I have trained for and competed in powerlifting since the AAU officially sanctioned the sport in 1964. Over the past five plus decades I have seen powerlifting change and grow, not always for the best, through multiple federations, rule changes, and uniform and equipment changes. The belt, which has been an integral part of the powerlifter’s equipment since the sport’s inception, has also undergone changes both in design and perceived benefits.
The early powerlifters used Olympic lifting belts, which, by rule, could be no more than 4” wide in the back. The front was considerably narrower. These belts were also relatively thin and were designed to support the Olympic lifter’s back for their overhead lifts. Sometime during the 1960’s, west coast powerlifters, who were the first innovators in the sport, turned the belt around putting the 4” wide back of the belt low around the abdomen reasoning (I believe correctly) that the abdomen was what was really needed the support primarily in the squat rather than the back. They felt that this belt positioning helped keep the back straight (not upright) and helped prevent rounding of the back and the possibility of injury. This eventually led to the development in the late 1970’s of the modern powerlifting belt which is the legal 4” wide all the way around and generally twice as thick as the old Olympic lifting belts.
I used a belt for all of my squats and deadlifts until the early 1980’s. At that time I started physical therapy for a hip problem and the therapist noticed that my lower back was muscularly underdeveloped exactly where I wore my lifting belt. He suggested that I needed to train without the belt for my lighter sets and use the belt for only my heaviest sets. At this time, I use the belt for squats only, primarily for abdominal support as I use a considerable forward lean in the squat because of my short back and long legs. I find that the belt restricts my starting position in the deadlift, so I don’t use it at all. I have talked to other lifters who have experienced the same
problem. The one lift that may benefit more with the belt is the bench press, particularly for those lifters who use an extreme arch.
In summary, I think that belt usage in powerlifting is pretty universal, but the reasons for using the belt may vary considerably depending on the lifter and his/her physical attributes like back and limb length. I have talked to lifters who use the belt for every set and rep and others who think more like I do. I believe that a lot of lifters become psychologically dependent on the belt rather than gradually building true strength and using the belt only for near maximum lifts. Developing abdominal strength is really the key in powerlifting, something that lots of powerlifters (myself included) have not paid enough attention to.