Do Waist Trainers Work?
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
No, but it doesn't stop people from using them. Consider this case against waist trainers but also a case in support of learning to lift without a weight belt (unless you are the smaller fraction of athletes powerlifting, exceptions always exist).
There's often a wish that some new piece of equipment or trick will help make all the difference in how we want to feel or look.
Waist trainers are meant to "train" a specific figure while weight (or lifting) belts are intended to help with the process of training. Though they both wrap around the torso, they are inherently different and may unintentionally cause some changes to the user's physiology.
The resurgence of this modern day corset is spread more rampantly through media and beauty standards that encourage the hourglass figure.¹ How you achieve the desired figure is rarely in question and limited by boundaries. The trend is not necessarily a safe one, as it can alter physiological responses and even restrict blood flow to extremities.²
The use of these rebranded corsets bother me most because they alter how we breathe³ and how we breathe is everything.
How we breathe will affect everything from midback mobility to tightness in the hips and lower back, to pelvic floor dysfunction and even how heavy we can lift.
It is of utmost importance that new personal trainers and coaches remember that evidence-based practices and researched methods should be the basis of what is implemented on the gym floor, the court, or field.
In order to complete a full breath, the diaphragm needs to properly expand and contract. With the corset/waist trainer present, it becomes inherently more difficult. This is more evident when you imagine the ribs during a full breath. With a functional breathing pattern, the ribs need to move--the space between the ribs expand and the ribs lift like the arms of someone doing the chicken dance or the lifting handle of a water pail, if that's a better visual.
The ribs happen to also be connected to your midback. Enter the cliché saying: everything is connected. This saying exists because it's true--once we are talking about the midback, a cascade of topics can follow.
Without getting into too much detail, let's focus on the midback and on the pelvic floor.
When wearing something like a waist trainer, the muscles that should be active during the day turn off. The positioning of the ribs shift and the section of the spine that should be mobile becomes restricted.
Good posture and good form go hand in hand with good movement and getting gains.
Do loaded squats, box jumps, supported mid rows sound familiar? These common moves all emphasize stable lower back, mobility in the mid back, and stable neck/head posture. There are surely many other components, but if a trainer is saying "keep a stable core" they're likely looking for these elements.
When the mid back isn't mobile, shoulder range of motion can be inhibited and the body will compensate by getting that little extra oomph from a different joint. When the limitation comes from a corset or something similar to that, shifts are made in to how you move functionally. (The stable parts become wobbly and the mobile parts become sticky.)
Dysfunctional movement is not sustainable over time because the body will compensate in ways that overload joints in ways that the body was not built to handle.
Though it may be doable and might not be harmful in the moment, the cost of unhealthy patterns can catch up to us.
A stance on weight belts:
But weight belts don't limit the mid back, and they stabilize the lower back--this is to say weight belts reinforce what the body intends. So why knock it?
Weight belts are something I would recommend that we try to use in a limited fashion, but not completely dismiss. As with other types of bracing (i.e. a knee brace, ankle brace, etc.), the end goal is not to use them permanently. Bracing is typically a pretty good external cue for users to stay mindful of that joint when doing their workouts or playing a sport. To depend on a brace long term is to encourage the atrophy (weakening/shrinking) of the muscles that support the health of the joint or body parts in concern. The proverbial phrase reigns true here: use it or lose it.
Depending on a weight belt dismisses the deeper abdominal muscles that are responsible for stabilizing the spine. More importantly, especially those who use the Valsalva maneuver, create higher pressure in the abdomen to generate stability for the spine. (Imagine that a can filled completely to the top is more difficult to crush than an empty aluminum can.) The problem here is that the excessive pressure still pushes on the walls surrounding it.
Isn't the pressure what we need? Not necessarily. Excessive pressure has to go somewhere. And when the walls surrounding it aren't giving at all, the pressure can descend down and press into the pelvic floor. In female lifters, more drastic symptoms may lead to prolapse or pelvic floor dysfunction. In male lifters, hernias and other dysfunctional patterns may arise.
Since everything is connected, it is pertinent that trainers and coaches know to check in with core stability and good pressure management when a client exhibits low back issues, develops overly lengthened hamstrings (which may feel tight!), has increasingly tight hip flexors, etc.
This is not to say that all of the problems an athlete faces will come from using weight belts or waist trainers. This is a call for personal trainers and coaches to evaluate what certain new trends or old pieces of equipment set out to do, and take a closer look at how they impact people in reality. It is the responsibility of trainers and coaches to hold the fitness industry to a higher standard.
Some sources for the nerds: 1. Kinney, Tiffany. "Cinch for instacurves: The discursive assemblage of waist trainers in new media." Fat Studies 6.2 (2017): 152-169. 2. Ramcharan, Max Murray, et al. "Waist Training Corset: An Unusual Cause of Acute Lower Limb Ischemia." Cureus 12.9 (2020). 3. Green, Terrence, and Amanda Roby. "The Effect of Waist Trainers on Breathing." (2018).
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Founder, Project Green Beard
UCSC Banana Slug