Brace your Core & Breathing Before Heavy Lifts
Your core includes everything around your torso/midsection:
- Rectus abdominus (main ‘abs’)
- Internal and external obliques (‘side abs’)
- Transverse abdominus (‘inner abs’)
- Spinal erectors (muscles protecting down your spine)
- Deep hip flexors (in your hip crease)
- Pelvic floor (how you hold ‘in’ when you need to pee)
- Diaphragm (helps for breathing, lungs)
Bracing your core keeps tension on your body to prevent it from folding under heavy loads. It’s about filling your core (torso, midsection) with pressure.
You indirectly brace your core in nearly every single exercise, but you don’t think about.
And when you do try to think about it, usually we are given invaluable cues.
Core bracing is commonly seen when powerlifters wear a belt; it serves as a cue to maintain the tension with heavy weights. Learning and applying proper core bracing is going to serve a lot more benefits to an overall stronger core and stronger body without relying on a belt. It’s only a supplement for some Athletes.
Bracing and breathing can be complementary. If your breathing technique isn’t locked in, you’re likely not going to have quality bracing. We need to think about bracing as a form of expansion in the stomach, the torso, the midsection, not just in our lungs.
Cues are important to create the mind-muscle (body) connection. The stronger the image, the stronger the mind, the stronger the body.
Ineffective bracing cues (no-no’s)
1. squeeze your abs – because it’s more than just your rectus abdominis (where your six pack is) because your core is all the way around your torso – we’re missing out on other effective and vital muscles and body parts – it’s not enough!
2. pull your belly button into your spine (guilty of using this one in the past as a core bracing cue) – it’s doesn’t create solid force in the torso (it’s like ‘sucking in’) - you’re pulling (in), not bracing, and therefore you’re forcing your centre-point to be smaller, which results in less power
Effective bracing cues (yes-yes’s)
1. Tighten your stomach as if someone’s going to punch you (my favourite!) - when you do this, you tighten your stomach and you’re going to recruit a lot more parts than just your rectus abdominis. I like to expand on this by cuing this on the sides of someone’s stomach as well.
2. Expand your sides – great support to the first cue because bracing your core isn’t just about your main ‘front’ abs (simple terms) – it’s all the way around.
3. Breathing into your stomach – we often try to breathe into our lungs and fill them up, but when we breathe into our bellies, we can expand the core and create more tension (not as easy as a cue as the first one, but effective)
- Place your hands on your obliques, above your hip bones
- Push your stomach firmly into your hands – remember we aren’t trying to extend our stomach (like ‘creating a big round belly’) but we are trying to create force, subtle but strong
- When you do this properly, you will see your sides move outwards a little
- Then put one hand on your stomach and try the same movement (push into your hand firmly) and this is how you can ‘breathe into your stomach’ (cue 2 above)
During sets of any exercise, we want to brace the core before any movement starts. That means having a full belly of tension and enough air to allow you to get through most (if not all) of your reps.
The goal is, when you need to get through all of your reps in a set, you don’t want to fully ‘lose tension’ in your core by letting all your air out (even if you try to brace again) – you want to keep full tension, and then as needed think about taking little ‘sips’ of air; keeping most of your core full and just letting out a little leak of air and then letting in a new little ‘sip.’ When you see experiences Athletes do this, it might almost sound like a hissing noise they make.
I often see gym-goers pushing out all their air when they press in a movement. When this happens, we can literally see their core compress and shrink; their chest caves and they lose all their power. It’s not easy to brace the same way (as the first time) as we are still under tension of the weight on our muscles and are starting to fatigue.
When the weight load gets heavier, bracing between reps is a little different. To keep it simple: go slow. You’re not after speed or endurance with heavier strength training (like squat, bench, deadlift, when it comes to powerlifting movements or any compound movements) so it’s a little more forgiving to take your time and brace a bit more than just the ‘sips’ as mentioned above. But again, we don’t want to let all of our air out, especially when our bodies still need to bare the heavy load (like when we are holding a barbell over our chest on a bench press, or standing when we have a squat.)
Bracing your core and understanding simple breathing can progress (or hinder if not done properly) training performance and overall strength output. It takes time to practice, like anything. The cues and tips aren’t always effective for everyone, but hopefully some of these points help you with your performance!