Abdominal Bracing -- A Foundation for Your Strength Training
Posted Aug 24 2008 6:38pm
One of the first things I do as part of screening my new clients is confirm that they know how to do an abdominal brace, i.e. "engage the abs"/"tighten the core." Though it's a mechanism that you perform regularly during such actions as "bearing down" (going to the bathroom or giving birth), stabilizing against external forces, or protecting yourself from an impending blow to the gut, it's often done subconsciously . . . and it's that lack of awareness that we're attempting to rectify.
Why? Because being aware when you're bracing, combined with knowing how to do it, enables you to call upon it whenever you require spinal stability. And in terms of strength training, it's safe to say that the need for lower back stability is constant. In fact, the ability to provide it is the cornerstone for effectively training every movement that you do:
A squat or deadlift? Stabilize that lower back by bracing your abs.
Pushing your car up a hill? Call your friends, line up behind the car, dig your feet into the ground, brace and start pushing. . . .
With all the above said, I'll reiterate my point with answers to the questions most commonly asked regarding this topic.
What does "bracing the abs" entail? Quite simply, it occurs when you stiffen the abdominal muscles, effectively creating a corset of strength around the base of your trunk.
Where can I practice it? Usually, I have beginners practice from a supine position on the floor; however, ab bracing can be performed from any body position. Actually, the latter is preferred because you'll want to be able to call on the brace for support whenever you need it.
What does bracing feel like? How do I develop awareness of it? Place your fingers along the length of your six pack
(from your rib cage to your pubic bone) and push down into the muscle.
Now grunt. Laugh. Or bear down. Notice how the muscle becomes rigid
-- so rigid, in fact, that it's impossible to penetrate. That's
bracing . . . or a glimpse of it anyway. An actual brace involves
maintaining that abdominal tension for as long as trunk stability is
Why is it important? An effective abdominal brace provides stability
to your body's core, enabling you to resist against external forces as
well as efficiently transfer energy from one pair of extremities to the
other; i.e. you move better and can do more work as a result.
Are there any other "fine points" to consider when bracing?
Don't forget to breathe . Engaging your abs is not synonymous with holding your breath. Practice the brace. . . and practice maintaining your breathing while bracing.
Maintain your posture . Without adequate awareness, you may brace and pull your spine into flexion. Be sure to maintain a long torso and neutral spine alignment.
Avoid using more muscles than required for the job . It's not uncommon to see a client bracing so hard that his abs tighten up. . . along with his shoulders, neck, jaw, arms, legs. . . Why use more muscles than you have to? It'll only tire you out faster. Keep the brace localized to the midsection of your trunk.
Contract your muscles with an intensity sufficient for performing the task at hand - no more, no less (an addendum to the point above) . Muscle contraction operates under the All-or-None Principle -- muscle fibers are either all on, or all off. There's no in between. That being said, you can control the intensity of a muscle contraction, much like you can control the brightness of a chandelier that operates on a dimmer switch. There's no need to brace your abs with the intensity required to lift 500 pounds when you're only lifting 50. Develop the ability and the strength to stabilize against anything, but use only what you have to.
Don't spend an inordinate amount of time on this . I've taken up a lot of space describing an important, but very minute, skill. Be meticulous in developing body awareness. Use that awareness to create a strong, enduring abdominal brace. But spend most of your training time executing the primary lifts of your training regimen. . . not the isolated skill of bracing. After all, it's the big, compound movements (and the utilization of bracing during their execution) that are going to be the most proficient at enhancing your performance.