| Brace Yourselves – Lifts are Coming

Author / Matt Spaid

5-7 minute read

It’s time to obliterate the walls that are blocking you from peak performance. At Power Athlete, we want you to kick down the doors that are standing between you and your goals. That means you need to crack the bones and suck the marrow out of every opportunity there is to improve. One key piece to the puzzle is that a lot of athletes are missing how to brace properly before a big lift. Many people think they are bracing by taking a giant breath of air, filling up the chest, and flexing their abs. However, breathing isn’t bracing…and trying to breathe and brace without the right mechanics is a recipe for disaster.

Right around the age of 5, we go from being belly breathers to a more vertical, chest focused breathing pattern. Most people keep their gut sucked in, flex their abs, and puff out the chest to appear more attractive, as society tends to encourage this (just think of any cartoon ever with a bro walking on the beach). However, when prepping for a big lift, this is the exact opposite of what we want to do when we’re ready to move some mass.

What Happens When You Breathe

The diaphragm is the primary muscle when it comes to breathing, with the chest and neck making up the accessory muscles; these accessory muscles lift the ribcage to allow for a more rapid inhale (which is useful during exercise or when under duress), or when the lungs can’t inflate downward due to abdominal restriction, obesity, or pulmonary disease. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and the thoracic cavity increases in volume. Air enters the lungs and oxygen from that air moves to your blood. As you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and CO2 moves from your blood to the lungs, and the lungs let the
air out. This gas exchange is constantly working for proper balance…mostly due to it being essential to living. But like so many things, if you don’t use it, you lose it. In this particular case, I’m talking about belly breathing.

By not allowing the belly to expand and use the diaphragm to its full capacity, it can become weak. Many people have completely lost the ability to fully “press out” their gut. If you’re not expanding your belly to create intra-abdominal pressure, then you’re missing out on creating more stability, protecting your spine, and lifting more weight.

Awareness is the first step towards improvement. If you realize you fall into the category of puffing the chest and flexing the abs, please don’t fret! Simply being aware of how you are bracing is the start to creating a better foundation on which to perform. Read on to learn more on how you can correct this common error.

Breathing Is Not Bracing…But It Helps

When preparing for a lift, you want a 360-degree breath around your belly. Fill up the gaps, press that power gut out, and take up as much space as you can. Think of this as doing a horizontal breath, not vertical. Belly breathing engages the diaphragm, intercostal, abdominal, and pelvic floor muscles. This is important for any lift, but is especially critical when lifting big weights. By creating 360-degrees of tension, you create intra-thoracic and intra-abdominal pressure, which provides support for the upper back, lower back, and lumbar spine. However, this alone is not going to help you effectively brace.
You should actually be able to stick out your gut and brace without breathing. Many people have lost this skill, but it is easy to learn again with practice. If you watch some of the strongest people in the world, they don’t take a giant breath of air before lifting.

For example, check out this clip of Chris Duffin squatting 1,001 pounds for 3 repetitions: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/RidmVl_V_y0

What these skilled lifters do is create a ton of pressure by pressing their stomach out, and then continuing to press for the duration of the lift (usually pressing against a belt, which is very helpful). Remember, a belt is not a back brace. You don’t want to just suck in and ratchet it down as tight as possible. It is a tool for you to create a stable wall by pressing your gut out against it. This is the time to be proud of your power gut! When you do breathe, it should be a quick puff of air. If you had to put a percentage on it, think 70-80% capacity. It will vary for each individual, so if you’re not sure, just play with it some. Remember, you’re trying to create pressure, not do a max breath hold. Make it a short, powerful breath. You don’t want your chest or shoulders to rise. I see this often in inexperienced lifters. They will take in a big gulp of air, but none of it is being used to help create the pressure in the gut that we want. Not only that, but they go from being in a solid and stable position to suddenly shifting into a bad position because now the chest and shoulders have moved due to trying to huff and puff like the big bad wolf. If you recall, the three little piggy’s survived because wolfie couldn’t knock down the last brick house.

Confused? Look at it another way. If you take a large, vertical breath before lifting, then you are expanding your spine and putting yourself at a much larger risk for injury. By breathing horizontally and creating pressure, you are keeping your spine set and preventing it from shifting while under a heavy load.

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Airing on the Vertical Side

While it might look good for the ‘gram to have your abs looking snazzy mid lift, it’s a big mistake and you will be the one paying the price. Let’s discuss some of our favorite movements and what happens if you do a more vertical breath, as opposed to horizontal.

If you’re benching and breathe up, the shoulders are moving and this increases the risk for an injury. It is important to keep the scapula retracted and depressed while benching. It’s not uncommon for people to have a lower back injury while benching too, which is sometimes due to, you guessed it, not maintaining a proper brace. In the squat, a big chest breath can not only shift the weight just before moving, but it will also be expanding your spine (which is not good when it is under load). This can create all kinds of problems, such as creating an inefficient bar path and increasing the demands placed on our thoracic and lumbar spine. Poor bar path usually means poor movement, and poor movement leads to injury.

For the deadlift, you are again expanding the spine and not creating good pressure, but you are also making the lift even harder on yourself by increasing the distance of the pull. If the chest and shoulders rise, then the arms will too, so your lockout point will also be higher. You especially want to protect the lower back in the deadlift, and breathing into the chest will not help with this.

Brace Yourselves

Remember, breathing is not bracing. Visualize your lift and create pressure with a 360 degree press out of your belly (and lower back). Once you have “filled in the gaps”, take a short power breath and continue to keep that pressure up! This will create a more stable and efficient movement. It may take some time to master, but remember, it will lead to better movement, more weight on the bar, and less risk of injuries.
Don’t fail like the big bad wolf. “Be The Hammer”, breathe into your gut, and annihilate the brick wall that’s preventing you from hitting your goals. It looks like bacon is back on the menu!

Looking for ways to layer in some breath work? Head on over to powerathletehq.com and check out our Warm Ups and Iron Flex accessory programs – they’ve got everything you need to teach you the proper techniques for bracing, breathing, and getting your mind (and body) right for those big lifts!

Related Content

Training: Warm Ups Program

Training: Iron Flex Program

Blog: Flex the Lungs for Performance Gains by Dr. Tim Cummings

Podcast: PA Radio Episode 732 – Breath, Biohacking, and Evolutionary Secrets

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Matt Spaid

Matt Spaid is a Firefighter, Strength Coach, and a Marine Corps Veteran. He began working in the fitness industry in 2012 as a CrossFit Coach. This experience led to training a wide variety of athletes while learning different aspects of health and wellness. He is a firm believer that in order to be healthy and strong, you must have a balanced approach through the body, mind, and spirit. This outlook led to embracing the Power Athlete Methodology and eventually becoming a Power Athlete Certified Coach.

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