Home Blog Bracing in a Strength Training Program: When to Turn Up the Volume

Bracing in a Strength Training Program: When to Turn Up the Volume

Written on July 8, 2011 at 9:32 am, by Eric Cressey

Today, we’ve got a guest blog from Jim “Smitty” Smith.

I was speaking with Mike Robertson the other day about life and we started talking about our next career moves.  He was contemplating a run with Chippendales after his idol, Jeff Timmons of 98 Degrees, made a comeback. And I was telling him about my idea to get on the Deadliest Catch show and live my dream of being a fisherman.  Both ideas were great and we are continuing to take steps forward to achieve our dreams — a little bit every day.

After that 3 hour discussion, we started talking about bracing.

Just Like the Volume Dial

I was telling Mike how I was going through Charlie Weingroff’s Training=Rehab | Rehab=Training and I had some questions about how he defines or explains bracing.  I, of course, understand bracing as a whole and teach it for our max efforts and loaded means, but Charlie introduced me to the idea of the importance of the “inner core”.  That is what I wanted to discuss with Mike.  Charlie stated that the inner core must fire first, neurologically, to setup up the foundation for the more intense loading or more sophisticated movements — this is when the “outer core” should kick in.

Mike told me to imagine the volume dial on your stereo. He asked me on the volume scale, where would planks come in?  I stated “1”, and smiled like I just stole something.  He then asked, “Where would the dial be for max efforts squats?”  I was catching on and said “10”!  Duh WINNING!

But Charlie and Mike threw up a caution flag.

If we brace at “10” all the time (force and brace our abdomen outward, anterior and laterally to create tension or irradiation to buttress shear and stabilize the torso) , it could “shut down” the inner core and leave us susceptible to injury.  This is especially true if the establishment of bracing is not preceded by diaphragmatic breathing.  The long term inhibition of diaphragmatic breathing can affect a whole host of things like pelvic alignment => which can inhibit and shorten certain muscles groups (lower cross and upper cross syndromes) => create kyphosis and lordosis and much more.  The ramifications will be seen up and down the kinetic chain.

Turning Up the Intensity

There is a time for “breathing over the brace” at the lower intensities and there is a time for serious tension — take max effort strength exercises.  If you look in most commercial gyms today, you might think talking on the cell phone or getting a drink at the water fountain is a max effort lift, especially with all of the cinched up velcro belts popping off.  In reality, we’re talking about heavy compound movements performed with loads upwards of 80% + 1RM.  These components of your strength training program require serious intramuscular and intermuscular coordination and full body engagement to remain injury free, stable and strong throughout the full execution of the lift.  Also many times you’ll see novice, and sometimes experienced, lifters start the movement with a good brace, but lose it during the decent or accent.  It is definitely a skill to keep “the brace” the whole time you are under load.  Verbal and physical cues can be used to drill this technique.  Training with an injury or other compensations will also directly impact your ability to keep the brace throughout.

Bracing for Max Attempts

If you talk to any elite powerlifter, bracing for max efforts involves not only keeping the tension (sequenced isometric contractions on the primary / synergistic / antagonistic muscle groups) but also holding your air.  The air is taken (breathing through the belly) and held, and the abdominals are pressed outward forcibly.  If you are pressing out against a stationary object (i.e. the belt) it will further secure the brace and improve torso rigidity.  This is volume level “10”.  As you can see this is much different than the bracing required for a plank.  Also remember, heavy bracing is not limited to just max effort attempts.  Any high intensity movements could require sequenced bracing, if only for an instant.

The Ah-Ha Stuff

During simple, basic movements we should drill and become proficient at simply creating tension (bracing level “1”) across the entire kinetic chain and “breathing over the brace” (Weingroff) through active diaphragmatic breathing.  This will help to engage intra-abdominal pressure and lay the foundation for all of our movements.  And as we progress, more intense bracing can allow for heavier loads and more powerful movements to be introduced safely.

It was very enlightening for me to understand how breathing incorrectly could have just as much of an impact on posture, strength and performance as injuries, immobility, instability, high volume | short ROM movements or even too much load with poorly performed exercises.

All this talk of volume has got me reaching for my glow sticks.  Off to battle with Tony Gentilcore!

Jim Smith “Smitty” is the head strength and conditioning coach at Diesel Strength and Conditioning in Elmira, NY.  Smitty has been called “one of the most innovative coaches in the industry” and has written for most major national fitness publications. He is also a featured writer for LIVESTRONG.com and on the EliteFTS Q/A staff.  Check out some killer FREE gifts and his site at dieselsc.com.

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8 Responses to “Bracing in a Strength Training Program: When to Turn Up the Volume”

  1. bubba29 Says:

    I tend to get REAL bad headaches when I strain REAL hard. I can feel this problem coming on while bracing and holding the air. In the squat, I have to let my air out in the concentric phase. I still brace as much as I can but lose a little. Any recommendations?

  2. Greg R. Says:

    Great Stuff. This is so important and not talked about enough! I find the KB Swing teaches this concept really well. For me, learning to create that tension for a focused second really hit home as I learned the proper swing technique

  3. Sam Leahey Says:

    Good thoughts. When I began implementing these strategies last year I found the hardest part was not so much the understanding of these concepts but coaching it. For some on my teams, it took a whole off-season to finally “get it” while others caught on quickly. The breath is super important for so many things.

    All the best,

  4. Tyler English Says:

    Thanks Eric for having Smitty share this.

    In an industry full of make believe, Smitty is a real world strength coach who I’ve followed for a while!

    Great stuff as always Smitty!

  5. R Smith Says:

    Great post, Jimmy. I can certainly put this to use.


  6. Fredrik Gyllensten Says:

    Interesting post, thanks! I’ll make sure to always include some ‘easier’ type of abdominal work in my training.

  7. Mike T Nelson Says:

    Good stuff Smitty. I love that you are always thinking and willing to try new things—awesome!

    I like the idea of a volume knob. I think breathing is just a by product of tension as you stated. More tension = less to no breathing.

    Tension should be appropriate to the lift you are doing. More tension than needed is not efficient.

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  8. Dole Gore Says:

    I have one question for all of you . Why should you exhale while lifting, and inhaling while lowering weights? Because when you lift it should be logical to inhale because of the trunk stabilization- thoracic pressure decreases and intra-abdominal increases. Please help me with this one 🙂 . Thanks.

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