Breathing and Bracing for Stronger, Safer Lifts

Today we’re going to discuss, or rather I’m going to tell you about, bracing. It’s not glamorous or jazz-hand exciting, but it is crucial for successful strength training.

What is bracing exactly?

To brace your midsection in the context of lifting is simply creating 360 degree (circumferential for you intellectual types) intra-abdominal pressure. This will stabilize the spine and protect it from shear stress.

Mixing shear forces and spines is as smart as sticking a fork in an electrical outlet.

Mixing shear forces and spines is as smart as sticking a fork in an electrical outlet.

Your brain LOVES a stable spine. When your brain senses instability, in this case in the spine, it will put the brakes on your muscle power. Translation: you’re not as strong if you’re unstable. However, stabilization through bracing reassures the brain that it can handle the load and it will punch the gas on force production and, voila! You can lift more weight (safely).

Charlie wrote about the Valsalva Maneuver, which is merely a fancy name for bracing, a while back if you’d like to take a gander at that post too.  

Now, how does one brace?

Below are two videos that explain 360-degree or circumferential breathing- that is the first half of successful bracing and it is a critical step. The other half is locking down the midsection once you’ve established 360-degree expansion with your breath (explained in the first video.)

Below is Jim Laird explaining breathing and bracing at the basic level. I thought about making a video, but why re-invent the wheel?

If you're having trouble breathing with full expansion or feeling what it means to "forcefully" exhale as Jim Laird described, here's a drill that can help teach both. It's wonderful because your receive tactile feedback on the inhale and exhale:

SAPT-ers, do those breathing drills look familiar?

If you’re still having trouble establishing tension through bracing, here is how I explain it to our athletes:

  1. Place your hands around your waist.

  2. Take a deep breath and fill your hands with your stomach- you should feel the front and sides expanding into your hands.

  3. Once you’ve filled your belly, squeeze everything like you’re constipated. (This last cue, while crude, conveys the “braced” feeling better than anything else I’ve tried. It also usually elicits at least a smile.)

Now, apply that to a deadlift: while you’re set up at the bottom, before you begin to pull, take a deep breath (you should feel your belly expand towards/into your thighs), brace like you’re constipated, then pull. In a squat, deep breath at the top before you squat, brace, then squat. It’s as simple as that.

And just because you’re not using a barbell or “heavy” weight (I say “heavy” because it’s relative to the lifter) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t brace. I’m not saying that you should hold your breath and brace your midsection as hard as you can during every movement, but you should always actively brace to some degree.

Apply this oft-overlooked element to your training and you’ll find yourself with a happy spine and stronger lifts!