By Robby Sparango
Pick your top 5 favorite lifts. Even more revealing, pick your top 5 least favorite lifts. Take your time, any lift, any variation of that lift, you name ‘em.
All ten of your picks, however random they appear, all demand one thing in common.
This isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, nor a manifesto to compel you into rigid dogmatic principle. If you’re a moderately proficient lifter you already do this…to an extent. As with everything, abdominal bracing takes consistent practice to become proficient. The sole intention here is much simpler, to elevate your awareness of this technique so you can train it consciously until it is instinctive. Just like anything we do in strength or athletics. Repetition creates habit. Again, this isn’t revelatory, it has a long history and countless applications. Houdini mastered it. Shaolin monks refer to it as “golden bell” technique. To Gireviks, it’s “breathing behind the shield”. Throughout the iron game it is indispensable. Weight belts, compression suits, different modalities throughout countless sports, same concept. They all apply outside force to what we should be doing naturally.
You get the idea.
Here is a side view of you without your birthday suit on. Or your skin on. Other than how fascinatingly gross our insides are, what do you notice in regards to the aforementioned topic? On the posterior, we have thick bone, dense connective tissue and slabs of muscle. On the anterior, between the pelvis and rib cage lies our soft abdominal wall veneering a goody bag of assorted organs. These few layers of muscle are responsible for spinal protection (commence oversimplification). They keep us upright countering lumbar hyperextension and also prevent a downward “crumple” when we are subjected to a force like a deadlift or farmer’s anything, providing stability or mobility as necessary. Sure, they keep our insides from spilling out and other cool shit, too. Whether you are grinding out a squat or detonating a hardstyle kettlebell swing, that force wants you to collapse under it, to yield to it.
The collapse is like an implosion, a breach in your hull that decompresses your structural integrity. It is most recognizable on a hitched deadlift, locked legs but a round upper back with no chance for a lockout. Farmer’s walks are another excellent example, as breath control significantly challenges your bracing endurance. Without bracing each step pulls your chest down, shoulders forward and your upper back rounds until you drop the weight.
Here’s an experiment, grab an unopened soda can and stand on it… no problem. Now empty the contents and set it upright on the ground again. You can still stand on it, so long as your force is uniform in its application. The structure is sound and will suffice until the slightest deviation of force distribution “dents” a side and it crushes under down… i.e., lift your tail before your chest without abdominal bracing and there goes your front squat. Pressure is paramount.
Before we delve further, be sure not to confuse bracing with flexing either. If fellas “flexed” their abs for a deadlift the way they do in a bathroom selfie their lumbar will see to it they never pull that shit again. Brilliant pun right there. An appropriately braced abdominal wall is exactly that, a wall. The muscles don’t separate into individual lumpy masses with deep valleys between them, think male underwear ads. Naturally, depending on your body fat percentage that definition will vary, but what bracing does is it “sews” your abs and obliques tightly together. this creates a “belt” of muscle cinching around your entire trunk, the “suck-it-in-and-flex” does not do this.
Lets revisit those random ten lifts again
Split jerk Box jump
Kettlebell swing Push press
Deadlift Hang clean
Front squat Kettlebell press
Back squat Thruster
Some are overhead, some are off the ground, some are grinds and some are ballistic. By now you can clearly see our objective, bringing an awareness into focus. You understand that none of these lifts can be performed safely if you blew all your air out during their execution.
Lets look at the top loaded ones to start. The Jerk, squats, thruster, hang clean and box jump. These movements are initiated with a descent. The faster you descend, the greater the force becomes trying to collapse that space between your bottom ribs to your pelvic bone. Your force output must not only increase to counter the velocity of said mass, but you must brace even harder (for impact). Otherwise, what happens? We buckle, dumping forward missing the rep. What of the box jump? Remember, it doesn’t take a lot of mass if acceleration is present to generate force, wind can knock down trees and flip over buses. This is one reason why trying to free fall and then bounce out of your squat rarely works well and is why very strong women and men don’t do that. Control your descent, command that vector of force with strong bracing and you’ll avoid that power leakage.
What remains? The deadlift and kettlebell swing. The dead is a high mass, low acceleration lift demanding serious force output. Bracing from jump street is imperative here, long before your hands ever touch the bar. Imagine your body is a fishing pole, your arms are the line and the barbell just took the bait, round and down you go. Tension is strength, strength is rigid. Brace up top, hinge back without changing the length of your abdominal wall, engage then grind…hello lockout! Lastly, the kettlebell swing. One of the most versatile force generators and power projector. The faster your eccentric (back swing) the more force you impose. You can turn a 24kg kettlebell into a 400-500lb force depending on your technical efficiency. Consider the bracing this requires! Remember the first time you swung a kettlebell? Did you do a somersault, or think you were about to? Exactly. Swing harder, brace stronger and expect improvements across the board of your ten picks.
This is all well and good, so how do I brace?
Easier done than said.
These are simple cues, diluted for brevity’s sake. Keeping your eyes on the horizon, imagine a string is attached to the apex of your skull and is pulling you upright into a tall posture. Don’t exaggerate the elongation. Exhale through your mouth slightly while staying “tall” then inhale through your nose into your belly, not into your chest. Your chest should not puff out, while your belly inflates as your diaphragm draws that air downward. Place your fingertips along your abdomen and take a few more breaths this way. Then, with fingertips still across your abdomen immediately following an inhale, make a sharp sudden grunt, a “hep” sound works well. you should feel your entire midsection cinch up. If you’re a ticklish nerd like me this will feel very familiar. Now do it again and hold that contraction, and take a few breaths. Breathe “behind the shield” never releasing that tension and note how stable your trunk feels, all the way around you.
You may have noticed maintaining this contraction takes concentration. It is critical to practice this, so the bracing does not distract you from the lift you are executing. It should become as involuntary as blinking. Remember, you already brace to a certain degree, otherwise you wouldn’t have lived long enough to read this. Sometimes we are oblivious to the obvious. If you are accustomed to wearing a weight belt and have no debilitating back injury hitherto, you are probably doing yourself a disservice. Play the long game, train your body to be its own belt. If you absolutely must use a belt, aim to decrease its usage. You’ll be safer and stronger.
Be aware, practice, and watch your performance improve no matter the lift.
Robby is a Level I P360 Coach, Competitive Grip Sport Athlete and finishing his StrongFirst Kettlebell Certification.