To lift the most weight in the safest possible fashion, we need to brace our core. This doesn’t mean just squeezing every muscle in our body and hoping for the best – it’s a skill that we develop with time and practice.
When bracing while lifting (especially in the squat, bench and deadlift), we hold our breath and ‘brace’ for each rep. This helps us:
1. Switch on our core muscles to create a rigid and stable midsection, allowing us to keep a ‘neutral’ spine while lifting.
2. Maintain a consistent position throughout the duration of each lift and each rep, minimising the number of moving parts that could lead to injury.
Conventional gym wisdom is that you need to breathe in on the way down, and out on the way up every rep. If you’re lifting heavy, this puts you in the most inefficient and risky positions when your body is loaded the most – i.e. breathing out at the bottom of a squat or when there is a barbell on your chest. If you like living dangerously, then this is the way to do it. If not, you want to be in the most stable position throughout the lift, not getting into a LESS stable position by changing the stability of your core brace.
If you brace by taking the biggest breath you possibly can before each rep and holding on for dear life, it will help you, but only get you so far. It’s not the full picture.
The goal of bracing is to be in the strongest position possible – this means keeping a neutral spine. A neutral spine isn’t a flat spine – the spine has curves in it that help it be strong. When we brace, we want those curves to stay in place and not move. To keep these curves in place and combat excessive extension (or flexion), we need to cue for neutral positions, not excessive ‘chest up’ or ‘look down’.
One exercise we have been giving to lots of lifters looking to work on core stability is a dead bug hold to help cue this ribs down position, using the floor as a way to prevent it from going too far. Learning to control and stay in these positions without any load is the first step in being able to do it with a bar on your back. “If you can’t do it unloaded, then you shouldn’t load it” – meaning if you can’t brace on the floor when you’re just controlling your own body, you probably shouldn’t be putting big weights on your back.
Bracing is a complicated system and has several parts to it and this is by no means the be all and end all of that, rather just a crash course in the basics.
If you think your breathing and bracing during lifting is an issue you need to tackle in order to hit that PR, get in touch!