When most people think about lifting weights, they think about their biceps, triceps, shoulders, and lats. Their legs, quads, hamstrings, glutes. They think about what to do with the body parts that move, that hold the weight, that push against the ground—but neglect to think about the abdominal muscles that brace, resist movement and allow you to even lift the weight in the first place. Abdominal bracing isn’t flashy or sexy, but it’s the most important part of lifting weights and moving your body through time and space. The best way to train your abdominal muscles are not sit ups, crunches, or leg lifts- it’s bracing, intra-abdominal bracing, or abdominal bracing.
Whenever you move your body or lift a weight, you practice abdominal bracing. In fact, this bracing, this increase in intra-abdominal pressure, occurs spontaneously whenever you move your limbs. That’s how central it is to human movement.
If you want to deadlift, squat, or overhead press, you brace. If you want to throw a punch or throw a ball, you brace. If you want to jump over on obstacle or dunk a basketball, you brace.
Abdominal bracing allows force to transfer efficiently throughout your body so you can act on the physical world. If you don’t practice abdominal bracing, you lose energy, drop force production, and open yourself up to injury.
Another reason to focus on and perfect abdominal bracing is that it’s a great “ab workout.” By fulfilling the primary function of the abdominal muscles—to stabilize the body in order to transmit force—you also give your entire abdominal complex the greatest workout ever. The heavier the weight or the faster the movement, the more bracing you require and the greater the training stimulus you’ve just applied. The better your abdominal bracing, the more force you can generate. The more force you generate, the more force your abs will have to resist. The more force your abs resist, the stronger your abdominal muscles—all of them—grow.
Now, the thing about abdominal bracing is that we’re always doing it. It’s a subconscious autonomic response of your body to movement and lifting. Actually, it’s more than a response. It happens before the movement, almost as a forecast or prediction. The contraction of the diaphragm and tensing of the abdominal muscles occur before you actually move.
How to Practice Proper Abdominal Bracing
Stand up right now and try this out. The only way to understand abdominal bracing is to actually do it in practice.
1. Prepare to take a punch.
Imagine you’re about to take a punch. What do you do? You tighten your abs, engage your core, engage your erector spinae (back muscles that run down your spine), tighten your butt hole, and gird your loins. Apologies for the language but there’s no getting around it.
2. Take a breath into your belly.
Keeping your core engaged and tight in preparation for the “punch,” take a nasal breath into your belly. A big one. Now, the air won’t be going into your belly, but this is a great cure to really breathe with and engage your diaphragm.
3. Breathe “downwards.”
In case you don’t know, the diaphragm is a large slab of muscle that sits underneath your lungs, attaches to them, and “pulls” on them to expand and allow air in. The diaphragm pulls the lungs downward. In doing so, the diaphragm also helps compress the entire abdominal musculature and creates more intrabdominal pressure.
You should feel everything tighten up even more.
4. Expand your ribcage.
Proper abdominal bracing means expanding your rib cage as the obliques contract and tighten.
5. Push out, not inward.
Imagine your abdominal musculature pressing out on all sides: against your ribs, your belt, your back. Sucking your abdominal muscles inward will compromise your position and make for suboptimal abdominal bracing.
Tips for Abdominal Bracing
Abdominals are not just the six pack
You’ve got the classic abdominals that face forward and show prominently in people with low body fat. You’ve got the obliques, which cover the left and right sides of your torso. You’ve got the erector spinae, those large sheathes of muscle that run down your back on either side of your spine. They all matter when abdominal bracing. They all must be engaged.
Think about a can of soda.
A soda can has structural integrity. It’s a vertical column that can support weight without crumpling, but only if the top is closed and it’s full of liquid. That’s intra-abdominal pressure. That’s abdominal bracing. Once you open the top and pour out the soda, the can crumples and can bear no weight. Lifting or moving without abdominal bracing is like standing on an empty soda can.
Maintain proper posture.
Posture comes first. If your spine is not aligned, you’ll be resting on your skeleton rather than using your musculature to brace. Don’t be overly extended with your belly sticking out and your butt sticking out and a big hollow in the small of your back. That’s “tucking” the pelvis, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Aim for a “j-curve” spine: mostly straight back and pelvis with the “curve” coming from your glutes.
Should you always practice abdominal bracing?
If you’re dancing or playing with your kids or jumping or playing tennis, you probably don’t want or need to be consciously bracing the entire time. You also need fluidity and motion, and our bodies are usually very good at modulating the level of abdominal bracing depending on the movement we’re engaging in. Most of us can trust our bodies to handle the bracing we need for basic movements.
However, this kind of conscious bracing becomes particularly important of heavy weight lifting—for movements where you’re “preparing” for a big effort. That could be a heavy set of deadlifts or squats, a max effort lift in competition (or just in the gym), or any situation where you know you’re going to be exerting a huge amount of force. If you’re going for a set of 5-10 heavy squats, you’ll want to consciously and proactively brace before lifting. Many people find that abdominal bracing improves their strength and performance in the gym, giving them a 5-15% boost in strength right away.
Also, if you’ve been out of the game for a long time, or you have a history of tweaking your back or throwing it out during simple everyday activities like picking up a remote control off the ground, you might need to practice conscious abdominal bracing until it becomes second-nature. That would mean following the abdominal bracing steps up above whenever you go to move some furniture, empty the dishwasher, lift your kid up, or do any other activity that requires a stable spine (which is pretty much everything!).
I’d love to hear from you. Do you practice conscious abdominal bracing? How has it helped you in your life—both in the gym and out of it?