Lifting Belts, Muscle Fiber Typing, Physical Preparation

Have you ever heard the argument that a lifting belt is only necessary if an athlete has deficient core stability? I have both agreed and disagreed; for both squat and deadlift. I wanted to investigate a bit further. I finally got around to reading a review on the topic by Greg Nuckols  from a few years back. He does such a great job of making literature digestible for a the masses. A few key points are:

  • A belt will improve performance, but initially there will be a learning curve to gain familiarity with the equipment. One paper “found that people totally new to belt usage didn’t have any increase in maximal force or intraabdominal pressure.” Think of this like training for a marathon in one pair of shoes, then running the race in a new pair you have never worn; not recommended.
  • Experienced lifters move the weight faster with a belt, which shows relative ease. “With a belt, you can either move 5-15% more weight for the same sets and reps, move the same weight for an extra 1-3 reps per set, or move the same weight for the same number of reps with less effort.”
  • Intraabdominal pressure(IAP) benefits might take the cake. To put it vaguely, we can say that higher levels of pressure will allow for a more stable spine and less risk of spinal injury. “For deadlifts, wearing a belt increases IAP by about 15%, and for squats, it increases IAP by about 30%–40% more than lifting heavy weights beltless.” It may be worth mentioning that it is very necessary to understand the technique in which this is achieved. There is a bit of skill to this type of bracing which comes with practice.
  • A later addendum showed “a recent study was published showing that, under lab conditions, increased intraabdominal pressure directly increases maximal hip extension torque”. In this study, no belts were used, but we can draw our own conclusions on how a belt is likely to influence power development positively.

Jordan Shallow, DC touches upon the benefits of a belt during his recent discussion regarding common misconceptions in movement/prehab/rehab on the JuggLife Podcast. Probably citing the same literature, Jordan mentions the previously stated 30% increase in IAP which is crucial for a strength athlete to retain stiffness when training with high axial loading.

Caveat: There are right and wrong ways to go about training with a belt. Depending on the primary objective of the individual, a belt may or may not be a necessity.

Andy Galpin and his team from Cal State Fullerton wrote a nice article for Renaissance Periodization  regarding muscle fiber typing, found here. Lay populations often know the terms fast twitch (FT) and slow twitch (ST), but there is plenty more to it. I recall being taught that we are born with predominantly FT fibers or ST fibers, almost claiming that nature chooses our athletic destiny. A bit extreme, but I bought it. Some of these ideas have since been disproved, though there is plenty of work to be done ahead. Here are 10 concise points that may clear up some confusion, in no particular order.

  1. We all have FT, several hybrid, and ST fibers within each of our muscles.
  2. “It wasn’t until 1965 that we realized the contractile velocity was a function of the ATPase”, which is the regulatory enzyme for each contraction located on the myosin head. Typing was then a function of the appearance of fibers and ATPase under staining techniques.
  3. “In 1986 a new measurement technique (SDS-PAGE) allowed much more accurate (1) measurement of fiber type by analyzing each fiber individually based on the molecular weight of the myosin heavy chain (MHC), not the ATPase (9).” Refuting the idea that typing should be based on ATPase alone.
  4. “The fiber type percentage (FT%) differs massively from person to person, and from muscle to muscle” and even between dominant side vs non-dominant side.
  5. “Most sedentary people have ~20-40% of their fibers at hybrids. Active people are usually in the 10-20% range. Very highly trained athletes may have little to no hybrids.”
  6. “All fiber types change with training, and it happens quickly.” In fact, “A 10% or more change in FT% would be reasonable after a few months of training.”
  7. “Typically hybrids convert to pure types …when any type of training occurs, particularly the MHC IIa/IIx fibers (32).” The reverse will occur from detraining. “Extreme plasticity exists (i.e., it’s easy to change) between all fiber types, though pure MHC I appear more rigid (but they still do change).”
  8. “The amount of change is controlled by exposure time and intensity; training more often = more change.”
  9. Collectively, very few females have been studied in the literature when compared to males, but “The limited evidence indicates females have more slow-twitch fibers than men (26), and single fiber contractile force and velocity adaptations vary between men and women in a fiber type-dependent and MHC-specific manner (23).”
  10. “We know diet and certain micronutrients can change FT% in other mammals, so it would be silly to think it doesn’t happen in humans also (24).”

Lastly, Anthony Donskov was on Mike Robertson’s Physical Preparation Podcast. Anthony is a renowned strength and conditioning coach who has consulted for numerous NHL teams and served as an assistant to the US Women’s National Hockey Team. He now operates a facility in Columbus, Ohio Donskov Strength & Conditioning Inc. Here are some highlights from the podcast:

  • The properties of ice hockey are repeated isometric and concentric contractions in a frontal plane, most often with an anterior shin and torso angle. This can create vulnerability at the knee, hip, lower back, and shoulder joints. Anthony also sees a lot of nagging hamstring strains.
  • During the off-season, DSC generally programs a 3-day split: max effort, dynamic effort, and repetitive effort full body sessions. These days focus on strength/power, acceleration/velocity, and accumulating volume load (hypertrophy).
  • Anthony is a big advocate of reading outside of your field (examples being history, philosophy, relationship skills, poetry, etc..). I like the idea of this as it was first emphasized (among strength coaches) by Todd Hammer of Robert Morris University at the first NSCA clinic I attended at Juniata College in 2014.




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