If you’re a serious lifter, you probably work hard to make sure you’re doing enough accessory exercises and get enough sleep to improve your big three (or hopefully, your big four — the overhead press is not to be overlooked). And those things are all important. But one thing too many lifters neglect is the irreplaceable but absolutely necessary art form that is bracing. And if you’re committed to busting through plateaus and generally perfecting your lifts, bracing is simply something you’ve got to do; and you’ve got to do it right.
What Is Bracing?
Simply put, bracing is the ability to keep tension throughout your torso so that your body doesn’t collapse on itself during your lifts. And no, I don’t mean that your midsection will turn to rubber with 300 pounds on your back if you don’t brace properly; but I do mean that terrible form, injuries, and mediocre lifts often accompany a lack of good bracing. Why?
Think about the way your push-up form collapses if you’re not keeping tension throughout your core. You either wind up dipping your back too low, forming a U-shape that both makes your push-up inefficient and ineffective. Or you wind up arching your back up, somewhat like a cat, which completely unbalances your push-up (and you’ll feel that imbalance in all the wrong places in your shoulders).
For a proper push-up, you need to engage your core, because that core stiffness is what it takes to transmit stability and efficiency from your hands to your toes. Now imagine the ultra-importance of that stiffness with a heavy barbell in the mix.
In most lifts, there is a part of your body centered on the floor (your hips, glutes, legs, ankles, feet) working to stabilize substantial load. And there is a part of your body (your shoulders, traps, neck, arms, wrists, hands — oh, and your head, too) that is working to stabilize substantial load on top of that.
Your core is the part of your body that transmits the force of a lift from the tips of your toes to the tips of your fingers — and therefore, your core is the transmitter of force from your muscles to the bar. If your core isn’t braced properly, all that tension you try to generate from your set-up won’t mean much: without bracing, your core will leak crucial amounts of tension and energy, and your lift will inevitably suffer for it.
Bracing comes part and parcel with breathing: if your breathing technique isn’t locked in, you will not be able to properly brace. And while a lot of people think of bracing as squeezing, it’s often more effective to think of bracing through the breath — and that means you need to think of bracing as a form of expansion. To understand this, it’s helpful to run through some things that bracing is not in order to figure out what bracing is, and how to properly cue it.
How Not To Brace
There are some cues out there that you might have heard that can be helpful for novice lifters when they’re first learning how to hold tension in their core. But just like it’s best to practice lifting an empty barbell in the same way you’d lift it when it’s loaded with 225 pounds, it’s good to get to know the most effective bracing cues — and the ultimately ineffective ones — as early as you can in your lifting journey. But don’t worry: it’s never too late to improve your bracing, and therefore to improve the heck out of your lifts.
Improper Bracing Cue One
“Squeeze Your Abs”
But before we go any further, here are some things bracing is not. Bracing is not “squeezing your abs.” If anything, bracing should be more of a pushing action, expanding your stomach and rib cage outward, rather than a pulling action, bringing your stomach in.
Sure, you have to make sure the muscles in your core are tight. But if you’re only focusing on your abdominals by thinking “squeeze your abs” — the rectus abdominis, the front of your midsection where your six-pack lives — you’re probably neglecting all the other muscles you need to be engaging to hold a proper brace (namely, the internal and external obliques, erector spinae, multifidus, transverse abdominis, and the diaphragm).
Even just from the list of muscles that make up the pelvic floor, it’s easy to imagine how only focusing on “squeezing” one part of your abdominals makes for a much weaker and less effective brace than learning how to bring tension to all these muscles at once. Deep in your core, around your sides, and throughout your low back, you need to learn to create tension and hold a proper brace: for most people, the image of “squeeze your abs” isn’t expansive enough to cue all of the necessary muscles into appropriate tension.
Improper Bracing Cue Two
“Pull Your Belly Button Into Your Spine”
The cue to “pull your belly button into your spine” probably won’t create a truly rock-solid force transmitter during your lifts. While this is a tempting cue — it makes it easy for inexperienced lifters to visualize creating at least some tension in their rectus abdominis, and some tension is better than none — it’s not far from asking you to do the same thing as “squeeze your abs.”
When you pull your belly button into your spine, you’re simply doing that: pulling. While this might generate some tension, if you try it — right now, go on — you’ll see that the act of simply retracting your belly doesn’t necessarily tense your muscles, and it certainly doesn’t have the effect of engaging your obliques, low back, and the deeper muscles of your core.
Then there’s the visual issue with this cue: when you pull in, you’re imagining bringing your body into itself. While the intention of tensing your muscles is a good one, you don’t want to imagine making your body smaller: you need to imagine filling your abdominal cavity with power. That’s where proper cueing comes in.
How To Properly Cue Your Brace
The good news is that cueing is an excellent brace that will improve your lifts almost instantaneously. The somewhat cumbersome news is that there are three cues, rather than one, that you’ll need to really set up a solid brace. But rest assured: they’re short and sweet and to the point. Once they help you figure out how to brace super well, your lifts will never be the same in all the best ways.
Bracing Cue One
“Tighten Your Stomach Like You’re About To Get Punched”
If you’re scoffing right now because this sounds suspiciously like the shunned cues above (squeeze your abs and the belly-button-meets-spine thing), then congratulations: you’re paying attention.
You’re right: this first cue is a little similar to those less helpful cues. But there are two differences: primarily, the difference is that this cue is meant to be the first step in bracing well, not the final law.
Secondarily but significantly, let’s be real: if you imagine tightening your stomach to take a punch to the gut, you’re probably going to recruit a lot more muscles than your rectus abdominus. Because you don’t just want the front covering of your abs to be ready: you want your entire core solid and ready to protect itself.
Cues are all about connecting your body to your mind: so the stronger the image, the stronger your body is likely to respond. So prep to take that punch, and head merrily into the second cue.
Bracing Cue Two
“Breathe Into Your Stomach”
By now, you’re preparing for a punch and you’re taking a deep breath to fill your belly with air. That’s going to do two things for your body — first, your core will be pulled tight into your body. But with this second cue, you’re going to keep that tension while also expanding your core with your breath. This will not only give you the solid breath you need to stabilize and fuel your lift: it will also start to engage the entirety of your core musculature.
This might be an odd and even uncomfortable sensation at first: that’s OK. This is why you practice bracing while reading this article, and why you practice with an unloaded barbell, and in all your warm-up and ramp-up sets. Because remember, bracing is not just for your heaviest lifts. To develop an effective practice, you need to do just that: practice.
Bracing Cue Three
“Expand Your Sides”
When people visualize breathing into their stomach, they often imagine one direction: breathing out and therefore expanding their belly forward. And that is, indeed, part of bracing. But to make sure you’re really recruiting all of the muscles of your pelvic floor, you need to also imagine your breath expanding your side.
You can feel this in practice by placing your hands right about your hip bones and going through these cues. When you’re expanding your sides properly, your hands should be moved laterally, away from your body. Your breath and expansion should be enough to push them out, just like breathing into your belly will move your hand forward if you place your hand on your stomach.
This cue follows immediately on the proverbial heels of the second cue: really, all three of these should be happening within a second of each other. But, of course, practicing them slowly and individually, adding one component at a time, will always be helpful.
Eventually, these cues will become automatic for your body, and your brace will be as solid as you need it to be.
A Note On Lifting Belts And Bracing
If you’re asking “what about belts?” right about now, don’t worry, I won’t unbuckle mine and throw it in your face. Because, fun fact: weightlifting belts can actually help you brace even stronger by adding mechanical help to your core when you’re lifting over 85% of your body weight.
Think about it: how much muscular force can you exert if someone holds out a piece of paper and encourages you to push it with your hand? Not much, right? Because it doesn’t take a lot of muscular recruitment to push through a piece of paper, and even if you’re tensing (or bracing) all your muscles with peak form, that force will have nowhere to go. But if you push that same hand, engaging the same muscles, against a solid wall? Well, then your body can go fully out, really activating all the muscles you need to push and push and push against the wall.
Think of a weightlifting belt as that wall: because bracing is an act of pushing out, when you have a solid belt to push out against, you can suddenly brace even tighter. Cool, right? But before you ever touch a belt, your bracing needs to be spectacular in and of itself.
I might throw my lifting belt at you if you try to tell me that you don’t need to know how to brace if you’ve got your handy dandy belt: wrong. You definitely need to know how to brace, even more so if you’re tossing enough weight on the bar to create the need for a belt in the first place.
There aren’t too many ways to almost instantly improve the quality and even weight of your lifts, but learning how to properly brace is one of them. Improving the transmission of force throughout your body ensures that every bit of effort you’re putting into the lift actually goes into helping you move the bar, instead of leaking out of the lift through an improperly braced core. So go out there and get your cues in order: your next lift is waiting.
Featured image via sportpoint/Shutterstock