Bracing Doesn't Care About Your Abs

No one cares about how your abs look, at least not in the world of back and body health. In my article last month, I went over the concept of diaphragmatic breathing and how to properly execute it; a great first step in not just lifting, but overall health. In this article my goal is for you to walk away with the proper understanding of arguably the most important concept in bodybuilding, strength sports and lifting. The concept is bracing, and how to properly execute it with belly breathing.

Whenever I mention a strong core, I am always met with comments about abs and sit-ups. These two things have zero to do with your core strength (in fact I don’t even recommend sit-ups or any exercises that compromise spinal health… but that’s an article for another time). The definition of core that I will be using will refer to anything within the trunk region; pelvic floor to the diaphragm (including obliques, hip flexors, spinal erectors etc.).

Bracing is not the act of flexing your abs, the only thing you will achieve with that is maybe snagging a date. Bracing is the act of creating tension and rigidity within the core, all 360 degrees of it. The analogy I use the most in explaining the concept of an unbraced or incorrectly braced core is that it will resemble that of a wet noodle. No structure, bendy and fragile… ultimately what your spine will look like under load.

I have found that the best way to teach bracing of the core is to show the mind/muscle connection through functional movement that forces the engagement. My favourite movement to do this is a modified dead bug.

Modified Dead Bug (no hands)

  1. Like a traditional dead bug, lay on your back with your knees and hips at a 90-degree angle, as if you were sitting in a horizontal chair.
  2. Place your fingers on your pelvic floor/abdomen (stomach)
  3. To engage your core, think about pulling your abdominals and pelvic floor through your back, and your ribcage down.
    1. As your core engages, you feel a tension under your fingers
  4. While engaging your core, work on touching each foot to the ground and back up, alternating legs, without losing that tension.
    1. You will notice at first your core will likely flick on and off. The goal is to learn to do this exercise while maintaining that core engagement.

Our next step is to now putting together our bracing with the diaphragmatic breathing technique we learned last month. First you want to ensure that you are standing with a neutral posture, meaning you want to stack yourself to ensure your core resembles that of a cylinder (diagram and pelvic floor stacked over one another). Often you will notice in movements such as the squat, pelvic tilt and chest position can create suboptimal positions for inflation and bracing. You do not want to look like you have sway back, or an open scissor, which will result in less pressurization as air leaks.

From this neutral position you begin your diaphragmatic breathing, filling your belly from the bottom up as if you are inflating a balloon. Once this balloon is filled you have the perfect foundation to perform a brace that will successfully protect your back and body. This is where your modified dead bug exercise comes into play in creating that core engagement. Imagine your body pressurizing and hugging that balloon within your belly. A 360 flex that engages through your stomach, obliques and into your back, eliminating that wet noodle.

Learning to do these two concepts is not easy. For myself, I was bracing properly for years, but never had the proper breathing or neutral position to do it justice. This resulted in poor back health and sloppy looking sets as I lost tension mid set and couldn’t maintain my bracing. Be patient with yourself, and remember, practice makes perfect.