I’ve noticed more and more weight belts popping up in the gym. This concerns me. A lot. Hear me out.
Our abdominal core muscles are the protectors of our spine. It’s the core muscles that we want doing the work while we lift, rather than loading the joints of our lower backs. Core muscles can be thought of as two cylinders, one within the other:
The inner core muscles, which are directly attached to the spine, look kind of like the diagram below. They are the stabilizers of the spine, and the protective, anticipatory muscles that help prevent injury.
It is the outer core muscles, including the six-pack-ab muscles (rectus abdominis), that are the global movers of the lower back and abdomen, and the muscles that help us to push big weight.
Here’s the problem with weight belts. They allow your inner core muscles to cheat a little bit and still get the same work output. When you activate your abdominal muscles against a weight belt, you increase your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) and de-load the spine. Which is wonderful when you’re going for a new 1-rep max. It’s not so wonderful when you’re reaching down to put on your sock and your inner core muscles are used to relying on that artificial IAP, and therefore are under-trained and deactivated. This is where injury happens.
And that’s the problem. Weight belts help to train your big movers (your outer core), while ignoring your smaller stabilizers (your inner core).
This is the perfect storm for injury; muscular imbalances and stabilizer weakness. Believe it or not, far more significant lower back injuries are reported in my practice due to everyday activities (picking up a load of laundry, getting out of the car, shovelling snow, brushing teeth, sneezing) than due to injuries in the gym. In every one of these cases, I can find inner core weakness. “But I can squat 300lbs, how can I possibly have a weak core?” Because your outer core has been able to overcome that, often with the help of a weight belt.
Let me be clear: a weight belt can help you in the gym and it can be very useful during max efforts. But it can definitely hurt you in the long run if used improperly. It should absolutely NOT be used during a high-rep workout (as in, a typical WOD or met-con). My stance on this one is black and white. If you need your weight belt in a WOD, you are doing something wrong. Scale the weight back.
I’m talking to you, my fellow CrossFitters. Let’s be smart about this. Let’s think about long-term spinal health instead of short-term gains. Take off a plate, take off the weight belt, focus on form.
You’ll thank me later, I promise.