So I know I said the Minimalism series was coming to an end. But low and behold, I’m back with yet another installment.
In case you missed any of the first five parts check them out by clicking on the appropriate links below.
If I could go back 23 years and start my training all over again one of the biggest things I’d do would be eliminate any and all support gear. First on that list would be a lifting belt.
Because a belt allows you to lift more weight than you could without one. That means you are putting unnatural amounts of stress on your knees and spine when you use a belt to squat or deadlift. It’s more weight than your body, or more appropriately- your weakest links, can handle.
Instant Strength or an Injury Waiting to Happen?
Let’s say you can squat 275 right now. If I teach you how to use a belt properly you will instantly squat 295. Within 15 minutes you may even be squatting 315. It depends on how weak your core region is. I’ve seen people with really weak abs get fifty pounds or more out of a belt. That’s fifty pounds your knees and spine are ill prepared to tolerate.
And it means your abs are really, really weak. The proper solution would be to strengthen your abs, obliques, lower back, etc. Not put on a belt.
Lifting more weight than you could handle on your own without a belt, week in and week out, year after year takes a toll on your body. You’re slowly breaking it down and in the end there may be no repairing it.
I started using a belt when I was young and dumb. Then I got smarter and stopped for several years. That was until I decided to launch off a ten foot cliff while racing down Killington Mountain in Vermont one winter. The crash landing put me out of commission for a while and ever since then I felt the need for a belt while squatting or deadlifting.
Maybe I should have just rehabbed a bit longer and started coming back slower. I can’t say for sure.
Sometimes if you have a preexisting injury you will need to wear a belt if you ever wish to squat and deadlift safely.
But nobody else needs one.
In fact, I’ve decided that I’m going to take 8 weeks off from squats and deads and then start over again from scratch without a belt. Sure, my numbers will suffer, but I couldn’t be less concerned about it. The older I get the more health and longevity matter to me.
Unless you plan on competing in powerlifting, Olympic lifting or strongman there is no reason to ever wear a belt. Even the smartest high level competitive lifters train without one for a good portion of the year.
Build Your Own Belt
Ed Coan used to start a pre-meet cycle with no gear at all and then as it got closer to the contest he would add one piece at a time. Coan fondly recalls the time he saw Ukrainian lifter, Uri Spinoff squat 947 without a belt, “ …he stood straight up. He didn’t even bend forward… I asked him about wearing a belt and he just laughed, tapped his belly and said, ‘We build our own belt.’”
He was right. Very few things will build a strong set of granite abs like doing squats and deads without a belt. Check out the video below of Konstantinovs. He knows the value of training raw and has the abs to prove it.
Dr. Stuart McGill’s Take
I could go on and on about why using a belt is a bad idea but I think the Jedi Master of spinal health, Dr. Stuart McGill could do a better job than anyone.
According to Dr. McGill’s outstanding book, Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance, which I recommend to every health and fitness professional…
• Those who have never had a previous back injury appear to have no additional benefit from wearing a belt.
• Those who are injured while wearing a belt seem to risk a more severe injury.
• Belts appear to give people the perception they can lift more and may in fact enable them to lift more.
He continues, “Given the assets and liabilities of belt wearing, I do not recommend them for healthy individuals in routine work or exercise participation. The exception to this recommendation is for extreme lifting. Here, belts are not used to enhance health but instead to lift more weight.”
“…to obtain the maximal effect from a belt, the lifter must lift poorly and in a way that exposes the back to a much higher risk of injury!”
“…evidence suggests that people change their motor patterns, together with their motion patterns when using a belt… these motor control changes can elevate the risk of injury should a belt not be worn in a belt training athlete. The severity of a back injury may be greater if a belt is worn.”
In summarizing, “If one wants to groove motor patterns to train for other athletic tasks that demand a stable torso, it is probably better not to wear a belt.”
==> Get Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance HERE.
As coaches or trainers we sometimes get caught up in numbers or YouTube videos or sending guys back to camp with the highest lifts possible. This is shortsighted, however, and will do more damage in the long term. If you have football players going back to camp and it’s crucially important that they test high on the squat let them use a belt the last few squat sessions to get used to it and to learn how to use it safely and properly. For the rest of the year they shouldn’t touch a belt. Even better would be if the coach running the tests banned belts from the testing day and knew well enough to keep his guys safe.
Weight room numbers aren’t the only thing that make an athlete. Far from it.
Straps & Wraps
Next on the list of supportive gear would be straps. Again, I think that when you use artificial aids to help you lift more weight than the body’s weakest link can handle you are setting yourself up for injury in the long term. When it comes to deadlifting that leaves you with the choice of going over/under or developing an insanely powerful grip and going double overhand.
The over/under grip has been associated with bicep tears and other injuries. Many experts recommend avoiding it. The hook grip is extremely difficult and severely lessens the amount of weight you can lift unless you get freakishly strong at it.
Which option do you use? I’ll leave that one up to you.
However, my personal choice would be to only deadlift with a trap bar, thus eliminating the need for such a decision. As I’ve mentioned before I would stick with trap bar deads over straight bar deads pretty much across the board with myself and all of my clients if I was starting all over again. It’s just a much safer exercise that just about everyone can do safely and properly. The number of people you can say that about when it comes to the straight bar deadlift is very small.
Obviously, if you plan to compete or just want to pull huge numbers in a straight bar deadlift that’s a whole different story.
The final few items on the list of support gear are wraps and sleeves. If an exercise requires you to wrap your wrist to do it pain free it might be an exercise you shouldn’t be doing. But then again, maybe not. Again, this is for you to decide.
Are you using it as a crutch to do something you couldn’t do without it? If you’re a gymnast this is completely fine. If you are just a recreational lifter who can’t bench the bar without excruciating wrist pain yet you wrap ‘em up tight and proceed to rep out 315 maybe you should lay off the bench for a while and do something to heal your wrists.
If you’re squatting with knee wraps you’re going too heavy.
If you’re older and beat up and are using knee or elbow sleeves to keep the joints warm that’s fine. If you’re buying the super heavy duty ones that help slingshot you out of the hole your causing the same unnatural overload you do by wearing a belt. Your joints will hate you 20 years from now.
For years I was a slave to my gear. I couldn’t train on vacation if I had forgotten my belt or straps or wraps. No more of that for me. My new minimalist approach allows me to train anywhere, anytime.
Just the way I like it.
Who’s with me?