How to Brace for the Squat

Kevin S. Turner-Turner Strength & Performance

Bracing, in my opinion, is often one of the most overlooked and misunderstood foundations of the squat. Properly bracing the core will allow you to lift more weight and perform more repetitions while reducing energy leakage and risk of injuries.

What is the Core

The core is more than just the abs or 6 pack and is broadly considered the torso. The major muscles of the core include the transverse abdominus, multifidus, internal and external obliques, erector spinae, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles.

Common Mistakes and Cues

  • Do not take a big chest breath into the lungs before the lift

This can lead to excessive arching of the back creating an “open scissor posture” and reduces the ability to brace as hard as we can.  We want to create intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) by breathing into our belly and pulling our rib cage down ensuring that we keep a neutral spine. A chest breath can typically be spotted by the barbell rising on the shoulders.  

  • Do not pull your belly button into your spine

Although, the idea of sucking in to create tension in your abs is well intentioned, this doesn’t create the stability we are looking for. Imagine a can of Coke and how stable and strong it is while sealed. Now imagine an empty can and how easily it can be crushed without the pressure inside to stabilize and support any weight applied to it. Sucking in your stomach is essentially the same thing as the crushed can.

  • Weightlifting belt is too tight

A belt that is too tight will not allow for the proper expansion of the midsection, compromising the strength of the brace. (Similar to the sucking your stomach in cue listed above) A properly fitted belt will allow four fingers in between the belt and belly and not allow them to be removed when braced.

How to Create Intra-abdominal Pressure

Diaphragmatic breathing is a  technique that creates a pressurized system inside of our abdominal cavity allowing for more tension in the body.

  • We begin by taking a big breath into the belly, utilizing the diaphragm. With this breath, the belly should expand to produce 360 degrees of pressure in the abdominal cavity. (See Image)
  • Once a diaphragmatic breath has been achieved, create as much tension as possible in the abdomen. The common cue is to brace for a punch to the gut. By bracing for a punch, not only will our abs become tense but much more of our body will as well.
  • A simple drill to test this will be to put your hands on your sides with your thumbs on your back and your fingers on your abdomen. As you take a belly breath, you will feel a 360-degree expansion. Once you have achieved expansion you will want to feel an increase in tension and density without the waist getting smaller.

How to Breathe when Squatting

General fitness guidelines recommend exhaling during the active phase of the lift and inhaling when returning to the exercise starting position. Using the bench press as an example, you would inhale while lowering the weight to your chest and exhale when pushing the weight away. This breathing technique may work well for a majority of lower intensity exercises but will fall short when performing maximal or near maximal lifts when tension and stability will need to be at its greatest. That’s where the Valsalva maneuver comes in. It is virtually impossible to lift near maximal weights without using the Valsalva Maneuver (this technique increases compressive forces on the heart, blood pressure and may cause fainting so do not use if you have any heart issues and be sure to check with your doctor before attempting.) The Valsalva Maneuver (VM) is the process of forced expiration against a closed glottis (The throat). This technique aids in the ability to create more Intra-abdominal pressure. Despite the negative effects of the VM, it is a naturally occurring reflexive response when lifting loads of high intensity and should not be discouraged because this may reduce spinal stability during lifts such as the squat and increase the risk of lower back injuries. The VM should be limited to not exceed 3 seconds during a lift (Hackett, Daniel A.; Chow, Chin-Moi; The Valsalva Maneuver: Its Effect on Intra-abdominal Pressure and Safety Issues During Resistance Exercise)

Preventing Dizziness when Bracing

In order to prevent light headed ness, fainting and reduce the negative effects listed above, I like to use the method of forceful exhalation. Forceful exhalation works by releasing some, but not all of the air after the sticking point of the squat. I use a bicycle tire as an example of forced exhalation, by letting a little of the air out you will the hear hiss of lost air but still have enough left inside to maintain its integrity.  The same principle applies to our brace. When performing the first part of the squat, we will perform the Valsalva maneuver until we have passed our sticking point. (Typically coming out of the bottom or hole) Once we have passed our sticking point and are ascending, we will use forceful exhalation in the form of a grunt or pssh.  

Final Thoughts

Implementing the techniques outlined above will help increase your squat by improving your stability, efficiency, and safety. With deliberate effort, consistency and practice, these techniques will become second nature and your squat will soar to new heights.

Please note the information contained on this website is intended for informational purposes only. Consult with a healthcare professional to help diagnose and treat injuries of any kind.

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