People often recommend bracing your core while weightlifting, and sometimes even during athletic movements.
But should you always do this? Are there times when this could be disadvantageous?
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#AskMikeReinold Episode 293: Bracing Your Core When Lifting
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Michael Berra: So today Danny from Denver is asking, “My boss does not believe in bracing a muscle while weightlifting. He says that it blocks the joint from his full range of motion and is not a natural way to go about movement. He cues exhaling at the start of your squat. I think everything has a place in time, depending on the person. What are your thoughts on bracing when you lift, calling for a friend?”
Mike Reinold: So I think we need to start classifying questions. And this is a funny one. I think we’re going to classify this one as we are the argument breakers. I think that’s what people are trying to do with us here. I love when it involves like your superior, like your boss too. And this is your forum and I love how you used your name, Danny. In my mind, I was like, should we change the name? And I’m like, no, Danny put their name. I’m going to go with it. So Danny from Denver, I love it, picking a fight with her boss. That’s fantastic. But yeah, I think it’s a good question. And I think you kind of started to answer it yourself where there’s maybe a time and a place for everything, but the thing that I thought was funny about the question was that you said heat cues exhaling at the start of your squad, and you could argue, is that bracing or is that a bit of a form of bracing?
So maybe this is a bigger topic, but who wants to start with this? Maybe, Diwesh, you want to start with this from the strength and conditioning standpoint? Like what is our standard practice? When you’re teaching somebody new how to do something? Maybe we just say a squat because that’s probably what we’re doing, but I guess it could be anything, but what’s our standard practice or champion when we’re teaching our athletes how to do movements?
Diwesh Poudyal: Yeah. So I’m going to, I’m going to make this as simple as I can. I think bracing definitely has a time and place and it’s definitely got its value. With that said, I think there’s two camps of people, right? I think there’s the camp of people that think that for every exercise you got to brace your core to a max effort and look like you’re about to poop yourself. And then there’s the other people that seems like Danny’s boss that don’t want to brace at all. I think there’s going to be a middle ground. What I always tell people is the number one thing that’s going to be the most important is alignment and the position, right? So before you think about bracing, can you just get into a good squad position where you’re not crumbling your spine, just because you know how to do a squad pattern, right? Or a hinge pattern.
The secondary thing on top of that is it should be load dependent. So if you have a sub maximal load, right? If you’re doing your warmup sets and stuff, you don’t need to be in a full brace. Like you don’t need to tension your abs as hard as you can. And do a valsalva maneuver and hold your breath for something at sub maximal. But if you’re doing through one at max, like bracing really hard with your core, with your lats, let’s say on a deadlift and holding your breath on top of it to pressurize your entire spine and your inter abdominal pressure and create a ton of that. That’s probably going to be the best way to keep you safe on a maximal lift. So time and place, but prioritize position and alignment at first.
Mike Reinold: Right. And safety is relative, right? If Lenny did that, we may have to get the blood pressure cuff out to see if he had too much of a Valsalva maneuver. But I think that’s really well said Dewey, and a maximal brace you could argue, isn’t super functional for movements, right? So if you’re doing an actual movement and you’re maximally bracing, I kind of get that concept. Right? Because you don’t want to do that, but there’s definitely a time and a place to maximally brace. Right? And maybe you’re trying to maximize your force output. Is this like maybe in the middle of like a competition, right? That type of thing. Who wants to jump in on that and maybe talk about when it’s a good idea to have a maximum brace, Dan?
Dan Pope: Yeah, I think the boss is right. Dan’s boss is right. Is that when you’re trying to create spinal stiffness, if you brace, you’re going to stiffen your spine more. And I think the breathing out versus breathing in for weightlifters generally during the hardest part of the lift, you have a big breath in and you hold that breath and that increases intraabdominal pressure, and that increases spinal stiffness. And all those things are supposed to be positive from a weightlifting perspective. So I guess the question was specifically for weightlifters. My question for Danny’s boss would kind of be like, why do you want more range of motion in the spine when you’re doing a lifting task? Right? Oftentimes we don’t really want extra range of motion. I know that’s arguable, right? Maybe some folks want a little more extra range of motion in the spine, but generally we’re looking for more stiffness, right?
We’re looking for the strongest possible structure when you’re trying to lift as much load as possible. So if it is a true weightlifter, so weightlifters are doing one rep maxes as part of their sport, we probably want to create as much spinal stiffness as possible. So you probably do want aggressive brace. You probably want to breathe in, I know people are going to argue about that, but all the top weightlifters usually breathing in and then they’re holding their breath. They create more stiffness during the hardest part of the lift and maybe exhale through that sticking point. Right? But generally speaking, they’re holding their breath and they’re trying to create as much stiffness as possible. So for the weightlifter, I think learning how to do that well is going to help you lift a bit more weight. So I would definitely try to practice that. But again, I think it depends on the person. Do you need to brace max when you’re putting your shoes on? No. The amount of contraction probably has to be worse. I know Lenny and me does.
Mike Reinold: Yeah.
Dan Pope: Depends on the task, but for weightlifter. Yeah. You probably do want that and you want to train that.
Mike Reinold: So, and it makes sense. That’s almost the concept of proximal stability to have distal mobility, which I think is a good thing for this situation. And let’s say, if you are talking about something like a dead lift or a squat, I think the concept of bracing there is like, look, I want to make this a hip pattern or a knee pattern. Right?
I don’t want to make this a spinal flexion extension pattern. So I’m trying to brace to prevent that compensation movement. Right? In the athletic concept though, and this is an interesting one. Maybe we get Mike Scaduto’s thought on this one here too, but on the athletic concept, right? I always think sometimes that maximal brace, maybe it’s too much, a little bit. I don’t think anybody’s running around playing a sport maximally bracing. Right? They may have like a low threshold of brace going on, but like any thoughts on, Mike, what do you do with like your golfers? You’re doing core work with your golfers, you’re doing some exercise for them. Do you have them brace? Do you have them just do like a set maybe? I don’t know. Setting maneuver? What are your thoughts on that?
Mike Scaduto: Yeah, I would say along the same lines as, as Dewey and Dan, when we’re in the gym and we’re training, if we’re doing something at a higher load with the golfing athletes, it’s going to be the same idea. What do we cue in terms of their golf position when they’re actually playing golf, we’re still looking for alignment and posture and being able to maintain alignment and posture throughout the swing. I think that has implications on mobility that has implications on power output in their swing, how to utilize the ground.
So we’re not queuing necessarily a maximal brace, but we do want some kind of activation through the core. Whether that’s a slight tip of the pelvis into a slight posterior tilt or just a neutral pelvis, will help activate some of the core muscles and help them utilize their core better in their swing. I think we see a lot of people that will lose pelvic positioning, which has all kinds of implications for stress on the lumbar spine. And if they’re struggling with that a simple cue of just a little posterior tilt or get their pelvis into neutral can help utilize the core muscles, take some stress off of their spine.
Mike Reinold: Yeah. It makes sense. And I feel like if you were to maximally brace, going back to Danny’s boss, you would limit range of motion in this manner and probably a way that you wouldn’t find beneficial. So, an interesting flip to that, right?
Mike Scaduto: Yeah. There’s been some argument in golf specifically, to name drop a little bit, Bryson DeChambeau will use some breathing techniques before he hits his driver, but he’s, he’s really trying to maximize his force output. So he does different breathing techniques. Try to create some stiffness. So there are people that will do different things there at the very far end of the spectrum in terms of speed of their swing. But I think the normal recreational golfer doesn’t need to create maximal stiffness, and that’ll probably have a negative effect on mobility and maybe even their power output.
Lenny Macrina: I’ll bet though, just going back to the golf thing, cause I was going to mention that, I feel if you look at golfers I’ll bet they are sort of holding their breath when they’re swinging to create… DeChambeau takes it to it an extreme because he’s kind of like that. But I feel like when you’re in that production of a swing you’re holding your breath so to speak. Maybe I don’t, maybe I do it. Or maybe if we looked at it over golfers and was able to analyze this a little better, I’ll bet there’s something to it.
Maybe even in like rowing like this, the pull of the row or something like that. I’ll bet there’s something to our breathing patterns that when you have to do something big, you create pressure in your body. You know what I mean? And when you’re doing a one rep max, like Pope said, then you’re definitely going to create some stiffness. But that’s my chiming in and throwing it back to you guys. Is there something to that?
Mike Scaduto: Yeah, I’ll just add one more thing into the more bracing specific. And I think Dan talked about this, but the manner in which we brace our core, I think is very important. I think a lot of people struggle with this and they tend to, if they’re using breathing to create bracing of the core, a lot of people breathe into their upper chest and kind of suck in through their abdomen. Which may not be an optimal way to do it. So I think bracing technique and learning how to brace correctly, creating that intraabdominal pressure with some lateral expansion is a key part of this and making sure that you’re doing it correctly is the whole deal.
Mike Reinold: Awesome. What else, Dave, did you have any thoughts?
Dave Tilley: Yeah. I just want to share that on the rotational aspect of power. I mean, you guys would know more with baseball, but I remember reading a lot of Stuart McGill’s work when he was studying MMA fighters and the people who can like punch and or kick the hardest. Are able to have like a really coordinated bracing strategy where they can hold their breath and brace their core quite until like quite intensely. And they measured that with EMG. And so the people that could kick the hardest and throw the hardest punches, which is just rotational power, came from those who are really good at bracing and breathing with like impulses really quick, which probably make the argument that transfers for baseball and golfing as well.
Mike Reinold: I think that goes more to the transfer sequence than actual bracing. Right? So you could, actually argue like outside of the Dan Pope situation, right? Where we’re trying to maximally squat or something like that. If you just held a maximum brace the entire time during an athletic motion that may be bad. It’s about the sequence of that, of when you have that maximum. And yes, I think that goes to Lenny’s point with golf, right?
Lenny Macrina: Yeah.
Mike Reinold: It’s almost like you, this like setting, setting, setting, and then a huh, right? And that’s interesting. I can’t wait to see that transcription of that, but I think it’ll be real easy. Lisa, in terms of like skill wise with a rower, do you coach the breath? Do you coach the bracing through the stroke? Tell us about that.
Lisa Lowe: So I think what Dave said in terms of like the ability to have coordination with your bracing is mostly what a rower has to become good at. A rowing stroke is essentially a repetitive dead lifter squat, right? So you’re needing to protect and utilize your spine every stroke. So there’s different camps like with everything in terms of breathing techniques, but it’s definitely something that people work on and there’s different rhythms depending on how hard you’re working or how fast you’re moving. But generally every technique is that you end up with an inhale before you apply pressure, for the same reason as when you’re lifting. Typically, you increase that abdominal pressure to create a little bit more spinal stiffness as you’re at the bottom of your squat, bottom of your deadlift max load point.
So it’s the same thing for rowing in that way. And kind as we’ve been talking about this, I’m like, “Man, what if you didn’t practice bracing your core in the gym? What the heck would happen when you’re on the water?” And you would fall apart, you know what I mean? It’s one of those, if you don’t practice the coordination in that really controlled setting, then especially with rowing, you have wind, you have current, you have other people in your boat, you have this, you have that. And if you’re not practicing the coordination and the feeling of, even that maximum kind of core feeling versus sort of the functional moving core feeling I don’t know how you would maintain it for an entire race or an entire practice. Without sort of that feedback that you can try and recreate as you get tired or as something weird is happening in the boat so that you protect your spine.
Now grant it back pain’s the biggest thing in rowing, right? So maybe people aren’t the best at that, always, but still like if you don’t practice it in the gym, if you don’t practice it when you’re moving on land, how is it going to go well with the coordination and everything on the water?
Mike Reinold: What do you got Dan?
Dan Pope: I just had a question for Lisa and maybe it’s a stupid question, but when you get tired, obviously you start breathing faster. Right? In rowing, I don’t know what the stroke rate is generally, but if you’re doing like 30 plus strokes per minute, are you breathing fast so that you can create pressure at the same time?
Lisa Lowe: Yeah. That’s a piece of your training in some ways is being able to maintain good breath patterning when you are moving that quickly. To get as much air in and out as you can, but still have your breath, timing, support your back and your stroke. Because yeah, it does. If you like watch rowers, right, it’s just like I feel like with a running race where people like collapse across the finish line or whatever, right? It’s like as you come across the finish line, I feel that’s one of the things that immediately people switch to a really, really rapid breath pattern as they’re able to let their body relax and not be rowing. If I’m at like race rate, I think I inhale, exhale, inhale up the slide and then exhale as I push. So it’s two full breath cycles per stroke at a 34/36 per minute stroke rate. Right?
Dan Pope: That’s a lot of breathing.
Lisa Lowe: So it’s a lot of breathing. You have to be really good at the timing of it. So, it’s a really big part. Being able to maintain that proper coordination of core bracing is a really big part of keeping your body strong and powerful and your spine safe when you’re at those high effort levels.
Mike Reinold: Well, Danny, I don’t know if we helped your argument or we muddied the waters more, but hopefully there’s some things to consider. I think that it just shows you there’s never one answer to any question, right? We could go on about this for hours, but if you have a question like that or a fight to pick with your boss, head to mikereinold.com and click on the podcast link, and you can fill out the form to keep asking us more questions to get you in trouble at work. Thanks again. See you on the next episode.