Put Your Belt On For Safety Right?
PUT YOUR BELT ON FOR SAFETY... RIGHT?
As you walk into the brisk confines of CFW on a Saturday morning and look around, what do you see? I see barbells, dumbbells, and bands for fitness, I see a table full of people’s shaker bottles that they didn’t take home (I’m looking at you). I see cubbies full of shoes, belts, shirts, and knee sleeves for safety… or so we’re told.
A few weeks back at our coaches meeting I brought a very unpopular, but well researched opinion to the group. Our belts and knee-sleeves, the things that are most meant to keep us safe and healthy, are hurting us. That doesn’t make any sense at all. Well, let’s take a deeper look!
Let’s start with the belt. To understand whether a belt is helping or hurting you you’ll need to know a few things about how the body protects itself from heavier loading.
Core muscles: Most people think of six-pack abs when they think of core muscles, which is part of the equation, but the core muscles hold a much higher value when it comes to exercise. They are the most important factor in keeping your spine stabilized when you’re carrying weight on your shoulders, sides, or overhead. Your “core” is comprised of the muscles in your hips, back, and rib cage, as well as your abdominal muscles. If you ever want to test yourself on the importance of core stabilizers in squatting, try and see how much you can seated leg press, which is a leg strength movement that isolates the leg muscles and doesn’t generally test core strength… then load that weight on the barbell and see if you can even move it off the squat rack. I’ll save you the trouble, you won’t be able to ;). Core instability and weakness is widely agreed upon as the limiting factor in squatting movements.
Intra-abdominal and Intrathoracic pressure: Many athletes use a common technique referred to as the “Valsalva Maneuver” when lifting heavy weights. What sounds like a life saving technique, is just a fancy way of explaining the deep breath you take and internal tension you create before you attempt a big lift. That deep breath and hold creates what equates to a giant air-bag around your spine. It gives your ribcage and abdominal muscles a little more resistive power against gravity.
Now let’s talk about the belt! What does a belt do for you as the athlete? If we go back to our previous two variables in what keeps the spine in place; we have one working from the outside-inward to stabilize (core muscles), and we have one working from the inside-outward to stabilize (air pressure). Think of a balloon inflating, and then pressing down with your hands against the balloon. Both are going to help stabilize the balloon in one spot, even though the forces are pressing in opposite directions, and it’s going to create a ton of tension…until the balloon pops, which is exactly what’s happening in a squat. Fortunately, our spine has a little more natural stability than a thin layer of rubber! The weightlifting belt is basically an added force from the outside-in, so it is going to aid the core muscles in creating force against the intra-abdominal air pressing out. That’s why it’s so fantastic for extremely heavy lifts, it creates more abdominal force, which we know is the main limiter in a heavy squat.
Here’s the problem; when we consistently use the belt at lower weights, we eventually rely on the belt for all the inward force, which over time can weaken our core stabilizer muscles. So, when you think you’re creating a form of protection for your spine, you may be inhibiting your core muscles from properly supporting your spine in day to day activities. Are you planning on wearing a belt when you pick up and set down your kids? Do you take a belt with you to the grocery store to load and unload groceries? These may seem like silly questions, but if you aren’t allowing your body to take on natural adaption to stresses without the aid of a physical support, then you’re creating a negative adaption for your body to depend on having that extra support always provided. Now, at heavier loads (90% or above) I think the research shows (3) that it’s extremely valuable to wear a weight belt for support. In fact, testing has shown that you train your core muscles to a higher degree when you lift weights above 90% for three or fewer reps (2). I hope if anything, the next time you immediately reach for the weight belt when you see squats on the board, or any of the plethora of squatting movements CrossFit entails, you consider working on building that core strength without the aid of support.
Knee Sleeves have been the life-blood of my CrossFit survival up to this point. As someone who is extremely quad dominant I tend to suffer from a fair amount of anterior (front of the knee) patellar tendon pain. We all know the feeling of sliding on the knee sleeves before our first set of squats, wall balls, or even box jumps. The warmth, the security, it’s basically a “snuggy” for your knee! Well it turns out that you may be creating instability for the smaller muscles and tendons around your knees as well, and even causing long term damage to the cartilage behind your patella (knee cap). The one point that can’t be argued is knee sleeves help you lift more weight. Through a spring effect alone, heavy wraps (or sleeves) around the knees add an average of 25 pounds of squat lifting force (1). The notion that wraps work only by stabilizing the knee, lessening the athlete’s fear of injury, or providing a kinesthetic cue is incorrect all together. According to studies the knee sleeves have only been proven to help in force created during extension of the knee (1).
The problem here again lies in the fact that they are solely meant to provide more force output. So, when you wear them all the time your natural force output will go down. It would be similar to me doing Fran 100 times (gross) to try and perfect the workout, but instead of training with a 95 pound thruster I was inadvertently training with 85 pounds on the bar. Whether I thought I had 95 pounds on the bar or not when it came time to complete my Fran test, my muscles wouldn’t be used to having to create 95 pounds of force, and my production and time in the workout would not be like my training times. If you are training all the time with knee sleeves, then you’re training the muscles and tendons around your knees that they need to exert less force all the time. So, when those same movements are duplicated in the real world or without knee sleeves, you increase the risk of injury or lack of performance. To the inverse, if you train without knee sleeves most of the time, then add them in on test day, your performance is very likely to increase with the extra force provided by the sleeves! Something to consider the next time a workout comes up that is not extremely heavy or explosive on your knees.
The last thing I would suggest is that you slowly remove the dependence of the belt or sleeves. Please don’t decide to do a max squat clean next week without sleeves or a belt if you’ve been completely dependent on them. Slowly remove them in smaller areas and build that strength back in the core, and knee joint. Also understand that every athlete is going to be different, and what works for some athletes may not work for others. I present my idea and research and hope you can self-evaluate and see if you can use it in your fitness journey moving forward!
1: Lake, JP, Carden, PJ, and Shorter, KA. Wearing knee wraps affects mechanical output and performance characteristics of back squat exercise. J Strength Cond Res 26:2844-2849, 2012.
2: Bauer, J.A., Fry, A., and Carter, C. The use of Lumbar-Supporting Weight Belts While Performing Squats: Erector Spinae Electromyographic Activity.Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1999;13: 384-388.
3: Smith, E.B., Rasmussen, A.A., Lechner, D.E., Grossmen, M.R., Qunitana, J.B., and Grubbs, B.L. The Effects of Lumbosacral Support Belts and Abdominal Muscles Strength on Functional Lifting Ability in Healthy Women. Spine 1996;21: 356-366.