If you’re a beginner, you’ll see instant improvement after understanding how to breathe and brace properly during a heavy lift. However, lifters of all levels can benefit from a refresher. Learning how to do both of these will not only improve your lifts but can lessen your chance of injury!
We’ll review three topics about breathing and bracing:
Why it matters
What you might be doing wrong
What are the components for proper bracing
Megsquats has an in-depth review of these topics to help you better understand this technique.
Why Bracing Matters
Whether you’re a newbie or an advanced lifter, bracing is probably one of the most important things you should nail down from the start. During heavy resistance movements, proper bracing increases the rigidity of the torso, making it easier to support heavy loads on the spine. This also reduces the associated compressive forces on the disks in your spine during lifting. Bracing is KEY for staying injury free!
Bracing incorrectly can result in spinal extension or flexion, and unnecessary movement in the chest, pec, traps, and neck that can lead to a postural deficiency during your lift. This can lead to injuries and is why breathing techniques are so important. It keeps lifters safe during training and competition by properly supporting your muscles and bones.
Since stabilization requirements differ between exercises and tasks, it’s important to understand that the intensity of the brace is dependent on the duration and intensity of the movement. For example, the breathing and bracing techniques for a 20 rep squat set, will be less intense than a 1 rep max squat.
You’ve probably seen powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters using a belt while lifting. Did you know that using a belt increases intra-abdominal pressure and the rigidity of the torso, helping to stabilize the spine? They’re essentially bracing into the belt! You don’t need a belt from the start, but you may want to consider investing in one as you continue getting stronger and increasing your weights. If you're looking into purchasing a beginner weightlifting belt or more of an advanced lifting belt (lever or prong), check out our sister brand Heaviko. You can find all types of equipment for strength training at heaviko.com.
How to Improve Breathing and Bracing During Lifting
You may not notice if you’re doing things incorrectly, but don’t sweat it! We’re going to cover some frequent mistakes and how you can improve.
This might sound odd but let’s start with checking your breathing. Place your right hand on your chest, and your left hand on your stomach, and breathe normally. Note the movement you feel in either hand for three breaths, and on the fourth, breathe in as if you are about to brace for a squat, hold the breath for 1-2 seconds, and breathe out.
During the above exercise, some lifters will feel their chest rise into their right hand and little movement from their abdomen. While proper bracing involves some slight chest movement due to the lungs filling, the abdomen expansion should be more noticeable in this test. Taking a deep breath into the chest will often create spinal extension; the goal of breathing and bracing during resistance training is to create a stable, neutral spine.
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This is typically how lifters breathe to correct any chest breathing habits. It’s a good starting point when first learning how to breathe for bracing. But be careful! By focusing on limiting the breath into the chest, lifters sometimes focus so much on filling the abdomen they neglect proper airflow and tightness in the thoracic spine.
Components of a Proper Brace
Don’t get overwhelmed if the phrases below sound unfamiliar; we’ll help you understand what they mean so you can start incorporating them into your lifts. Once you understand these components, the next step to grasping them is trying them yourself!
Valsalva Maneuver While Lifting
Instead of simply breathing in air and holding it, the Valsalva maneuver is forcefully expiring against a closed glottis (the opening between vocal folds) or throat. Closing the glottis keeps air from escaping the lungs while contracting to maintain a rigid trunk and upper back.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique
This is also known as abdominal breathing, belly breathing, or deep breathing; this type of breathing is when the air enters the lungs and the belly expands. You’ve achieved Diaphragmatic breathing when the trunk expands 360 degrees. While belly breathing is a definite upgrade from chest breathing regarding lifting, you can achieve full stabilization when the abdominals, obliques, and erectors push out and expand to brace the core.
The combination of a successful Valsalva maneuver and the diaphragmatic breathing technique will result in intra-abdominal pressure. To further increase stability in the trunk, contract the abdomen, lower back, and obliques. The combination of proper breathing and trunk contraction redistributes tension in the body and redirects force and power created through your entire body while lifting. Think of breathing in, bearing down, and bracing as if you’re preparing for someone to punch you in the abdomen.
Breathing Technique for Lifting Weights
Below are two exercises you can do to practice your breathing and technique as you train or get back into heavy lifting!
90/90 Breathing Exercise
Lie on the floor by a wall, you’re going to place your feet up against the wall, which will make your hips and knees bent 90 degrees.
Practice the proper bracing and focus on expanding the low back into the floor.
All Fours Breathing Exercise
Get into a quadruped position (where both hands and knees are on the ground) and break at the elbows, folding down onto the forearms.
Take a deep breath into the nose, and push air into the stomach, getting feedback from the thighs to ensure abdominal expansion.
During the exhale, actively push the forearms into the floor and drive the sternum toward the ceiling.
Focus the breath into the spine while maintaining activation in the forearms.
Let’s Get Started
Now that you have the fundamentals of breathing and bracing, you can apply these to your heavy lifts. Do a few practice rounds as you’re warming up, so the cues are fresh before going into heavier weights. You should see improvement in your lifts and the hope is to reduce injury over time the heavier you go. We have other tips like this in our blog section to help anyone from beginner to advanced lifter!