Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Going beltless

I've been asked many times about my decision to train with no belt or supportive gear.  I've given high level overviews about how this happened, but never really delved into it fully.  So with some nudging from a friend of mine, I thought it would be a idea to write about it a little more in depth.

Genesis - 

The catalyst for me going beltless was actually injury.  This might seem counter to what most people think, in that, they wear a belt to "protect them from injury".

In case you didn't know, you don't wear a belt to prevent injury.  This is nonsense.

You wear a belt to create intra-abdominal pressure during the lift.  This does in fact, help you lift more.  You are supposed to push out AGAINST the belt, in case you didn't know.  You don't need to wear your belt "turn my face purple" tight in order to achieve this.  Just wanted to throw that out there for all of you guys who aren't sure of how to use a belt.

I was wearing a belt religiously during the years where I kept having lower back issues.  I remember one day where my lower back locked up so hard in a parking lot that I couldn't reach down just a few inches to open my car door.  I ended up in physical therapy and worked through it all, but the scenario kept repeating itself.

I'd injure my "low back" (not sure if it was really my low back now, but that's where the pain was radiating from) from time to time, pretty severely, then spend months trying to get it better.  Once even to the point of going to the ER because I could not walk or stand up straight.  I had no idea what I had fucked up but I assumed at that point it was pretty severe.  A couple of days in a Vicodin induced semi coma was the cure for that particular one.

Yes, it was really that bad.

I had no idea what was causing it or how to fix it, and I was becoming incredibly frustrated.  Luckily enough I had access, or at least limited access, to a lifting legend by the name of Doc Ken Leistner.

Doc Ken basically told me to "get rid of that fucking belt."  That was literally what he wrote to me.

"Get rid of that fucking belt."

To paraphrase the rest....start over.  Go light, and learn how to make your body tight without the belt.  Learn how to "feel" what is natural in your movements.

Starting over - 

The next few months I remember squatting really light.  I mean 135 to 225ish, just figuring out how to perfect my technique and get "tight".  At the time I hurt my back I was squatting 405 for reps wearing a belt.  I can distinctly remember 275 feeling like it was going to fold me over without one.  This was eye opening to say the least.  I remember 315 feeling like the most awful heavy thing ever in the world.  Like my body had no idea what to do with itself without the belt.

It was quite humbling to say the least.

I never realized exactly how much of a crutch the belt had become.  I put it on for everything.  Curls, side laterals, pushdowns, whatever.


Jesus, why?  I never even thought about just how galatically stupid that really was until I didn't use it for anything anymore.  I never realized what a habit it had become to just throw it on....well, just because.

"I'm lifting heavy!  Cinch that belt down!"

It didn't matter what I was lifting heavy.  It could have been 1-arm cable side laterals.  The belt was gonna be thrown on!

Eventually I realized putting on the belt was something done in ritual.  I needed to put it on to give that mental "signal" that I was about to do some work.  Eventually I learned how to internalize before my hard work sets, and get focused.  I could tap into something internal to let myself know I was about to do work.  The belt became obsolete in that regard.  The belt was no longer a "cue".

Let me add, I don't think that rituals are a bad thing.  I think we all have those places we go to in our mind before we grab hold of a bar that has a certain weight on it, and decide "it's time".  We have things we do that help us to focus, and send a "signal" that things are about to jump up a notch.  

"Bout to set a PR on tricep pushdowns!  Let's do this!  Belt on!"

Probably not needed.

Eventually I figured things out pretty well for myself, and I realized months went by without a low back injury.  That eventually became years.  Other injuries were sustained, but I never found myself in a parking lot not able to reach my cars door handle again.

What to expect if you decide to go RRAAAWWWW....err beltless - Benefits and disadvantages 

If you decide you'd like to ditch your belt, you must first come to terms with WHY you are doing so, and for how long.

I ditched the belt because I was tired of being injured and not understanding how to be as tight as possible in a movement, or not knowing what a movement should "feel" like without that crutch.

I also just like not having to depend on a piece of equipment so I can train.  It's nice to not ever be in need of a belt in order to get a squat or tug session in.

Plus let's just be honest.  Beltless lifts are full of far more badassery than equipped lifts.  Who personifies badassery better than KK does in powerlifting?

No one.

So what are the other benefits?  Besides looking badass, as if that wasn't enough.......

Well like most things, going beltless is harder, so when you go back to the "easier" version you should be a far better lifter.  You're going to understand how your body moves through space better, and your low back, abs, and other stabilizers/support musculature are going to be stronger.

You're also going to understand the meaning of getting "tight" without depending on the belt.  Because if you aren't you'll be reminded of it very quickly when you unrack a squat or go to pull heavy and you're not prepared.

Let me add that if you have been using a belt for a long time then the first thing you're going to have to do is eat some humble pie.  

There will be some guys that say a belt doesn't make much difference.  To this I tell you, either they are liars or don't know how to use a belt.  If a guy tells you that he decided to just go beltless one day and there wasn't much of a difference then he has no idea how to use his belt to his best advantage, or is full of shit.

 I know a dude who has a 700+ raw squat that didn't feel comfortable using more than 475 on his squats sans belt.  I'm not saying he couldn't use more, I'm just saying, in his own words he didn't feel "comfortable" going past 475 without it.

I know an 800+ puller who missed 675 sans belt.

So there is a reason, for every guy to spend some time in the offseason training with no belt.  Namely, it will make you better where you are weak at.  

Ed Coan and Kirk both spent significant time in the offseason getting as strong as possible without a belt.

Coan: Monday is squat and other leg stuff. Depending on the season, like now in the off season, I don't wear any equipment — no belt, no wraps, nothing.

If you didn't listen to my podcast with Capt. Kirk, he said his best beltless squat was 655x8.  That was HIS BEST.

The next week he threw the belt on to start his cycle of 5's with the belt, and could do 20 more pounds for 5 reps EASILY.  He said the belt alone was good for 50 pounds, minimum.  His belt beltless single was 800x1.  His best belted squat for reps was 800x5, which is roughly 900ish if you do the math on it.

Think about that.  

This has generally been what I've seen from most guys.  40-50 pounds minimal, is pretty common.  Guys that really know how to work the belt and take advantage of it, can get more than that from it.

So if you've been using a belt for all of your heavy work for a long time, it's very possible that you're going to be in for quite a surprise at how "strong" you are without one.  This alone keeps a lot of guys from going without the belt for a while.  Simply put, they can't humble themselves enough to do the things that could make them better down the road.  When people talk about fixing "weak points" it's funny how something as simple as ditching all equipment is almost never seen as an option.

Why?  Because it REALLY makes you look weak if you haven't been used to going without it.

Isn't that what fixing "weak points" is supposed to be all about???

My opinion is that every guy would benefit training with no equipment at all on in the offseason.  No belt, no wraps, and have PR's he sets each offseason sans all equipment.  This is a very easy way to not change a single thing in your training, or worry about magical assistance work to get better.  

Just throw your belt and wraps to the side for a certain amount of time every few months.

I know there have to be some disadvantages to going beltless, but I am just having a hard time finding them.  I suppose one could be that if you had a permanent injury that the belt helped to alleviate in training, then going beltless wouldn't be an option obviously.

I guess if you bought belts and paid good money for them, you might feel like you're not getting your money's worth during that portion of the year.  That's a drawback.  

Technique - 

You'll need to expect that things are going to feel "off" for a while.  It's possible you will not understand how to "hold" your midsection properly in order to feel solid in squats and pulls.  It's possible your legs won't feel as solid out of the hole, and/or that you get folded over more than you'd expect.  With your pulls it's possible you are going to feel stupid weak off the floor, or possibly not able to hold your low and upperback in a "solid" position.  Again, all of this varies for each person.

Since you're doing the same lifts, but a harder variation, you should be a hell of a lot better once you decide to put the belt back on.  Even if your technique changes a little bit.

What you should not do is change your technique so much beltless, that you have to change things once the belt goes back on.  Always try to maintain the same rigid position you have with the belt.  This will take some work, and you will have to start very light and learn how to "feel" things differently.  That's ok, that's part of getting better.  

Setting up beltless training - 

Whether or not you decide to ditch the belt for good or not is irrelevant.  Once you ditch it, you'll to figure a few things out.

You'll need to figure out what your everyday max is for your beltless work, and the difference in that and your belted everyday max.  This way you have some idea of the difference in the two and later how much carryover you ended up with by improving your beltless work.

This is how I would set this up.

Work up to an everyday max, sans belt.  If you don't know what an every day max is, it's something you can hit for a single any day of the week regardless of conditions (for the most part).  It's usually a lot less than what you think it is.  If you've ever trained with the flu, or a severe cold, it's about what your true max is on that kind of day.

You can then run the strong-15 short cycle over 5 weeks, no belt, based on that everyday max.

Do the same with your deadlift.

It's really that simple.  If you were training for a meet, you could follow this up with another strong-15 short cycle based on your belted goal.  If you use knee wraps, I'd break that 5 week cycle up in two stages.  Three weeks based on belt only maxes, and then two weeks based on ED maxes with belt and wraps.  The reason for this is because 10 weeks is a long training cycle, and you want to keep the big stuff off of your back for as long as possible.

This is 10 weeks of solid training that improves you in every way, and makes your weaknesses stronger, without having to figure out your "weak points" (puke).  You already know what they are.  You without the belt.  

Just squat and pull your way to glory, sans belt, then reap the benefits of it with the belt.  An easy recipe for getting better.  


  1. Hi Paul,

    Interesting article, I had read before that the good doc was the one who told you to ditch the belt. In the article you stated that he gave you some good advice as to how you should tighten your midsection without a belt. How do you do it? Push out? Brace? ... Or do you have any good cues that would facilitate this?


    1. It's kind of a hard technique to explain. I sort of push down, almost like the same thing you do when you take a shit. hah I guess that's the best way I could explain it. You have to get the abs "out" then push down. It takes a lot of muscular control.

  2. This is one of the best things I have done to my training lately is only working in belts/knee sleeves as part of my meet prep. During most of my development strength stage, I do a bunch of squatting/pulling beltless and the carryover has been tremendous (I think it also teaches you how to better "use" the belt).

  3. I ditched my belt for the same a-ha realization that maybe my lower back is constantly fucked because I am not allowing my body to actually get stronger and I am just fortifying it artificially. Over a few months I went from a best of 585DL w/belt to pulling 635x1/455x16 sans belt and I did this using the BIG-15 (I also squatted 365x23). The rep scheme conditioned my body to tense correctly and efficiently. My next venture is going to be to pull solely overhand learn to love the "hook grip" - if this means starting all the way back at a 495 max, so be it. Also, besides from being strong in the gym, I find training like this to be important because it makes me stronger in life. If I need to pick a patient up off the floor, or something similar, I can't exactly ask them to wait while I get my belt and knee wraps first. Great post.

    - James

  4. My reason for ditching the belt? I got too fat. :/ I'm at the same weight as I competed last year, and for some reason I can't fit the belt anymore.

    For bench I could take it or leave it. For deadlifts, I could never reach the bar with it on so I wouldn't know about using it with that. But I definitely missed it with squats. Thanks to the Big-15 training, my unbelted squat is every bit as strong (or stronger) as my belted squat.

    I noticed a terrible hole in the records for my fed at my age/weight class that I'm going to have to fix this year. Even my terrible results from last competition would have beaten those numbers--and to break the records I only have to compete without a belt. May seem hollow, but I'm going to crush those records if I can manage stay in the same weight class. (different age groups have some monster strong people in the same fed).

  5. Ditto for wrist wraps with any kind of pressing?

  6. Very interesting. I ate a lot of humble pie when I came off the belt some time ago, but now I am stronger than before without it. Like you said you have to back off the weight until you get the feel for the weight completely raw. I also feel leverage's are changed going beltless.

    On a side note, I remember reading that the injury you will sustain whilst wearing a belt will be far worse than being beltless. Don't know if this is true.

  7. Noob here. I haven't used a belt for a few reasons, chiefly because you said not to. Second, I think a 43 year old skinny fat guy looks ridiculous wearing one. One thing I have noticed though is a definite hardening of my midsection. I can feel (and almost see, damn diet) abs and I do no ab work whatsoever. Just squat, deadlift and overhead pressing without a belt. Granted, I can't speak to whether or not wearing a belt would have accomplished the same thing.

    1. Similar situation.. about 2 years in.. no belt.. 42.. eating to grow.. can see obliques and some abs when flexed...

      Core feels soo much stronger.. more dense..
      Deads, Squats, Standing BB OHP -- no belts.

      Though, I'll admit on some of my tough reps with OHP, my core shakes and shimmies something fierce... heh.

  8. It's funny that you wrote this because I have not used a belt in about ten years and have recently been going back and forth with myself about getting one. I was in high school when I used them so I had no fucking clue what it was for but the coach told me to wear it so I did. Now that I have gone so long without it my theory is that it will allow me to handle more weight which will in turn allow me to handle more weight without a belt. I think as long as I don't over use the belt the worst that will happen is absolutely nothing and I will have wasted some money.

  9. Just to be clear, I think I read about strategically using belts to increase beltless strength in an article on Rippetoe's website a while back. Regardless of where I saw it, it is not my idea I just thought it was worth a shot.

    1. That might sounds good in theory but I don't buy it.

    2. You may be right. I don't think it will negatively effect me though because I've been lifting so long without it. Plus I can do it without altering the way I train. One of the best things I have learned from reading this blog is to try things for yourself. I have never properly implemented a belt so I'm going to give it a few months worth of a try out(after my meet saturday). I will keep lifting as is and add the belt on my heaviest work sets and try to hit some rep pr's. Do that for 3 months and then see what my reps look like the following 3 months without a belt. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?!?!?!?!!?

  10. Paul thanks for this article...good timing since I've started training without a belt again a few weeks ago. Sick of having a sore back...also have an umbilical hernia and need to stop using a 'belt crutch' and actually learn to get tight again. After a few weeks it's starting to come back.

    Surprisingly my back pain has gone away [I say surprisingly but in my 'real life' I work as an Athletic Therapist for a University...I know damn well why my back pain has gone away...stronger core, stronger lumbar etc...I also know that I'm too goddamn overfat] and my hernia hasn't acted up at all. It almost seems as if the belt was exacerbating the issue.

    I still plan to wear the belt when competing and in the 3-4 weeks leading up, but most of my training will be belt-less. Here's one of my (admittedly shitty) training vids if you are remotely interested. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5WjaNsyd9I

    Saving the vids on YouTube has been HUGELY helpful for checking form breaks etc.

    Currently running 5/3/1 which has been simply a great program (my 40+ year old body thanks Wendler). Have your excellent S-L-L book and plan on running the Strong 15 as soon as I have reached my 5/3/1 goals that I committed to.



  11. Good read. Have yet to purchase or use a belt for the last 3 years. It is difficult at times as I know I could blow past a few PR's if I used one. But, I like how solid my core feels and as I creep up on the guys using straps, knee wraps, and belts on squats and deads...I smile a little inside...as in reality I am probably ahead of them already and they don't even know it.


  12. "Squat and Pull Your Way to Glory"


  13. Paul, great article. This hits home for me in a big way right now. I currently have a disc bulge that was a cumulative injury from years of not having the core strength or hip mobility to be lifting the weights that I was lifting.

    I kept thinking "I'll get around to it" when it came to core training or mobility work. I would slap on the belt and just let my back to every ounce of the lift.

    I am now able to do light front squats and whatever other lower body movements allow my torso to stay upright. It's not fun, but I am essentially starting over, teaching my body to not need or want a belt.

    I will be better in the long run, but I know had I done this earlier, I would not be sidelined with an injury. I hope this article gets in the minds of young lifters. Again, great read.

  14. Are you completely against using a belt? KK, Brandon Lilly and Eric Lilliebridge are all raw lifters who train with a belt, get comfortable with the weight then back off the belt. I have used this style of training for the past few months and it works great. Just curious, thanks.

    1. KK trains without a belt mostly. One of the reasons he's one of my fave strength athletes is because of that reason.

      I might wear a belt again but it'd only be to get a more inflated total. That's just my view of it.

  15. Would you wear a belt in a meet, even if you train without one?

    1. Maybe later. I have beltless goals I want to hit. I may even do belt and knee wraps at some point since guys that wear that still call their shit "raw".

  16. By ditching the belt in most of my strongman events training I have made huge gains in a short time. My core is like steel nowdays from heavy ass belt-less yoke walks.

    Very good post Paul.

  17. Just wanted to say this article saved my back and restored my enjoyment for lifting again.

    I fought lower back issues for about 5 years before I finally found this article and decided to start over from scratch at a 95 lb squat/135 deadlift. My one and only meet I hit 375/500 respectively, so going down to that weight was humbling to say the least.

    Now 5 months later I am approaching my old belted numbers with zero pain and no more issues with my back both outside and inside the gym.

  18. http://articles.elitefts.com/training-articles/powerlifting-articles/gear-vs-raw-training-minus-bro-science/