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Edition 46 - Correct Breathing and Bracing for Instantly Stronger Lifts
Today we are discussing what I believe to be an incredibly important and highly overlooked aspect of performing strength exercises. As the years of session delivery go by, I find this to be perhaps the single technique I spend the most time emphasising with clients. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can even be the strongest person on the gym floor - if you aren’t getting your breathing and bracing technique correct, you will be massively falling short in terms of the quality, efficiency and maximum load tolerable for a given lift.
By mastering the art of core and spine bracing, as well as proper breathing while lifting heavy weights, you can take your strength training to the next level. You can build a better foundation of strength, stability, and power, and reach your goals faster and more efficiently. So let’s get into the details!
What Do I Mean By Core and Spine Bracing?
When it comes to lifting heavy weights in the gym, the ability to create tension and brace the body for high forces is essential for protecting your spine, improving your strength, and preventing injury. The core is made up of all of the muscles in your abdomen, lower and middle back, and of course the pelvic floor, while the spine comprises vertebrae and discs stacked one above the other, where major and small stabilising muscles attach themselves, providing the entire framework from which our body functions as we know it to.
Bracing is all about activating these muscles to help you maintain strength and stability during movement, especially heavy lifts. We can ‘activate’ the core by contracting the glutes, engaging the abdominals, and pinning the ribcage down (the opposite of ‘rib flare’). This technique is all about contracting your abdominal muscles, glutes, and pelvic floor to create a strong and powerful “locking” action, restricting movement in areas where injury could occur if we don’t. The action of bracing will help to stabilise your spine, keep your back in a neutral position, and create a powerful core. By contracting these muscles, you will prevent the excessive movements in your lower back, resulting in less pressure on the spine and its discs.
I train a lot of clients who love talking to me during their working sets (don’t worry, I love all the fun chats we have! Let the good times roll I say). They enjoy their sessions, they get the exercises done, and I can guarantee you they really are working hard. BUT there are levels to this game - and my job is to help them recognise where and when there is perhaps an extra 10-20% of lifting quality and repetitions being left untapped. So there usually comes a point (as we lift heavier, or as a particular set intensifies) where we need to pause the conversation. Where I need to cue them to focus. Where they need to prepare for each rep like they are about to try and lift a car. Employing these strict techniques and treating every rep the same allows you to:
Increase your power/lifting performance - Correct bracing helps create more power, especially during heavy lifts. Have you ever attempted the same exercise with the same weight on two separate occasions, but in the previous session you were able to hit more reps? Although things like sleep, hormones, hydration, food consumption (energy), and training adaptations (or detraining) can affect each outcome - it is also worth observing how your breathing and bracing is impacting your performance in a given set. Not focusing on this properly can maybe cost you 2 or 3 reps in a set, and means you DON’T get stronger quicker!
Lift more weight - Not only does employing the correct technique help you squeeze out more reps, it also provides you with the confidence to start moving up the rack and going heavier.
Improve your technical execution - As touched on above, a solid brace provides you with a more stable lifting base. Not only allowing you to lift more weight, but also execute each rep with a clean, polished technique where there is stability and smooth movement at all joints throughout the body.
Create better spine alignment - By bracing your core properly, you will be able to create better spinal alignment in general, which will make you look taller and stronger as you stroll around town, as well as massively reduce your risk of debilitating spinal issues in older age.
How To Do It
Squeeze and contract your glutes - To activate your glutes, squeeze your butt muscles together. This helps create stability at the pelvis and utilise the pelvic floor.
Engage your core - Breathe in and draw your abdominal muscles in towards your spine. This will create internal pressure, and help you to stabilise your core. Maintain this contraction as you exhale, then keep it throughout the lift.
Neutral spine - To keep your spine in a neutral position, draw your shoulders down and back, locking at the lats, and keeping your head and neck in a neutral position as well.
Applying correct breathing and bracing before a deadlift
What About Proper Breathing?
When you’re lifting heavy, you can’t just nail the bracing and then hold your breath throughout the entire set - it’s important to breathe properly, and know exactly when to inhale and exhale as you perform a given movement. While this may sound simple, most people actually don’t breathe properly while lifting, and this can mean less force being absorbed by the stabilising muscles, and more pressure on your spine. The cue I tend to use (which can be applied to most exercises) is explaining to my client that the E stands for 2 things:
Effort & Exhale
Lat PULL down - the pull is the effort. The end of the pull is when you exhale
Bench PRESS - the press/push of the bar is the effort. The end of the press is when you exhale.
DeadLIFT - lifting the bar from the floor is the major effort. Exhale as you hit the top.
And so on!
This means that for the opposite moment, this is your opportunity to inhale and prepare your brace.
Lat pulldown - inhale as the bar is travelling upwards and you are preparing to pull it down again
Bench press - inhale as you are about to begin your descent and bring the bar to the chest
Deadlift - inhale as you are about to begin your descent and bring the bar to the floor. You should also inhale while the bar is resting on the floor between reps, as you prepare to brace for your next rep.
I hope you found these tips useful. Don’t underestimate your lifting potential if you haven’t applied real attention and focus to your breathing yet - this is a transformational change you can make to your training which will immediately improve the quality of your work, and this will also increase the fruits of your labour.
“You don’t find willpower - you create it” - anon
Movement of the Week: Pistol Squat
2-3 sets of 5 each leg
Pistol squats are the notorious ‘feat of strength’ among athletes who pride themselves on squat strength, depth and stability. The majority of people cannot do a pistol squat, and for good reason - they are extremely difficult! Which is why I suggest practising these initially on the end of your bed, or your sofa, or on a bench at the gym. If these heights make the exercise too difficult (you must be able to maintain correct form and posture, and get out of the bottom seated position without any jerking movements or compensations around the body) - use a cushion or pad to start higher, then work your way down as you get stronger. Enjoy!