Walking through your average gym makes you feel like weight belts are an essential part of lifting. You see guys strutting around wearing their belts. You see them cinch the belt down snugly, lay down on the bench, and start their bench press, uninformed amateurs. Weight belts have their place, but not on every lift.
First things first, weight lifting belts are not an essential to lifting weights. They are a nice aid and safety device for certain lifts. They should only be used on lifts requiring the belt and then only for certain situations. Using weight belts has become a fashion statement and crutch to many lifters. Never use your belt as a crutch.
When should you be using your weight belts? The two primary exercises where it is wise to consider wearing weight lifting belts are the squat and dead lift. Both of these exercise can deal with extremely heavy weights, and can put extreme pressure on the lower back.
Your weight belt should be wide and worn low to protect your lower back. 4” and 6” widths are common, with 4” being the standard used by most lifters.
You need to choose what material you want your belt made from. Leather is very strong, stiff, and usually is buckled on using standard belt buckles. This means you have small gaps in between each adjustment size, which could make the belt slightly tight or loose. The other style of belt uses nylon instead of leather. These belts are extremely strong and can be fastened using velcro making them highly adjustable. Both styles of belts work very well.
The most important aspect of weight belts has nothing to do with style or fasteners, but on how you are going to use them. You must choose to put the belt away for most of your workout. Do not become one of the fools walking around the gym wearing their belt all day. They are hurting the effectiveness of their workout and actually increasing the odds of getting a lower back injury.
Even your squats and dead lifts go through cycles of different weights. You likely start off reasonably light to warm up and get in the groove. During these lifts do not wear your belt. Let your lower back feel the total effort and the total stretch. This builds stronger support muscles and a better core. When you start getting to those last couple sets where the weights are extremely heavy and you are lifting until failure, put on the belt for safety. This is the proper time to have a belt in place and not use it as a crutch.
As you move away to other exercises like leg curls, lat pull downs, barbell curls, or calf raises, put the belt back on the shelf. Let your back muscles give you the support and do the work. Your weight belts are a great accessory and safety component to your workout, but they must never by used as decoration or as a crutch.