Belt Squats Versus Barbell Squats
There’s no denying the squat is an absolutely foundational movement, whether we’re chasing health or performance.
But the range of exercises that fall under the category of this movement is huge. Subtle variations in technique and execution lead to subtle variations in effect.
Front, back, high bar, low bar, overhead, zercher, split squat… the list goes on. There is no ‘best squat’. The short answer is to do them all. Broad stimulus elicits broad response.
As the squat has emerged from the shrouded worlds of powerlifting and strength and conditioning and entered the mainstream, one variation has been left in the shadows. The belt squat.
Also known as the ‘hip belt squat’, the belt squat is a squat variation where the load anchored to the waist (via a belt) rather than on the back, in the front rack, overhead etc.
So what’s the difference? Why does the belt squat deserve a place among its more famous peers?
Let’s look to the research.
In “Comparison of muscle activation of hip belt squat and barbell back squat techniques”, Gulick et. al. found “…no significant difference in muscle activity (between the two variations)”. The did however find a “higher hip abductor to adductor ratio” in the belt squat, meaning the abductors were more active, and the the “…back squat has slightly higher hamstring recruitment.”.
Evans et. al. found a decreased activation of the gluteus maximus (a primary extensor of the hip) in their study “A comparison of muscle activation between back squats and belt squats”. They suggested that “…if using the machine belt squat as a replacement for back squat in a training program, it may be beneficial to supplement with additional exercises focused on gluteus maximus activation.”.
It would be interesting to examine the biomechanical differences between belt squats and other methods of squatting, particularly the joint angles at play. The higher gluteus maximus activation patterns found by Evans et. al. may be more due to technique limitations in the back squat (caused by a weak anterior chain resulting in the subject flexing forward at the hip, thus recruiting more of their stronger posterior chain – possibly accounting for the increased gluteus maximus recruitment). In this case, the reduced gluteus maximus may actually be a positive, if it’s indicative of technique losses when back squatting.
For individuals who chase the ‘path of least resistance’ when squatting and fall back on faulty movement patterns caused by muscle imbalances, the belt squat could be of particular value. For example, the individual who turns a back/front squat into a glorified ‘good morning’ because of either a weakness in their knee extensors (quadriceps) or an impairment in the ability of their back extensors to maintain an upright torso. In this example, the belt squat may force them to recruit more knee extensors and therefore develop the (previously neglected) quadriceps.
If we also appreciate that the limiting factor in a back squat is often not the legs but the strength and stability of the torso (particularly the lower back), we can also suggest that belt squats have high potential as a method of weak point training for the quadriceps – a stimulus that may not otherwise be applied when completing back squats (because of the torso musculature reaching failure before the quadriceps).
Beyond simply adding a new stimulus, the use of belt squats has useful applications for injured individuals, with reductions in axial loading of the spine and a reduced requirement for upper body involvement of benefit for injuries to those areas. And there is some discussion that, because of the reduced activation of the lower back, the belt squat is easier to recover from, and therefore, more frequent bouts of training can be completed without overtraining.
So should you add the belt squat into your training? Yes. If not to work around injury or as a method of weak-point training, as another variation. Variation broadens the stimulus, stimulus broadens the adaptation.
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.