It is incredibly uncommon to see someone perform a max effort squat, deadlift or clean without the assistance of a weightlifting belt. I bet most of you can count the number of times you have witnessed this feat on one hand. For those that have seen this, have ever asked them why they choose not to wear a belt?
You will often hear answers like, “I’m trying to develop core strength” or “I just feel more comfortable without one”. On the other side of this controversial topic are the individuals who choose to wear a belt. Have you ever asked someone why they always choose to belt up?
Considering there are a much greater number of people who fall into this category, there are also a greater number of answers to back up their “belt addictions”. Two of the most common reasons I have heard are, “It provides support and reduces injury risk” and “I can lift more weight when I have it on.” But does it really provide more support, reduce the risk of injury and even allow you to lift more weight? This sounds too good to be true, but is it?
A weightlifting belt works by creating higher amounts of abdominal pressure by giving your abdominal wall something to push up against. In short, it helps you brace and maintain tension. The act of bracing and creating a rigid torso is absolutely necessary when trying to maintain strong and safe positions under maximal loads.
While a belt could potentially provide additional support; your body is already beyond capable of getting the job done without the use of a belt. In my personal opinion, beginner athletes who wear a weightlifting belt are selling themselves short of long-term progress and potential. Just as the first few years of strength training are dedicated to learning technique, they should also be dedicated to developing substantial levels of positional strength.
What is positional strength?
What is positional strength, why is it important and how do you develop it? The term positional strength refers to your ability to maintain rigid posture throughout a movement or exercises full range of motion. A great example of someone possessing this strength attribute is when he or she is able to perform a full depth squat with maximal weight, without excessively rounding their upper/lower back, caving in at their knees or allowing their hips to shoot backwards after changing directions.
Why is positional strength important?
Your ability to uphold proper positions at each of the major joints involved when performing a compound movement is absolutely critical to resisting injury. When your positions become compromised by the counterbalance of maximal external loads, you are essentially opening yourself up to a very high risk of potential injury. In summary, positional strength is your body’s own natural defense mechanism.
How do you develop positional strength?
This is where things get tricky. In my opinion, take it or leave it, the absolute best way to develop positional strength is to strength train without a weightlifting belt. This simple concept will force your body to build the musculature and strength required to protect you from injury, while also increasing performance. This process is called adaptation and it is the single most important factor to consider when discussing strength training. Whether you are training to build muscle mass, increase maximal strength or further develop your VO2 max and/or lung capacity, you MUST put your body under stress in order to force new adaptations.
What are some of the best exercises to develop positional strength?
There are an endless number of exercises that you can use to build positional strength. Just as there are many ways to get strong. Below are 6 of my favorite exercises for building positional strength, starting with my first favorite.
1. Pause Back/Front Squat: 3-6 sets of 1-3 reps.
Perform a traditional back/front squat all the way to full depth adding a 3-5 second pause at the bottom of each rep. Focus on keeping your chest up, your back tight and plenty of pressure throughout your torso. You should stay completely still during the pause, but do not relax. You must work to maintain the same amount of tension from start to finish.
2. Stiff Legged Deadlift: 4-5 sets of 3-6 reps.
This exercise closely resembles the RDL and is often misunderstood for being the same movement. In reality, the two movements differ by starting positions and ranges of motion. The RDL starts from the top/standing position and does not touch the ground between reps; the stiff legged deadlift starts from the floor and resets from the floor on every rep.
3. Romanian Deadlift (RDL): 4-5 sets of 4-8 reps.
Instead of extending your knees to lift the weight as you would in a traditional deadlift, you will hinge at the hips, using the muscles that make up your posterior chain to lower the weight a few inches from the floor, then pull the weight back up to a standing position.
4. Good Morning: 4-5 sets of 5-10 reps.
With a loaded barbell on your back, you will lean forward, while simultaneously pushing your hips backwards, actively bracing at your core to maintain a flat back throughout the full range of motion.
5. Back Extensions: 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps.
You can perform this exercise with a weight against your chest, a barbell on your back or with your body weight alone. Make sure you move slowly, maintain proper posture and always move through a full range of motion.
6. Weighted Plank (side/side/front): 2-3 sets of 30 seconds on each side.
Have a partner place a weight on your back and hold/brace/squeeze your core while maintaining a flat and rigid spine.
Every additional day that you continue to neglect the importance of trunk strength and stability is another day lost to the wind. The fastest way to develop sufficient torso strength is to simply start working towards it today.
“Take one small step back today, so you can take two steps forward tomorrow.”