You have seen weightlifting belts at the local gym or on television wrapped around the barrel-shaped waist of an Olympic lifter before, but how can a mere 2-inch wide strap really make a difference?
The belt compresses the abdomen and torso, holding things tightly in place. By increasing abdominal pressure, it allows athletes to lift even more weight. Most of the time lifters will not wear one while training at their gym, opting only to don the belt when they will be maxing out -- hence Olympians wearing them during competition. This way muscles in the back develop and strengthen at the rate the other groups do.
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"A belt acts as a surrogate torso," said Sean Waxman, founder of Waxman's (weightlifting) Gym in Lawndale, Calif. "In young lifters or developing lifters you're trying to develop the torso through lifting. If you wear a belt, you're not developing those vital components. If the torso isn't developed properly you're doing them more harm than good. If it's too heavy to lift without a belt you shouldn't be lifting it."
Power lifters -- especially those competing in London -- sometimes will opt to wear a weightlifting belt to get a bit of an extra oomph out of their performance. And while the belt keeps the back stable, its real popularity may be rooted in the athlete's psychology.
"People will do whatever they have to do to lift more weight," Waxman said. "No one at the Olympics who has never worn a belt is going to put a belt on. If they have been wearing one, they will because it's something that's been a part of their training for a long time."
Waxman never wore a belt in training or competition during a nine-year competitive power-lifiting career from 1992-2001 and knows many others who never have. Nowadays Waxman, 43, instructs his lifters only to use one when lifting more than 80 percent of their previous maximum. It's a method borrowed and tweaked from former "Phat Elvis" weightlifting team training partner Mark Cannella, the man who talked Waxman into wearing a belt in the first place. Cannella's athletes, which include Olympian Holley Mangold, will don the belt if they are attempting anything greater than 70 percent of their previous max-out.
"I can definitely feel a difference when I wear one now," Waxman said.
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