Fit Life Essentials for Real Life

Brace Yourself: Four Reasons to Keep Those Abs Tight

Sometimes I learn the hard way.  Bracing is one of those painful lessons I picked up in the school of hard knocks.

Bracing means holding your core in a stiff position that protects your spine when you move.  Ever hear a trainer say “keep your abs tight”?  That’s bracing, but for many years, I had no idea what it meant, or why it mattered.

Today’s post is a little love note to bracing – why it matters, how to do it, and some cool ab exercises from the back scientist who has championed bracing as critical to our back health (Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spinal biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada).

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT BRACING?

There’s at least 4 reasons everyone should know a little something about bracing:

  1. It protects the spine, keeping us healthy in the gym and at home
  2. It helps zero in on specific muscles we want to exercise – for example, we can target our legs and glutes when squatting, instead of recruiting the lower back
  3. We’re stronger when we brace properly, so we can lift more weight
  4. It feels good

Sadly, I figured this out only after I got injured.  I’d been doing squats and deadlifts for years and had put a lot of effort into learning good form, sometimes even getting compliments in the gym.  One day, I felt this odd pop in my lower back as I was warming up – kinda like someone snapped me with a rubber band.  A few seconds later, a wave of pain rushed over me.

I was distraught and left the gym abruptly. It wasn’t pretty.

After working closely with my doctor in the weeks and months that followed, I realized my squat form was lacking because I was lifting with a soft midsection.  This allowed my lower back to jump in and “help” when my legs and glutes should have been pulling the load.

This is exactly the opposite of what we want when working our legs as in a squat. 

In fact, until I had that injury, I had not understood the true function of the core muscles – stability.  Dr. McGill, the leading expert in this area and an amazing resource, taught me that the core muscles are designed to work together to form a rigid shell that keeps the spine from moving when it shouldn’t.  He describes the simultaneous engagement of the core muscles as creating “super stiffness” because the muscles working together provide greater protection than any one could provide in isolation.

It might help to think of our upper bodies as a plastic bottle. When the bottle is empty, the plastic is easily dented.  But if we fill the bottle with cement, it’s going to stay put.  That’s what bracing does – it uses air and muscle engagement to create a rigid core.  When we squat, we want to move the rigid bottle up and down, letting the hips do all the work.

That sounded weird, but hopefully you get the idea.

Because I’m a bit of a footnote girl, I’ll also add here that I had other issues that contributed to that injury, including tight hips (sitting too much!) and a stiff ankle (high school injury).  But had I been able to brace properly, it would have really helped.  It might have even uncovered my hip issues earlier.

HOW TO BRACE?

How exactly do you brace?  There’s three cues I’ve found most helpful.

The simplest cue is to take a deep breath and, well, bear down like you’re going poo. Sorry if that’s not the best image, but we like to keep it real around here.  

The second cue is the bottle image described above.  Imagine the entire core – front AND back – as a plastic bottle that’s holding the spine.  When it’s empty, the plastic is easily dented.  When we take a good, deep breath and bear down, however, we effectively fill that bottle with air and muscle.  Much more stable.

The third cue is to wear, or imagine wearing, a weight lifting belt.  When we bear down properly, the ab muscles push into the belt all the way around.

The belt cue is especially useful because it emphasizes activating the full core, front and back.  This is important because the muscles are stronger and more effective when worked together.  Again, super stiffness is what we’re aiming for. 

Now, sometimes it’s suggested that bracing means simply sucking the stomach in. This cue is often given in pilates or yoga classes.  I can’t say if that cue might be appropriate in those contexts, but I’ve seen it criticized as isolating only part of the core (the transverse abdominus) instead of the additional muscles that should be helping too (rectus abdominus or “six pack” plus internal and external obliques).  My personal strategy in yoga has been to use the same bracing approach I use in weightlifting.  It’s what feels good now. 

FOUR EXERCISES TO DEVELOP A MORE STABLE CORE

Here’s a fun video of Dr. McGill explaining the importance of stability and sharing four exercises we can all use to develop a more stable spine.  I especially like “stir the pot.”

In summary:

• Bracing is key to moving well and protecting the spine, inside and outside of the gym.

• Cues for bracing include: (1) bear down as if going poo; (2) imagine your midsection as a bottle you’ll stabilize by filling it with air and stiffening the abs all the way around; and (3) pushing into a weight lifting belt (real or imaginary).

• It takes some practice, but bracing can eventually become second nature and feel really good!

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