Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in humans. According to Medline Plus, eight out of 10 people suffer from the condition at some point in their lives. Back pain typically originates in the muscles, joints and large cluster of nerves associated with the spine. Because the back is fundamental to proper posture and stability, back pain has large repercussions for the movements of the body. Weightlifters should be encouraged to wear a belt to guard against potential injury.
Bodybuilders who extend or flex the back muscles against resistance can cause muscle strains, ligament damage and stress fractures such as spondylolysis. These problems can occur in muscle groups such as the latissimus dorsi and spinal erectors. Exercises that utilize these muscles -- including the clean-and-jerk, dead-lift, snatch and squat -- can be particularly stressful on the back. Older individuals who already have disc degeneration may be even more vulnerable to back pain.
There are two main types of belts. A back brace is a corset-style belt that relies upon its own rigidity to immobilize the back in a splint-like fashion. Consequently, the possible range of movements is severely reduced. A true weightlifting belt, on the other hand, supports the back by increasing the intra-abdominal pressure. During a normal maneuver, the diaphragmatic and torso muscles contract to generate pressure in the abdominal cavity. This abdominal cavity, together with its fluid content, is kept under pressure by the surrounding musculature. This tension helps to support and stabilize the spinal column.
A weight lifting belt relieves the load of the muscles in the lower back and reduces the compressive force bearing down upon the spinal discs by as much as 50 percent. In addition, multiple studies published in the journal "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise" have demonstrated that individuals wearing the belt experience faster lifting movements, greater emphasis on hip extension relative to the knee and greater comfort and sense of support.
Weightlifting belts are better utilized for heavier lifts -- its benefits are most significant at 90 percent of your one rep max -- than higher repetitions, defined as a set of at least 10 lifts. Wearing the belt ubiquitously could also lead to an atrophy of the postural muscle groups. This, ironically, is bad for the back. Optimal back training is needed to curtail the possibility of injuries.
The back brace is often used to immobilize the back after injury. To prevent injury, however, the standard weightlifting belt works fine, but it should only be used for exercises that heavily involve the back muscles against high resistance. If you do use it, then you should also loosen the belt between sets.