Why do We Need To Brace When Lifting Weights?
by Daniel Lucchini – M. Exercise and Sports science, Powerlifting Coach
If you have ever been in a gym or worked with a trainer, you have probably been told you need to brace your core or brace your abs. But what is bracing and why do we do it?
Bracing in this context refers to using the breath and muscle contractions to stabilize the spine in a 360-degree manner. It is commonly used in strength sports such as powerlifting and is utilized when doing exercises such as the squat, deadlift and overhead press. By using an effective brace we not only reduce the risk of injury to areas such as the back, but also increase the efficiency and execution of the movements. This let’s us lift heavier loads for more reps, more often and for a long time span. In other words, bracing will increase the magnitude and longevity of your ability to make progress in the gym.
When we brace we utilize a range of muscles including the abdominals, obliques, diaphragm and the pelvic floor. By creating co-contractions between all these muscles we are able to limit movement of the torso while exerting force through the limbs (arms and legs). We also utilize the breath, specifically using the Valsalva Maneuver to create intra-abdominal pressure. The Valsalva Maneuver refers to holding the breathe after an inhale. By taking a big inhale into the belly, obliques and lower back; we increase the amount of pressure in the torso, which increases its rigidity. An easy way to think of it is to imagine a deflated soccer ball. It’s soft and malleable but when you fill it up with air it becomes hard and strong. We combine the co-contractions with the intra-abdominal pressure to create a strong and rigid structure that allows us to exert force without unnecessary movements at the torso. You can learn more about the bracing strategy for powerlifting movements specifically in our Powerlifting Online Course.
But should I brace every time I lift something? We want to be really clear that bracing is an important and effective strategy when lifting weights. When you are trying to lift heavy weights, especially during compound movements that involve the hips and shoulders (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press), it is very likely going to be beneficial to use a meaningful bracing strategy. However, it is important to remember that we don’t want to brace all the time. The poison is in the cure in that the same way bracing increases the rigidity of your torso in an adaptive way, it may also become maladaptive to overall movement capabilities if you are always bracing. For example, not every one should brace during the overhead squat as it limits movement at the spine. What you are trying to achieve from lifting weights, the relative effort required for the lift and the exercise itself will determine if you need to brace and how hard you need to brace. For example if you are squatting 60kg when your max squat is 200kg, you won’t need to brace very hard. You only need to brace hard enough for the torso not to move during the exercise.
So remember to utilize a brace when lifting heavy to get the most out of your movement.