Lose the Belt, Learn to Set your Spine
By Colin Farrell
An athlete steps into the gym after a day at the office. She gets changed out of her work clothes and into her Lululemon and Reebok apparel, she laces up her Nike Metcon 3’s. She hops on a rower and starts getting warm before class starts, she does some work with a lacrosse ball, and then class starts. She completes the group warm-up and now it’s time do some front squatting.
She pulls on a pair of neoprene knee sleeves.
She changes out her shoes into a pair of Olympic-style lifting shoes.
She fishes her leather lifting belt out of her gym bag and tosses it on the floor by her squat rack.
She straps on her wrist wraps and pulls out her gymnastics grips as she may need them later during the workout, which has lots of toe-to-bar.
What the hell is all of this stuff? Newer athletes may, justifiably so, be confounded by all the “things” people have just to workout. What ever happened to sneakers, gym shorts, and a t-shirt?
There is a lengthier discussion to be had about each of these pieces of equipment, but I want to focus on one in particular: the lifting belt. Aside from Oly shoes, it is probably one of the most overused pieces of equipment by CrossFitters the world-over. Like lifters, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, gymnastics grips, KT tape, etc., a belt has its time and place and is–in many cases–appropriate to put to use.
However, if athletes are using the belt because they are incapable of securing their spine without one, that presents a serious issue. While CrossFit is a ton of fun, and many of us like to compete in The Sport of Fitness, the overwhelming majority of athletes do CrossFit so they are more capable of accomplishing tasks outside of the gym. We don’t just want to be the best at exercising. Last I checked, it is socially unacceptable to wear a lifting belt to the office, to your kid’s birthday party, or out to dinner. Additionally, you may not always have an opportunity to use the belt when you believe you need it.
You have to know how to set your spine. What that means is athletes must be able to organize their vertebrae in as safe a position as possible in relation to their hip and shoulder, and subsequently cinch the musculature around the spine (especially in the lumbar region, where athletes are most prone to overflex or over-extend) to protect it while moving. This task takes less than four seconds and can be done in four steps:
Step 1: Stand with feet parallel and directly under your hips. With your hands to your sides, roll your thumbs outwards so your palms are facing forward. Pull your shoulders back into what most would term “good posture” (i.e. don’t slouch).
Purpose: To ensure your spine is in a safe, neutral position, we need to ensure your shoulders and hips themselves are secure and set into a strong position. With your hip and shoulder set, your spine will have pulled into the most neutral position it can naturally achieve.
Step 2: Squeeze your butt as hard as you possibly can..
Purpose: When athletes squeeze their butt, the pelvis pushes slightly forward. This will aid in aligning the shoulder and and hip in a nice, neat stack with the spine connecting the two.
Step 3:While still squeezing your butt, and maintaining the position outlined in Step 1, take a big deep breath in, and exhale as much as is possible. As soon as you have exhaled, flex and tighten every muscle in your core as much as you possibly can.
Purpose: With your spine nicely aligned relative to the hip and shoulder, it’s time to cinch up all that musculature around it. Tightening up will effectively secure and protect the spine in a similar fashion as a weight belt would.
Step 4:Hold your breath in, unclench your glutes, and commence lifting.
Purpose: With the vertebrae fully secured, athletes can release their glutes and begin moving around. The spine is as secure as it can possibly be without a belt. While it would be nice to keep our glutes flexed at all times, there are some drawbacks: you’d look really funny moving around, you can’t squat with your glutes fully flexed, and it would be exhausting.
Commit these four steps to memory. Practice doing them. Make it so much a habit you do it without thinking about it.
You may have noticed that after Step 3 (when athletes exhale and cinch up their core, nice and tight), there was never an instruction to breath again. Naturally, you will eventually have to breath. If you are going for a new 1-rep max deadlift or squat, hold your breath after that exhale from start to finish. If you are doing a set of 7 heavy overhead squats, you will certainly have to breath before the set is done. If that is the case, take small, short, diaphragmatic breaths at the top of each rep. On the exhale, re-tighten and complete the next rep.
This four step process, mind you, is not just for lifting. Athletes at all times should maintain about 15-20% brace just while out and about, at work, walking around, etc. If you are out for a run, 40%. If you are going for a max-effort power clean, 100% braced. Hopefully you get the idea.
As mentioned above they absolutely have their time and place:
The following are good, general guidelines for when it is appropriate for a CrossFitter to strap on a lifting belt
When performing lifts at 85% or above of 1-repetition max, including all squatting, pressing, and pulling movements.
When in a competition setting or testing fitness, as opposed to building fitness (see Today, Why Are you Here?); situations may include:
-Completing heavy CrossFit Benchmark workouts (see Who The Hell is Fran?)
-Competing with heavier barbells (whether it’s SuperFit, The Open, The Festivus Games or a Friday Night Throwdown)
I would encourage newer athletes to not use a belt for at least the first year of their experience with CrossFit and the barbell lifts. Experienced athletes may be begin to dabble with such accessories, and there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with that. Each accessory has a purpose, athletes need to ensure they are using them as an aid at appropriate times, and not a crutch to lean one due to inefficiencies in mobility, strength, or skill.
Starrett, Kelly, and Glen Cordoza. Becoming a Supple Leopard: the Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Victory Belt Publishing, 2015.