What is bracing? Why is it important? And how to do it?
Have you ever heard term “brace” before? Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you’ve done it before. Have you ever held your breath to lift something heavy off the floor? How about to give yourself a little extra push while on the toilet? Have you ever blown out every candle on your birthday cake in one try? How about protecting yourself from being punched in the stomach by an older sibling? If so, congratulations! You’ve braced before!
Bracing is a form of voluntary core activation enabling you tighten up on command. It’s used in sports and strength training all the time. Abdominal bracing involves actively pressurizing the abdominal cavity, buttressing your midsection to produce the best performance for the required task.
Here are two examples of bracing in action:
Example 1: Heavy squat - In a heavy squat the lifter will breathe in about 70% of their maximum air volume, pull their shoulders down towards the pelvis, and compress their rib cage while contracting the abs. When this setup is complete the lifter will then initiate the squat staying pressurized during the down and up phases of the squat. After standing the lifter will exhale then re-bracing and repeat for the reminding reps.
Example 2: Standing up from a chair - Getting up from a chair a person will start by stiffening the core mildly, about 10% core contraction, lift the chest up slightly, lean forward though the hips to transfer the weight to the feet then pull the hips through to complete the stand. Once standing the brace is released.
Picture bracing as a dimmer switch. The more demanding the task the more of a brace that is required and vise versa. The follow is a list from least amount to most of brace required and is by no means exhaustive, it’s only to give you a perspective on the range of applied bracing.
-Tying your shoe
-Balance on one foot for 10 seconds
-Carrying a 5 lb weight
-Getting up from the floor
-Picking up a lawnmower
-Pushing a car to the side of the road
Some amount of bracing is required for every human moment. Daily “movement awareness” is the goal and through cognitive practice the gains can be exponential. In some growth-minded individuals an injury can actually be a blessing in disguise. After an injury, particularly in skilled movements, pain becomes a sensor that triggers whenever there are poor movement and bracing mechanics used.
How to brace.
I’ll do my best to keep this brief and digestible.
Breathing – to optimize a brace you’ll need to know how to use the diaphragm correctly. Place a hand on the belly and a hand on the chest. Now breath in. what happens? If only your chest rises, breathing exercises like crocodile breathing is where you need to start. I also recommend mindful relaxation techniques paired with a breathing drill. This allows the nervous system to calm down allowing you to turn on your diaphragm effectively. (LINK to crocodile breathing w/relaxation drill https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_l7qc1SDoQl)
Flexing the abdominals – Place your index and middle fingers on your core where your rectus abdominis (6-pack) meet your obliques (the vertical line of separating the 6-pack and lateral core musculature). Push into your core with about 75% maximum effort. Next push against your fingers using your core. If you can’t actively push into your fingers, try breathing in deeply and then forcefully exhaling. You might feel the tightness I’m looking for. If you still can’t turn your abs try a single leg raise while monitoring your core tightness. This is the feeling is I’m looking for and the goal is to be able to reproduce this core tightness while standing up, on command.
Putting it together – The high threshold brace is performed when a big diaphragmatic breath is taken and the abdominals are flexed. A lower threshold brace is a finely tuned by contracting the core muscular in concert with a certain amount a diaphragmatic breath. This creates a “natural belt” of stability that surrounds the core. If the tightness of the brace cannot be maintained during breathing in and/or out than holding the breath is recommended. This will keep the spine safe and stabilized, allowing you to move effectively. A good rule of thumb: During strength training hold your breath anytime the barbell is moving. Some good cues for this are “breathe deep in your belly, and press the air down”, or “Force your air in and down”
If you’re interested in learning how to improve your strength and overall longevity please contact us, tell us your goals and let the bracing begin!