Breathing and Bracing
You will often hear me in the gym saying “breathe into the belly”, “chest up”, “shoulder blades back and down”, “lats on”, “squeeze butt”, “stay tight”. The better you are at staying tight and creating tension in a given lift the stronger you will be and the safer you will be able to perform that lift.
Ed Coan said in a seminar, that the more muscles you can use in a lift, the better you will perform. “You need to use as much of your body as possible. Be tight. Create tension”. For example, Ed explains how he pulls his shoulder blades back, turn his lats on, and feels like he is squeezing everything towards the centre of his spine when he is getting ready to squat. Most people may brace their core a little but don’t create much tension anywhere else.
“Tension = force. The tenser your muscles are, the more strength you will display and build”. – Pavel
When setting up for lifts I like to grip the bar as tight as possible, breathe into the belly, brace the core, turn the lats on/pull shoulder blades back and down, squeeze the butt, screw feet into the floor/grip the floor. This doesn’t matter if it is a squat, deadlift, or bench, that is pretty much the checklist I run through.
I find it more important for people to be able to breathe into their belly and brace effectively, and to create as much tension throughout their body as possible, then it is to do endless amounts of “core/ab” work. This is what I find people struggle with most.
The Valsalva maneuver has been spoken about in a lot of texts on strength training over the years. In Science and Practice of Strength Training, they explain that “if maximal force is to be exerted while inhaling, exhaling, or making an expiratory effort with the glottis (the opening between the vocal cords) closed (Valsalva maneuver), the amount of force increases from inspiration to expiration to Valsalva maneuver.” The reason for this is due to a “pneumomuscluar reflex in which increased intra-lung pressure serves as a stimulus for the potentiation of muscle excitability.”
As well as increasing lifting ability, creating high intra-abdominal pressure helps protect the spine, as it reduces compressive forces acting on the discs.
When performing an exercise, the exhale should match the force phase of the movement, what they have termed biomechanical match. Most people do this naturally but I have seen people breathe in reverse. An example of proper breathing is to breathe in, lower the bar on say the bench press, and exhale slightly at the sticking point, or just above, on the way up.
A simple progression to help with your breathing and bracing
To practice breathing into your belly, you can simply lie on the floor on your back. Place one hand flat on your chest and the other flat on your belly button. Practice breathing into your belly, through your nose, by feeling like you are pushing the air down towards your pubic bone. You should see the hand on the belly button rise, not the one on your chest.
Once you get this down pat, you can then place your hands around your hips, kind of cupping the hip bone, with your fingers facing towards your belly button and your thumbs around toward your back. Now, you still want to drive the air into the belly, but to make sure you aren’t just sticking your gut out, you want to try and breathe so that you expand all the way around your trunk. Your fingers and thumb are there as a guide so you can feel if you are expanding in the front, sides, and back. This can take a while to perfect.
When this becomes natural, you then breathe into your belly and create that expansion all the way around your trunk, and then contract your abs. You will feel your lower back flatten into the floor. You aren’t crunching, you are bracing the abs. Like if you were about to be punched in the stomach. You can put your hands in the arch of your lower back to feel this flatten out and give you some feedback if you like.
The important thing is to create the tension all the way around your mid-section.
You then start practicing this when standing and add in a contraction of the glutes. From there you can put your arms out in front of you, breathe into the belly, contract the glutes, and pull your shoulder blades back and down. Don’t let your lower back arch excessively.
At this point you can start using an empty bar and practicing your set up for each lift, basically following the above sequence BEFORE you un-rack the bar. Too many people lazily un-rack the weight and then try to get tight. It doesn’t work. Create the tension first.
You will work creating tension for a very long time, if not forever.
When you breathe and brace correctly, you will see an increase in performance, feel like you are in much more control of the weight, and you will decrease the chances of injury.