Have you ever squeezed every muscle in your body to keep six hundred pounds from falling on your chest? I have. It means nothing now, though. This was back when equipped powerlifting was normal and the only game in town.
It was late spring down south where I worked as a strength coach and I was sweating profusely getting ready for my second bench press attempt. Looking back, it probably wasn’t that hot in the weight room where the competition was being held, but I was closing in on three hundred pounds bodyweight, wearing a bench press shirt, and no doubt had high blood pressure.
I brought the weight down to my chest with as much tension in my entire body as I could and when I heard the press call I pushed with every part of me. After I walked over to the score table to put in my next attempt and I realized I should go to the bathroom. Not to use it, but to clean myself up. It was too late to go, I already went. I felt wet. I peed myself…or something…
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
“Back In my Day,” He Said as He Sat On His Porch
Big, burly, working-class men were pretty much all you found at powerlifting meets when I regularly competed. The only thing that mattered was their total and almost everyone put on as much mass as they could to be as strong as possible. This was especially helpful in equipment because the tighter it was the more weight you could lift, at least in theory.
But notice I said mass, not muscle. So what did we have? We had big, stubborn guys with big bellies trying to find a way to feel rigid and secure under heavy bars. That’s what I learned.
I was taught to push my big belly out and forward, shove my belt under where my belly spilled out, and arch my back to stick it out more. Sounds gross. It was. I was also told to push downwards with my belly onto the belt. The problem was that the belt wasn’t the only thing I was pushing down on. Herniations, diastasis recti — where the six-pack muscles separate from the midline — and the aforementioned fluid release were pretty common.
[Related: 3 essential cues for bracing heavy lifts]
Moments of Clarity and Rumors of Days Passed
I’ve always been a good athlete. And by good, I don’t mean talented. I mean I did whatever my coaches told me. Back then, I was a young strength coach though. I remember thinking that this advice for lifting heavy weights didn’t seem quite right. I didn’t see why I had to have incessant back pain and that bracing for a heavy lift may mean pissing myself.
So I decided to learn what was happening on my own. Back then there weren’t many people talking about what bracing really meant and the conflicting ideas behind it. There was almost no one discussing how posture, balance, and breathing influenced the brace. I was able to scrounge up a few research articles and some older textbooks that did cover this and quickly found what I was pushing down on, and damaging — my pelvic floor.
Lifters didn’t start by pushing down on their belts when they first started thinking about the brace, or so it’s been said. They also weren’t using the belt as a back brace to arch against, or maybe they were. The story that’s been told was that the belt was originally intended to be placed in a position and with a looseness that the lifter could use as a cue to brace against as they pressurized their mid-section. But that’s just what some of the old-timers say. Others argue the opposite. It’s all just rumors and loose opinions on how things used to be. Whether this was the original intention or not, this is what it should be used for.
From Curiosity To Action
All my questions pushed me to further study what literature and anecdotal evidence was available and I organized all of my thoughts at the time into one of my first articles published back in 2011. I wrote about the role of an active pelvic floor lift in a complete brace and how it needed to be thought of as a pressurized con-contraction of not only the musculature of the front of the trunk but also the sides and back.
That article brought other opportunities to learn with and from really smart people who were interested in and studying the same thing. Now, we have a better grasp of the role of the breath and how to properly inhale to create intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure, among other things.
[Related: 4 movements to improve thoracic mobility]
Why This Bastardization of the Brace?
I think most of the confusion came from a misunderstanding of how taking in air pressurizes the torso. Where do we start? We start without the bar on our back.
At rest, we should be breathing horizontally. This means the entire lower half of our trunk should expand on inhale and narrow on exhale. Our shoulders, neck, and chest shouldn’t primarily be rising up when we inhale, but this is exactly what you see when lifters try to inhale deeply to brace. There’s some very clear reasons why many have adopted this flawed breathing style but let’s stick to the how-to for now.
If we can’t take a horizontal breath, we can’t truly create the pressure sufficient for a safe and effective brace. This inhale should be circumferential and expand outward 360 degrees. That means the sides and low back along with the front. A breath like this makes it truly possible for us to create internal pressure that protects our spine, makes the trunk stiff and braced, and increases the strength and power we can muster.
Pressure and stability isn’t the only reason we need to improve our breathing style. When you exhale hard and completely (letting out all residual air), you are using the same muscles that when contracted, stabilize the spine and ultimately create the muscular brace to stiffen the spine under load. They’re deep muscles that are hard to control unless you practice a horizontal inhale and exhale. The ability to exhale like this gives you control over and strengthens these muscles.
We have a problem, though. Breathing muscles are only thought of and discussed as a tool for lifting. They aren’t practiced or trained separately, but they should be. We need the ability to focus our inhale and exhale in the right location and we need to train and strengthen our breathing muscles. They need to be overloaded and focused on like any other muscle group. If we set aside time just to practice and train our breathing and make these muscles stronger, it can actually be used when we’re fighting to lift something heavy. We’ve become disassociated from our bodies and feelings. We’re pretty numb to internal sensations. Our poor breathing is evidence enough, but there’s more.
I competed in powerlifting into my late twenties. When I stopped, I started trying to look inside. I realized the noise was too loud to have felt the small inner subtleties. I listened to the cueing of other lifters and my focus was only on the louder parts of me that I thought were what moved the weights.
We have to break this down if we’re ever going to get it right. Therehere are steps that need to be learned and practiced and we break them down below.
Set Balance and Posture First
It doesn’t matter if we’re doing a barbell squat or an overhead press with kettlebells. If we can’t put the body in a balanced and aligned position that allows for a good breath that pressurizes our trunk circumferentially, we can’t brace. We have to start by finding our balance on our mid-foot, something harder for most than they think. Then we have to align our diaphragm over our pelvic floor. This means that our rib cage can’t be flared out and our pelvis can’t be titled when we take our inhale.
Exhale to Inhale
After our structure is set, it’s time to create intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure. To get a quality inhale, you need to have a quality exhale. Many of us have residual air that we keep locked in. We rarely fully exhale all of the air we inhale. So it’s a good practice to start your brace by first doing a quick, forceful, and audible exhale so that the quality of the inhale can be better.
Now, with the understanding of breathing mechanics (which you should continue to study), you can take your 360 degree directional inhale to pressurize.
The Muscular Tense
Now that you’ve created this internal pressure, you can create full body tension to brace against the weight. Imagine someone very heavy just jumped on your shoulders. How would you tense to make sure you don’t crumple over?
The Last, and Oh So Forgotten Key
To complete the brace, we need to remember the pelvic floor’s role in creating the internal pressure and brace. Actively lift it rather than pushing down and relying on what feels strong in the moment.
Don’t be like me in my experience powerlifting, only hearing what’s loudest. If we don’t lift, all this internal pressure from our breath heads down toward the pelvic floor possibly causing herniation or loosening the muscles around the urethra and rectum. I know something about this.
Here is the best instruction to feeling this lift that I’ve found: imagine you’re on a road trip driving your car and you’ve been pounding coffee and water back for hours. You realize you have to pee really bad, but there’s nowhere to stop. You keep going until you can’t stand it anymore and you pull off to the shoulder, step to the side of your car, and let loose. But just as soon as you start relieving yourself another car pulls up behind you and you have to stop mid-stream, as it were. That feeling of stopping mid-stream is the feeling you should try to imitate to lift the pelvic floor and complete the brace.
All of these steps need to be practiced on their own separate from heavy training. Once you have a good feel for it, you can practice with light weights and warm-up sets. Make it a habit, so that when you train with heavier weights you no longer have to think of it as much. Instead, it just happens.
We all have to start training from here. I’ll confess that I didn’t always teach my lifters how to breathe and brace as I should with such detail and care. I was there trying to figure it out, though. We have better resources now, we’ve learned more. So we have to put the brakes on and keep the weight off the bar until we or our lifters truly understand the brace and everything that comes along with it.