“GET TIGHT!”, or one of my personal favorites, “Breath and brace!”
But, do you actually know what that means or how to accomplish it? I routinely see people crushing ab work day in and day out but is it actually helping them reach their goals?
Sure, there is a hypertrophy component of abdominal work, which most are looking to maximize with endless sit-ups, bicycles, and crunches. But, we also have to remember that your core plays an important role in force transfer between the upper and lower body along with pelvic and lumbar stability.
When you perform a squat or deadlift, you must be able to maintain a braced position in order to transfer force from your lower body up through your torso to move the weight. An ideal bracing sequence maintains a neutral trunk position while simultaneously allowing your limbs to move independent of your spine.
Sit-ups and crunches certainly aren’t going to do that for you given they actually generate movement of the spine (sometimes while under load as well). In fact, a recent study by Dr. Stu McGill, a leading spinal biomechanics researcher, has shown that isometric core training was superior to dynamic core training for enhancing core stiffness.
So, now the question looms, where do you start?
The Basics on Breathing and Bracing
The easiest way to explain the concept of spinal stability is your natural reaction when someone tries to punch you in the stomach. When someone threatens your internal organs, you tighten up your external armor (aka your abdominal musculature) by bracing to resist the damage.
However, this bracing sequence can’t occur unless your pelvis and ribcage is in the correct position. Many lifters tend to exhibit a heavily extended posture categorized by overactive spinal erectors, anterior pelvic tilt, and a flared rib cage. When this occurs, the pelvic floor and diaphragm lose congruency, influencing breathing patterns, decreasing intra abdominal pressure, and impairing energy system recovery.
In order to get the most out of your core work, you should first learn how to gain spinal neutrality and that is most easily accomplished in a position of high stability - aka flat on your back where you have the least influence from gravity and the largest base of support. Once you’re on your back, the next step is to completely exhale all of the air from your lungs like you’re trying to blow out a hundred candles on a cake. This step accomplishes two separate mechanisms, both of equal importance.
First of all, complete exhalation helps to enhance activation of the obliques and transverse abdominis to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. In layman’s terms, this is the equivalent of trying to pull your zipper up towards your face and helps to enhance a more neutral spinal position in overextended individuals. For a more detailed explanation on this mechanism, you should check out my other article: Understanding Core Training: Maximizing Results With Minimal Risk.
Secondly, learning how to exhale fully actually helps to enhance internal rotation of the ribs and activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (commonly referred to as “rest and digest”). If someone exhibits an overextended posture, then they will likely be in a chronic state of inhalation, which will limit their ability to switch out of their sympathetic nervous system. When one becomes stuck in this sympathetic dominant pattern, it becomes increasingly difficult to adequately recover as your body remains in a constant state of fight or flight.
The Takeaway: One of the most important skills you can acquire as a lifter is the bracing sequence. Once you understand how to utilize breathing to enhance core stability, you must be able to move each body part independently of your spine.
Started From the Bottom, Now We Here
First thing’s first, if you’re a beginning or even intermediate lifter, you should start here and work you way through the more advanced progressions as time goes on. You may think your abs are quite strong due to how much you can squat or deadlift but I’ve found that many lifters compensate for weak abdominals by cranking big weights with their spinal erectors. Sure, they’ll provide some means of stability but in the long term it’s rather inefficient and certainly not conducive to disc health.
I like to keep things simple so for the initial portion of this series, you’ll only need a wall. If you ensure that you’re utilizing the breathing techniques that I’ve outlined throughout this article, then you’ll reap the maximum benefit from this progression series. In case you’ve forgotten already, one of the most important components of ground based core training is learning how to exhale fully while remaining braced.
Make no mistake, it’s probably going to be physically uncomfortable and some of you melodramatic folks might think you’re suffocating but keep going, you’ll be fine. You should try to make your exhale twice as long as your inhale to ensure that you’re removing most of the carbon dioxide from your lungs during expiration.
Now, lets get down to business…
Taking Things A Step Further
Now that you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to incorporate a few more pieces into the puzzle. By incorporating a medicine ball, kettlebell, or bands, you can progress this exercise to increase the difficulty. If you don’t have access to one of the modalities shown in the videos below, then you can easily substitute one of the other options. Adapt and conquer, use a dumbbell instead of a kettlebell, a medicine ball instead of a physioball, or an attachment on the cable column instead of a band.
The Final Step To Success
If you’ve worked through the second progression series, then I’m sure you noticed that the addition of weighted implements or added resistance increases core recruitment within each exercise. In this final step of the series, you’ll utilize just your body weight but it will be much tougher to maintain spinal neutrality without the influence of outside resistive forces.
One Last Piece Of Advice
I would recommend most lifters spend a minimum of 2-3 weeks on each progression; preferably 2 weeks per variation within each series to ensure that you allow adequate time for motor patterns and activation sequencing to cement.
Bracing is an acquired skill, just like anything else in weight lifting. Don’t rush the progression scheme, no use trying to sprint when you don’t even know how to walk.