Weight Training (1905), is shown pressing two adult females overhead with one hand, "while wearing a weight lifting belt." This guy was no slouch either. He could clean and jerk over 200 pounds. Not impressed? Perhaps I should mention that he performed all this lift using only one hand.
One has to wonder, what is it that leads a lifter to use a belt? Is it direction from coaches, did these particular lifters have back pain in their lifting history, did they only wear the belts when performing competition or "max" lifts, or was a belt simply looked upon as an insurance policy?
With a long history of corset use in the medical field, particularly for back injury, perhaps the lifters have been influenced by the medical approach to treating back pain. Corsets have been used since the early 1900's for the treatment of Scoliosis and back pain and quite possibly much longer.
Therefore it is logical that a lifter, wanting to make the right decision, would choose to use a belt based on the medical establishment's use of belts, especially considering the history and treatment of back pain dates all the way back to 1500 BC!
Did Developmental Man Wear Weight Belts?
Regardless of your opinion about the origin of man, if you believe in God, you have to wonder why he didn't provide weight belts as standard-issue equipment. On second thought, maybe he did, and we just don't know how to use them correctly. Perhaps we abuse our bodies, which creates a dysfunction in our "natural weight belt" and causes us to be reliant on an artificial one.
Belts, Are They as Good as People Say They Are?
Certainly, if you could come up with a product that supposedly reduced pain at the same time that it improved performance, or at least appeared to, you could make A LOT OF MONEY!
Just take a look around you next time you are at the lumberyard, warehouse, or office supply store. Chances are you will see employees wearing belts. As I eluded to in the introduction, many furniture moving companies, chain store organizations and package delivery companies have made it mandatory for employees to wear belts.
Have the decisions made by companies, corporations, workers and gym members been based on sound research? Perhaps. But maybe it has been the scare tactics and strong marketing techniques of belt companies that have helped people make their decision.
There is certainly no shortage of claims being made by belt manufacturers. For example, here are two claims I pulled directly from the "Valeo" belt company's web site:
The support helps workers perform their duties while helping to protect their back from stress and strain damage.
Reduces the likelihood of pain or injury for a variety of activities.
If you can market a product based on fear and emotion (both of which are highly correlated with the back pain experience), chances are you will sell that product and lots of it! Famous speaker, Zig Ziglar, states that F-E-A-R is really False Evidence Appearing Real. This, in my opinion, is the case with weight belts in general.
Apparently, the evidence supporting the use of back belts did not even appear real to Lahad (JAMA 1994;272:1286-91) who identified 190 articles from 1966 to 1993 that focused on various interventions for the prevention of low back pain. He concluded that sufficient evidence was unavailable to recommend the use of mechanical back supports for the prevention of back pain.
In another study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, prophylactic use of back belts for healthy workers was not recommended because of a lack of scientific evidence promoting their benefit (Spine Vol. 23, No. 19, pp 2104-2109, 1998).
There are also many other studies indicating belt use provides no significant improvement in performance or reduction in the user's chance of injury (see original article).
Getting to the Bottom of the Elusive Obvious
To make this review of belt use complete, it must be stated that there are numerous studies indicating the use of back belts, weight belts and lumbar corsets improves performance, endurance, and reduce chances of injury.
I have sited these studies in the reference list (see original article). Even though there are studies demonstrating a supposed increase in performance while using weight belts, there are many, if not more, studies indicating weight belts are damaging and even worse, create dysfunction in their users.
As most of you reading this article are aware, many gyms have racks of weight belts, as a service to their members. I have already mentioned their widespread use in the industrial workplace.
So then, if as stated above, a government agency devoted to occupational health and safety doesn't support belt use due to lack of scientific evidence, then what are the belts providing that lead people to believe they help reduce pain, prevent injury or improve performance? (see original article for expanded details as to why this is true)
In this article I discussed several legitimate considerations regarding chronic use of corsets, back belts, and weight lifting belts. Available research clearly demonstrates that belts are unable to stabilize the spine at a segmental level, therefore only stabilizing the torso.
Gross stabilization, as provided by belts, may allow you to lift more weight than you could without the belt, indicating a stabilizer dysfunction within your body. The increased weight being lifted as afforded to the lifter by the belt will likely serve to traumatize the spine due to increased levels of compression, torsion and sheer, increasing the potential for a serious injury.
Caution should be exercised by those using belts to increase "proprioception," as a belt is clearly a form of "exteroceptive stimuli".
When the belt is removed, it is likely to have accomplished little in improving proprioception, leaving the lifter with an increased risk of injury secondary to belt usage.
My clinical treatment of workers and athletes with spine injuries has shown that chronic use of weight lifting belts and back belts is highly correlated with sensory-motor amnesia of the deep abdominal. Finally, weaning yourself off a belt must be done carefully and in concert with evaluation and treatment of any stabilizer deficit found in the torso.