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September 16, 2022
Hidden gym gems are the best. One such buried treasure is the belt squat, an underutilized but highly beneficial piece of gym equipment. One of the main reasons it's underused has nothing to do with its effectiveness (belt squats are awesome!), but because it's not terribly common in most gyms.
If you're lucky enough to have a belt squat machine at your gym, we have one piece of advice: USE IT! With it, you can load the legs heavily while taking stress off your lower back.
Combine that with its versatility, and you can begin to see why it's so popular among serious lifters. This article will tell you all you need to know about it, as well as other variations and alternatives to try if your gym doesn't have one.
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If you're new to the world of belt squatting, you're in for a treat.
A belt squat machine was introduced to us by the very man who brought us the reverse hyperextension, none other than the infamous Louie Simmons from Westside Barbell. Louie passed away in early 2022, but his legacy lives on through his innovation, including this fine piece of machinery.
Louie reportedly designed the first belt squat machine so he could load his lower body with heavy weight without placing stress on the lower back. In addition, he wanted the movement pattern to be similar to the traditional barbell back squat.
While the leg press is technically an option for someone looking for a barbell squat alternative, you can still strain your lower back. And while it's an excellent leg exercise, the movement pattern is pretty different from that of a barbell squat.
Everyone knows the barbell back squat is a fantastic lower body move, but it places a significant load on the trunk as the weight sits on the upper back. Therefore, for the back-friendly alternative, Louie decided to devise a way to set the load at the hips.
And voila! The belt squat machine was born with the primary purposes of loading the legs with heavy weight, allowing a similar movement pattern to the back squat, and avoiding stress on the lower back.
In order to create the machine, Louie had to develop a way to attach the load to the hips while also allowing a considerable weight to move through a full range of motion. Being that the hips are so low, this created an issue.
To fix this, an elevated platform was developed that had a hole in the middle to run a cable. Under the platform, a pulley would be placed to run the cable and redirect it toward the back. Here, it would be redirected upwards by yet another pulley and then one last pulley at the top, which would finally attach to a weight stack.
A trainee could then straddle the hole and attach the cable to a belt they would wear. This allowed a lifter a full range of motion with as much weight as he chose (depending on the machine), while keeping his upper body free. Further, many devices have handles that can be utilized for support or assisted reps. Heavy weights and low injury risk? Sounds like reason enough to add it to your leg workout.
Performing belt squats is fairly simple. We'll make it even easier with these instructions. Who knows? After you master proper form, you may find yourself running out to purchase a belt squat machine for your at-home gym.
Setting up the belt squat is easy. The first thing you want to do is make sure there aren't any kinks or anything in the cable and that it's working fine. If so, then attach the belt to the cable.
You'll then need to select the weight. Belt squat machines come in two variations, plate-loaded and weight-stacked. We like plate loaded as you can use more weight and there are fewer things to break. That said, either works fine.
Depending on the style of your gym's belt, you'll need to adjust how tight the belt is. Some have short chains, while others have long chains. Others don't have any at all. While you have few options on the specific belt, there are two features to take into consideration.
After the above considerations, you'll start by wrapping the belt high above your hips to initially connect it to the cable. After the cable is connected, guide the belt, so it rests on your hips. Once it's in place, you can stand up.
Speaking of standing, keep in mind that you will be in a very low position when you stand up with the weight. Therefore, it's a good idea to use the handles to help pull yourself up.
Another helpful tactic is connecting the belt while standing off the platform. As you're lower, you can connect the belt but it won't need to be as low. You can then take a step up.
With the cable being pulled straight down, you want to stand directly over the pulley. Use the same foot placement with a hip belt squat as you would with barbell squats, about shoulder width apart with toes pointed out.
Now it's time to start belt squatting. Sit back with your hips, similar to your squat technique. Use the belt to pull you down, and as long as you focus on pushing your hips back, it almost guarantees good form.
Continue going down until you hit adequate depth, and then power back up.
The great part about the belt squat is that you can utilize it to perform additional movements. For example, you can perform staggered belt squats or adjust your movement pattern. The point being is that you can hit different muscles and ensure evenly developed muscle hypertrophy.
We'll look at some other alternatives below. However, when looking at normal belt squats, there are a few important components to consider when programming and assessing muscles worked. You may assume they work the same muscles as the back squat does, but that's not entirely correct. The major takeaway is that due to the weight being loaded at the hips, this is going to be a very quad-focused move. Here's some more information on muscles worked during the belt squat.
Because the barbell is placed on the upper back during the back squat, the posterior muscles exhibit high activation for hip extension to move the weight. However, in belt squats, that load doesn't exist.
As a result, the belt squats tend to be more quad-dominant. To be clear, the glutes and hamstrings are still used, just not to the same degree2. While some say that the belt squat emphasizes hip extension, studies don't show this to be the case. For example, one study showed that the back squat produced significantly greater activation in the gluteus maximus2.
Therefore, while the load on the hips might emphasize the movement pattern and make a lifter more conscious of using the posterior chain, we suggest complementing your belt squatting by also adding a movement such as a Romanian deadlift.
As mentioned many times above, the entire purpose of the belt squat is to create an effective leg exercise that's less demanding on the lower back (we love exercises that prevent or relieve low back pain!). The good thing is that this is precisely what happens.
Belt squats are usually compared to the back squat, and most studies compare muscle activation in both. To this extent, it's been found that core activation during the belt squat is significantly less than in the barbell back squat1.
We believe that comparing a belt squat to a barbell squat in terms of what's better isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. Both are great compound lifts and unique in their own way. This means they should be looked at as complimentary exercises.
Let's see what makes belt squats such an amazing lower-body exercise.
While the barbell squat is generally safe, it places great stress on the lower back as the torso is bent forward. Further, because the load comes straight down, a significant amount of spinal compression also occurs. Now, this in itself isn't a bad thing. In fact, both can produce a stronger back and core.
Unfortunately, though, if you have already placed a lot of volume on your back and core in a lifting session, your back muscles are fatigued, you are recovering from an injury, or have low back pain from squatting or for an unrelated reason, it could end up causing injury.
Under these situations, it's probably a good idea to get out from under the barbell squat rack. Instead, hook yourself up to a belt squat machine.
Hip belt squats are perfect as the load is placed on the hips. This means there is no axial loading which prevents further spinal compression. In addition, no load is present on the shoulders to create sheer force.
Back squats are the king of lower body exercises, but they're not made for injured upper bodies. An often overlooked aspect of the back squat is it requires significant mobility in the shoulder joints. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons a person will perform a safety bar squat.
This isn't an issue with belt squats. While you should aim to improve shoulder mobility issues (or any other mobility issues you have), they shouldn't prevent you from training. If you have a belt squat machine, you could hypothetically train with two broken arms or any other upper body injury (assuming you have a friend who can connect the belt).
As the belt sits on the hips, it neutralizes any concerns you may have because of an injured arm.
While the belt squat machine is generally looked at as being used for squats, you can actually perform a variety of exercises with it. So many, in fact, that we're going to list them in an entirely new section below. You're missing out if you've only been performing squats with this piece of machinery.
We have a love/hate relationship with high-volume leg training. We know it's awesome for building slabs of meat on our legs, but man does it hurt so good!
While you could perform high-volume training with the back or front squat or even leg press, we find using belt squats to be significantly more comfortable and effective.
And because you can grab the handrails, you can perform assisted reps after you start to fatigue for some major muscle building gains. This is similar to the Hatfield squat yet easier to set up.
For the lower body, belts squats are probably our favorite exercise to use for a final burnout set.
As mentioned, people like to compare back squats and belt squats. In reality, we think the belt squat is better compared to a leg press or front squat. In other words, you shouldn't choose between doing back squats or belt squats. Unless you're injured. Then choose the belt squat.
Instead, do the back squat and then decide between doing belt squats or front squats. Or perform all three, as they all offer a different set of benefits.
With this in mind, the only difference we would note is that back squats are likely better for strength training programs. This is due to more muscle mass used and the ability to use heavier loads.
While you can use heavier weights for belt squats as well, the set-up may feel a bit strange. Still, because of the handrails, it's easier to pump out a lot of volume, making it great for hypertrophy and muscular endurance.
Here we go. These are some of the best belt squat variations you can do, showing just how versatile this piece of equipment truly is.
Split squats are a great unilateral exercise to add to any lower body training day. They will challenge every muscle in the lower body as well as provide awesome balance benefits.
To perform one, you simply connect the belt to your hips and get into a split squat stance. (Check out our article on the split squat vs lunge for more information on form and benefits).
It should be noted that split squats are often thought of us being a lunge variation as they have similar movement patterns apart from the step. However, do not try performing lunges with a belt squat machine, as the cable will pull the body in at different angles and can make the movement funky.
Plie squats are one of our favorite inner thigh exercises. After setting up your belt with attached weights, stand on the platform with your legs spread about 1.5 to 2 times wider than shoulder width apart. Externally rotate your hips so your feet are pointing outwards.
From there, sit back until your thighs are parallel and pop back up. No machine? No problem! Just attach a belt with weights and stand on two platforms that are wide enough apart for you to sumo squat.
This is a great movement that replicates a loaded carry. Connect the belt and load a heavier weight than a back squat. Now, you will make an exaggerated marching movement by bringing your knees up high as you alternate.
This results in muscular activation similar to performing a yoke walk seen in Strongman. You're going to really activate the glutes - it's an especially great gluteus medius exercise - as you must support the load with one leg. Further, you'll deliver a nice stimulus to your hip flexors.
It's a fantastic movement for anyone who wants to train the body to walk under load without stressing the back.
Yes, you can even train the upper body with the belt squat machine. Instead of a belt, connect a barbell or different handle attachment used on a cable pulley system. Now bend over and perform your bent over rows.
You could also perform the Romanian deadlift or really any deadlift variation. However, because these exercises are more specific to the posterior muscles, using a belt will mitigate their effectiveness. Therefore, use a straight bar attachment instead and treat it as if it were a barbell.
This will provide the same benefits as performing one with a barbell, but it's a cool variation to use on occasion. Plus, you could combine this with the bent-over row for some hardcore super sets.
The donkey calf raise is an awesome calf exercise, but it can look pretty silly if you don't have access to equipment and need someone to sit on your back. If you're cool with it, more power to you! If you want a different variation, this may be just what you're looking for.
A belt squat machine will mitigate any strange looks and more importantly, it just feels better. Hook up a belt and stand on the edge of the platform. Next, bend over at the hips until your back is almost parallel to the ground, and hold onto the rails.
Last, lower your body by letting your heels drop, followed by propelling yourself up until you're on your toes.
As mentioned in the beginning, belt squat machines are actually one of the more uncommon machines found in big box gyms. However, that doesn't mean you can't do them, or at least something like them. Here are the best belt squat alternatives for those with no access to this beautiful machine.
The most straightforward alternative to a belt squat requires minimal equipment and is known as a freestanding belt squat. Rather than attaching a belt to a belt squat machine, you simply attach the belt directly to a dip belt.
It will have a long hanging chain that's attached to the belt, which can be run through plates or kettlebells. The loose end then runs back up and connects to the belt.
However, because the weight will be hanging low, you must stand on some boxes to create distance. From here, everything is precisely the same as far as a movement pattern.
While these are simple, they do have drawbacks. One, the weight can swing and create instability. And two, getting into the starting position can be difficult, especially with heavy weight.
Therefore, we would advise you to use the lowest box you can that allows enough distance. Second, use lighter weights with higher reps when you first begin.
In general, the landmine is one of the most versatile and effective setups in the gym. In addition to all the other landmine exercises you can do, they also make a great belt squat variation!
In fact, some gym goers will tell you it's their favorite belt squat version, even when compared to the belt squat machine.
You first need to set up a landmine as you would for any other landmine exercise. However, we would recommend you use an actual landmine row attachment rather than shoving it in a corner with a dumbbell on top. That may work for some exercises but can cause issues with a landmine belt squat due to the weight and force's direction.
Next, load the barbell with the desired weight. However, you may want to use smaller plates to allow full ROM. Finally, put on a dip belt and wrap it around the barbell.
You want to ensure there's not excessive slack, as you don't want the plates hitting the ground when you squat.
There are many great cable machine leg exercises out there, one of which is this belt squat variation. This is a great move for beginners.
The cable machine set-up is relatively easy and requires you to place the pulley system on the lowest level first. Next, you put the hip belt on, connect it to the pulley system, and stand a few feet back.
Now, perform a squat similarly to a standard belt squat.
It's not every day you're able to use a piece of equipment that enables you to build mass and improve muscular strength with pretty minimal injury risk. Any lifter of any level with any goal can greatly benefit from throwing belt squats into their routine, making it an ultra-versatile move.
And if you don't have access to one? No problem! We showed you numerous variations that you can set up in any gym. Be sure to give one a shot. We're certain you'll love belt squats just as much as we do.
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