On a cool morning in July of 2017, a newer athlete to Roots, came into workout. The workout involved heavy back squats and as the athlete was warming up, he grabbed his weight belt and began executing heavy squats. A hush came over the gym and jaws dropped as athletes stared in disbelief. One athlete then went up to him and politely said, “Hey, so, yea, we don’t use belts here. Don’t let the coaches see that, I would take it off. You can use it to drag a sled as they’re good for attaching the straps to your body, but that’s about it.”

It’s true, at CrossFit Roots we rarely recommend or allow the use of belts. Only in very select instances will you see them used, such as in The Open. While this is known generally throughout the gym, we realized that some education as to why would be valuable.

In this post we’ll cover the musculature of the transverse abdominus (TVA), why belts are used in the strength and conditioning community, why they’re not ideal for CrossFitters or athletes who care about being well-rounded, and those few instances when it’s ok to use one (yes, there are a few).

Transverse Abdominus

It seems nowadays, throughout the world that every novice athlete who joins the ranks of the CrossFit or strength and conditioning worlds immediately places an equipment order for a jump rope, wrist wraps, lifting shoes, and a belt. The jump rope is great and we’ll talk about the wrist wraps and lifters another time – but the belt purchase is premature and for 99% of CrossFit folks, never needed.

While many people in the world of strength and conditioning skip to using a weight belt, you already have one built within your body and it’s called the TVA.

The TVA is part of the musculature of the core and works to stabilize the pelvis and low back. It also aides in the posture and stabilization of the cervical spine and helps keep the abdomen appear flat.

We train the transverse abdominus to be stronger every day. Functional movements (the squat, deadlift, i.e., all of the movements used in CrossFit) are the primary way we do this as it requires the TVA to work together with the entire muscular system of the body. We further increase the TVA development through all of those well-loved exercises such as L-sits, hollow holds and rocks, and movements on the GHD, among others.

Why Do Athletes Use Belts?

A weightlifting belt is commonly used for three purposes:  

  • To aide in intra-abdominal pressure
  • To help “protect” the low back
  • To look cool

Let’s address each of the above.

It is true that a weightlifting belt (when used properly) can aide in intra-abdominal pressure, which can aide in the weight a lifter can move. To gain that intra-abdominal pressure the athlete presses out and against the belt, rather than drawing in. The musculature of the core and the transverse abdominus specifically work to draw the abdominals in thus utilizing and developing the muscles as they were designed to function. When a belt is used, the transverse abdominus does not strengthen the core musculature as an integrated unit. Thus, the musculature that is utilized to perform functional movements, develop the core, and in turn protect the low back, is given the day off.

Some individuals do actually believe that utilizing a belt will help protect against low back injuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The belt gives the core time off, but a back injury requires that an individual put in extra effort to develop the abdominals, erectors, and other musculature of the core such that the body can protect the low back from injury long term. Any strength development is a process. Layer on this development in response to an injury and it requires athletes to take a step back, refine movement, and trust a longer process. Athletes who resort to slapping on a belt mask the underlying issues.

Finally, the cool factor. Many athletes think that they look cool when they use a belt or that it somehow delivers testosterone through osmosis just by strapping it on. Sorry, that’s not the case. What’s more is that athletes who use a belt and are undertrained (i.e., have been lifting for less than a few years), still have technique improvements to be made, or don’t execute their movements will full range of motion – are laughable. The development needed to use a belt comes through consistent quality efforts over time.

Why Aren’t They Good for CrossFit

CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program with a focus on general physical preparedness. That amounts to creating a well-rounded athlete who is as strong as they are flexible as they are powerful. At the heart of functional movements is a belief in core-to-extremity movement patterns. Functional movements begin with a strong and stable core and then radiate out to the arms and legs.

Most athletes come to CrossFit with strong appendages and a relatively weak core. A real-life example is in a rounded back deadlift. Athletes who are able to stand up a heavy load but not able to do it while keeping their spine straight, are examples of those whose appendages are strong but who are weak at the midline. 

Most of us are under using the muscles around our core cylinder (including our abdominals) day to day. Many of us know how important these muscles are in theory. But integrating them into our daily movement keeps us strong and injury free. Crossfit is our one hour a day when we have the chance to be very intentional about using these muscles during heavy work.  If we replace our abdominals with a thick piece of leather or stiff belt, we miss an opportunity to activate them so they know how to do their job during our daily activities.  Ditch the belt, start using your abs when you move, and they’ll eventually be tough as leather!” – Charlie Merrill, MSPT

Throw a belt on top of that situation and you’ve put the core in an environment where it doesn’t have to work to get stronger.

I once saw an individual working through a metcon with a large number of deadlifts. About halfway through, their back began to round and they left the gym floor to grab a belt thinking that the belt would help them continue the workout. HOLD UP. This is a natural human signal that the body just does not possess the right strength or stamina in the midline to execute the lift at the speed they want. The recipe to fix this is patience, dedication to good movement, and appropriate scaling. That looks like moving slower and with correct form, and reducing the load if correct form is no longer possible.

Daily training of functional movements is how we build the core such that it can contribute to better movement patterns, more stamina in metcon workouts, and better back health now and long into the future.

Here are the big takeaways:

  1. Using a belt weakens the muscles of the core by giving them time off and overlooks the big picture in developing functional movements.
  2. Belts are for experienced lifters (i.e., three or more years) with great form and technique, who move with full range of motion, and who are moving heavy loads (above 90% of an established 1 RM)
  3. Competitive CrossFitters may gain from using a belt, but it should be used sparingly in training and primarily as a silver bullet during competitions.

We’ll leave you with a video with Greg Glassman in which he describes midline stabilization in relation to the deadlift.