One of the fundamentals of movement – whether it is lifting with a barbell, picking up a heavy box, or performing any kind of load bearing movement – is breathing and bracing.
Breathing and bracing is essential for lifting safely. It creates stability through our core which protects our spine. And a safe spine is a happy spine!
Without our muscles surrounding it, our spine is just a stack of bones. This stack of bones is incapable of supporting heavy weight.
This is why it is important to learn how to increase core stability. We want to support that stack of bones as much as we can. The more stable your core, the better quality movement you will be able to perform.
Creating core stability is not the same as doing ab exercises. For example, doing a bunch of crunches is not going to increase core stability, it only builds isolated muscular strength in the abdominals.
So what is the difference between stability and strength? Strength is the ability to produce force. Being able to squat heavier and heavier is strength. Your body produces more force. Stability is the ability to resist movement. Try standing as rigid as you can to stop someone from pushing you over. That is stability.
In order to stabilize the core we must recruit not only the abdominal muscles but the back, diaphragm, and hips. They must all work together to create a stable core. Remember, your core isn’t just your abs, it’s the whole trunk of your body.
A common cue to initiate this response is to ‘brace like you are about to be punched in the gut.’ This action locks everything into place and prepares us to move heavier load.
Core stability is only one piece of the puzzle. If you want to lift safely, you must learn to breathe properly.
There are a couple different ways to breathe when lifting.
The first is the common, breathe in on the way down, breathe out on the way up. This technique is fine if you are moving light weights or doing accessory work. Bicep curls don’t require the same amount of stability that a heavy back squat does.
Ever see those gym fail videos online where someone collapses during a squat and the bar rolls over the top of their head? It’s likely because they let out their breath and lost all stability through their core.
The second breathing technique is to take a deep breath in and hold it throughout the entire repetition. Couple this technique with ‘bracing for a punch’ and you’ve got a recipe for a nice stable core.
I want to emphasize that using this technique is crucial when moving heavy load in the squat, deadlift, and moving any heavy object. This technique keeps your spine stable and decreases your risk of injury in and out of the gym.
TEST YOUR BREATHING
To check and see if you are breathing properly, you can try this simple test. Start by placing one hand on your stomach and one hand on your side under your rib cage (as shown in the photo). Take a deep breath in. You should feel your stomach rise and fall if you did this correctly. You should also feel your rib cage expand. By breathing this way, we are increasing the volume inside our intra-abdominal cavity.
If you did this incorrectly, you will notice the rise and fall of your chest more than your stomach. Breathing up in our chest does little to increase volume in our core.
At this point you might be wondering why you would even want to increase intra-abdominal volume.
When we combine breathing through the stomach with the action of bracing like we are about to be punched in the stomach, something truly magical happens. This increases the pressure inside the abdominal cavity (known as intra-abdominal pressure or IAP). With this increase in IAP, we are able to stabilize the lower spine.
You can test this out by putting some weight on your back. First try letting all the air out of your lungs and see how the weight feels. Then try breathing and bracing. The weight should feel a bit lighter.
This is the key if you want to be able to move heavier and heavier weight. Even if you don’t aspire to be a powerlifter, you should still use this technique during training as it keeps your spine safe!
COMBINING THE BREATHE AND BRACE
When performing a heavy lift, this is why we want to hold our air in on the ascent. This forced hold of the breath is known as the valsalva maneuver. If we let our air out, it will decrease the IAP and we will lose stability in the core. This then transfers the force onto our spine which is definitely a no go (remember that guy who folded on the way up on his squat?).
You might find when breathing this way during a lift that you might grunt or make a ‘tss’ sound on the way up. This is completely natural and happens when we limit our desire to exhale. Grunting still allows you to ‘exhale’ while still maintaining IAP throughout the lift and between reps.
Lifting is all about maintaining spinal stability. When we learn to combine bracing our core with our breath we allow our body to move properly and safely. This leads to moving heavier weight and moving heavier weight means more muscular adaptations which means improved body composition.