Belts In CrossFit

There’s a phenomenon growing.
As more and more CrossFitters seek the margins – the knowledge that doesn’t necessarily make the main site, but helps make the mainsite workouts easier, lighter, and shorter – it was only a matter of time before supportive gear snuck into the mainstream.
As knowledge of specialized skillsets winds its way through our ecosystem, the paraphernalia associated with those sneaks in through the open door. Knee sleeves from Strongman; belts from OLY; wrist wraps from powerlifting: they’re all in play. Many athletes, touting the injury risk inherent in high-rep heavies, are making the unrefuted argument that they NEED special gear for safety.
Once upon a time, powerlifters said that about bench shirts. Don’t get me wrong: as a former powerlifter, I love the supportive hug – and 40 extra pounds on the bar – that I get from my old belt. Training with a belt has some positives, to be sure: when you’re shooting for a deadlift max, it’s probably the wrong time to discover that the weakest link in your posterior chain is your spinal erectors, for instance. On the other hand, in the name of functionality, human improvement, and a level playing field, how far are we willing to backpedal on the supportive gear issue?
First, a short history: belts have been used in Olympic-style weightlifting for almost 100 years, including the time when there were three events (snatch, clean and jerk, and press.) Powerlifting evolved from ‘supplemental lifts’ used to help build these ‘main lifts.’
In the 1980s, Inzer trademarked a design for a supportive bench press shirt, designed to save the shoulders; the shirts popped the bar off the chest faster, and added between 20 and 40lbs to the weight a lifter could move. These days, with Mendelson and others benching over 1000lbs, bench shirt companies openly advertise up to 200lbs of help from double-ply denim bench shirts. Dozens of different ‘leagues’ have sprung up, offering different rules on drug testing and, primarily, supportive gear. Ever wonder why Powerlifting isn’t in the Olympics? It’s because the sport itself is hard to pin down. Does it happen raw? Belted? If raw, most of the top Powerlifters in the world couldn’t compete, because they train and compete in supportive gear. If belted, that opens a big door to other improvements….

How To Use A Belt

The primary function of a belt is to act as a second transverse abdominis.
What powerlifters know – and apparently many others do not – is that a wider base of support equals a safer spine. Chiropractors call this the ‘ship’s mast model,’ and here’s a simple analogy: you’re pitching a tent. You tie a line between two vertical sticks and drape a tarp overtop. To make it sturdy, do you peg down the ends close to the sticks (narrow,) or as far as possible (wide)?
Of course, the answer is wide. To that end, we don’t want to pull the abs in with our belts, thereby narrowing our base. The ideal belt setup, then, is one that holds our trunk tightly, but creating the widest base possible. When I’m getting set, I set my belt snugly, but I don’t feel any constriction until I push my abs OUT against it. Pushing the abs out into the belt serves another function: it pushes the diaphragm up, and the pelvic floor down, tightening supporting musculature around the thoracic and lumbar regions of your spine. When these are all tight, you have good support. When one is less tight, you have a blowout.
A good belt shouldn’t be narrow in front and wide in the back. Your back muscles are better supported by a belt because your barrel-like truck is tight all the way around; not because there’s more surface area covered. To that end, a wide belt all the way around is ideal. You wouldn’t see powerlifters wearing a ‘flared’ belt. In fact, they laugh at those guys.
Knee Wraps, wrist wraps, tacky grip….
I’m excited to see Inzer stuff at CrossFit events. Inzer is legit – they invented most of this stuff, and the ‘other guys’ are capitalizing off their expired patent. I’m seeing a lot of it used incorrectly, though: guys with one knee wrap, women wearing wrist wraps with the thumb loops still wrapped. There’s training value to these, to be sure (CNS recruitment is far higher with 400lbs on your back than with 300lbs, and you’ll be unlikely to need to perform either at a CrossFit competition.)
They also help – a LOT. There’s a clear disadvantage to an unequipped lifter. It’s not beyond the scope of imagination for strongman tacky to be used when farmers’ walks are involved, and as Strongman works its way closer to the beating heart of CrossFit, rash guards and elbow sleeves become almost necessary.
What’s necessary, what’s helpful, and what takes away from the original message of human betterment? As the sport evolves, many will be watching closely. Wait until athletes hear about squat briefs and deadlift suits….

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