KEY FUNDAMENTALS TO RESISTANCE TRAINING: “CORE” BRACING.
Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Take, for example, a bullet fired out of a gun. The bullet is accelerated from the recoil force (pushes backward) of the gun itself. If the bullet has nothing to push off of, it’s not going anywhere (not very far at least). Your “core”, which here we’ll define as the abdominis, oblique(s), lower back (erectors, et al.), and mid thoracic region is where you push off of when resistance training.
Let’s take two polarities of humanoid characters and apply them to resistance training: The Terminator and Gumby. In the case of the Terminator, you’re robot with a unobtainium metal alloy structure that is extremely efficient at energy transfer when resistance is applied. With Gumby, the dearth of rigidity deforms your structure and energy transfer is quite poor. Real humans fall somewhere between extremes. The goal, however, is to be more like the Terminator then Gumby.
Terminator vs. Gumby
When you brace yourself properly to resist an object, you’re able to create a greater amount of force (i.e., lift more weight or more pump more reps) as well as decrease the likelihood of compromising a weak point in the chain, which may lead to injury. Enough talk, let’s brace!
If you were to train with me, the most repetitive cue you would hear from me would be the word “tight.” The very first thing I do with someone, no matter what level lifter they are, is go over bracing, and iterate this cue so often they have no choice but to listen to me. In my opinion, bracing is the #1 fundamental you can teach anyone when it comes to resistance training. I’ve seen lifters hit a PR with less than 20 minutes of coaching this technique, once they know what to feel for.
A classical way to teach abdominal bracing is through the modified Valsalva maneuver. This technique requires some explanation and knowledge of anatomy, which isn’t always the easiest to comprehend. Take a big breath into your abdomen, utilizing your diaphragm as opposed to lung expansion, and exhale against a closed glottis (i.e., close off the airway to your mouth). This is a good start for what you should feel when correctly bracing while resistance training.
I typically don’t mention the Valsalva maneuver only for the fact that there are more intuitive examples that everyone can relate to. The first example is getting hit in the stomach. I’ll ask the lifter, “What would you do with your breath if you knew you were going get hit in the stomach?” They take a big breath in and hold it awaiting my blow to the midsection until they’re red in the face. The second example, is the bowel movement. I’ll ask them to act like they’re having a bowel movement and, usually sheepishly and embarrassingly, they’ll show me what that looks like.
Once they get a feel for concentrating on what these intuitive bracing movements feel like, I’ll have them palpate (feel) their abs (front), obliques (sides), and lower back. Most will only tighten the abdominals, neglecting the obliques and lower back. Once you feel for the tightness all around your “core” region, you’ll find that all sides to your midsection are rigid/tight. “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Practice, practice, practice. Staying tight throughout your core is exhausting. You will find yourself struggling to stay “tight” when you first start. Through diligence (it’s easy to get lazy here!), you’ll find the technique doesn’t require the effort you once had to put into it and will become more automatic. You can practice bracing anywhere at any time. Keep feeling your way around your mid-section to make sure you’re adequately contracting. Watch your lifts soar as you’re able to grind through reps you never could before.
-Dr. Mike Caruso is a Professional Strongman Competitor. Mike competed at the 2014 WSM competition this past summer. He also holds a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology.