Lifting heavy weight is fun. It’s an empowering activity to get people to put trust in the physical mechanisms of their body to allow them to produce force. In order to lift effectively, one must brace effectively. The point of this article is to understand the bracing mechanism of the core and what to look for in order to be efficient. Bracing is the co-contraction of all the core muscles around your torso. The paradox is the core must be strong enough to resist force and elastic enough to transfer it. It is like a spring which allows you to transfer force efficiently from the lower body to the upper body and into the implement. Stability for load transfer in the brace is required through two systems of the core: the local system and global system.
The local system of the core is composed of the inner unit of deep muscles required for intrapelvic stabilization. Diane in her book The Pelvic Girdle: An Integration of Clinical Expertise and Research notes that there are significant neurophysiological differences in the timing of the contraction of these two systems of the core. The inner unit of the core, such as the transverse abdominis and internal oblique, are concerned with timing and anticipating the load. The local system contracts prior to the perturbation (in anticipation of load or stimulus) regardless of the direction of movement and provides the anticipatory intersegmental stiffness of the joints of the lumbar spine (Hodges et al 2003 & Richardson et al 2002). The local system basically provides stability to the pelvic girdle and lumbar spine by timing its contraction in preparation for literally anything. These inner core muscles act as the feedforward mechanism in the brace which is responsible for increasing intraabdominal pressure, increasing tension in the thoracodorsal fascia, and increasing articular stiffness. The intensity of the activity dictates how hard or casually soft the inner unit should fire. For instance, pressing a heavy weight for two is probably going to dial in more on the intensity of the feedforward mechanism of the inner unit than say flipping to the cool side of the pillow. You see it’s not just solely about strength and that’s why there have been certain studies showing why just back strengthening doesn’t help reduce injuries. Diane Lee explains this phenomenon perfectly with “The bracing deals with the timing of specific muscle activation and the pattern of muscular co-contraction (or lack thereof) in patients with low back pain further enhanced the force closure theory and suggested a crucial role for motor control” (Hides et al 2000). You can be strong as all hell but if the timing isn’t there then what was the point of all that strength if you can’t even express it? Strength is still important but it isn’t the only solution in this case. Just like creating new neural networks in learning a new skill or activity, learning to brace is something that should be taught so it can be reflexive and automatic first rather than only strong. Doing it automatically is what the inner core muscles prepare the body for as well as additional loading from the global system.
While the inner unit activates regardless of the direction of any movement or activity, the global outer system of the core contracts in a direction-dependent manner. The outer global unit can be attributed to the fascial slings that Tom Meyers writes about in Anatomy Trains that stabilize you when you move and produce force by isometrically and eccentrically contracting (I think) to resist the load. Its required for regional stabilization between the ribcage and the pelvis. The fascial slings are the Posterior and Anterior Oblique sling, the Longitudinal sling, and the Lateral sling of each side.
These slings work together to stabilize your sacrum and lumbar spine when you move. It does this by force closure (muscles of that particular sling contracting) to augment the form closure (the structure of bones and ligaments of the joint itself within the sling) so there isn’t excessive shearing at the onset of the loading joints. For instance, your posterior sling of the lats and contralateral (opposite side) glutes make sure your spine limits the shearing when you deadlift or walk. If this wasn’t in effect the opposite corners of our hips and shoulders would pull away in opposite directions
So both units work synergistically together with the inner unit being concerned with timing and coordination in order move what needs to be moved while the outer unit adds to the stability on top of the inner unit to buttress force. The body uses both these systems together sometimes with more emphasis on one as a strategy for an for activity. They are either a low threshold or high threshold strategy. Lifting heavy or playing a demanding sport at the highest level would a good example of the body using a high threshold strategy while eating a sandwich would be low threshold strategy.
The problem that can happen which can be seen in daily life, clinic, or gym is the mismatch of when the strategy is used or constantly using only one. I can definitely attest to being guilty of using a high threshold strategy when it was not needed.
These are the people who can not shut off their tone and seem to always be “on”. They are using a high threshold strategy which is unnecessary because now their prime movers work both as mobilizers and stabilizers. These people seem to live in one constant strategy without ever switching to the other one. I think it might be apparent in people who are highly ambitious and think that they need to constantly practice the brace all the time so it will transfer easily (Like this fool writing it). Here is the thing behind the core activation of low and high threshold activities. The low threshold strategy your body does should be reflexive, easy without thought, and the loads are predictable. The high threshold strategy is when you need to dial more and bring the heat to get after it.
Things could get more complicated if both systems aren’t working together. Obviously, if the inner regional unit is not timed well then we lost integrity in the pelvis and spine. No amount of exercises to strengthen your midsection will work because it is a timing issue and not a strength issue. To parallel this if your outer unit is weak as well then your base for your inner unit to dial harder and contract will be even more limited. The limited force closure of muscular slings of the outer unit will not be strong enough to protect your inner unit core muscles as well as the spine, joints, and discs. Also, you will not have a good base to produce force in your limbs and transfer it whether it ben lifting or a sports action. In other words, it will impact your movement and susceptibility to injury.
Total bracing is not just a front to back stabilization of your body but a 360 expansion of stabilization. The entire core works to actually resist motion of your entire middle which consists of the pelvis and ribcage. It resists anti-flexion, anti-lateral flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation. If any part of this relationship of the pelvis or ribcage is not up to par we will see leaking and or what Mike Tuchscherer calls “squishing”. Easiest examples are those who squat with a massive global arch with a flairing ribcage as if your mooning someone with your stomach.
Not only has a “squishing” occurred before you began but you’ve lost integrity. This posture is essentially impinging your vertebrae on top of another to find passive stability. This compromised ribcage position will mess with your diaphragm to efficiently function to plunge down and dome at full exhale or in other words you won’t be in a good position to take a full breath. Also, because your ribcage is flaired you’re already generating unnecessary excessive intrabdominal pressure and now the QL has to take the slack to stabilize you. Its the equivalent of starting five meters behind the starting line.
Bracing is the ultimate expression of the integrity of your ribcage and pelvis and it’s paramount that the two diaphragms (diaphragm and pelvic floor) are stacked on top of each other in alignment. Doing so will allow your pelvic floor and diaphragm to fire in unison and in opposition of each other and continue the body’s natural feedforward mechanism of generating intra-abdominal pressure via the inner unit.
The brace is expressed by a 360-degree expansion. That means stabilizing in all three planes of motion.
The sagittal plane is maintained by keeping the ribcage and pelvis aligned and stacked on top of each other so there is no flairing or dumping of either one. The frontal plane is being stabilized by making sure there is no hiking of the hips or dropping of the ribs to one side and the transverse plane is stabilized when there is no shifting across or rotating of your hips or ribs to the left or right.
Learning from Mike Reinold and Dean Somerset’s advanced core training, the cues to brace effectively are “Reset, Brace, and Breath”.The cues will reinforce the integrity of your ribcage and pelvis and so you’ll be able to co-contract everything in your midsection and feel rock solid. The last cue of “breath” teaches you that although you are pretty solid and stable, your brain must still be comfortable to breathe so it can own the position.
Reset: Reset the position of ribcage and pelvis. This involves getting your diaphragms stacked on top of each other. The sagittal plane first.
Brace: “pull the ribs down and inflate your obliques”. This builds off the reset by getting your diaphragms stacked and by pulling your ribs down expresses that. The pelvic floor is something that is unconscious so you don’t have to cue it and the “Inflate the obliques” will stabilize the last part which are your sides. Frontal plane is next. I’m also playing with the cue “Make space between ribs and hips” with the intention of firing everything around your torso. I’m not sure what part the transverse plane is getting stabilized but its definetly somewhere in between the cues with also awareness.
Breathe: Own the position so you can get back to having lifting and hence “Breath behind the shield” comes from. Remember if you can’t breathe in that position you don’t own it.
John Gaglione does a fantastic assessment of seeing his lifter brace in all the areas and planes of his core. He doesn’t just assess the front but also the lateral sides of his torso when he breathes.
Thanks to Hans Lindgren and the school of DNS, a good landmark to look for a correct total brace is the lower abdominal to take a slightly rounded appearance or convex.
If there are concavities (bends in the middle) then the midsection is not properly braced. This is overdominance of abs and is exemplified as if trying to suck your stomach in.The abs are used as a crutch here and hence why Chris Duffin says “Inflate the obliques” so those external oblique can fire and finally we get a uniformly rounded appearance of the midsection. We must remember to maintain that slightly rounded brace the entire duration of the movement and be comfortable breathing there and hence where “Breath behind the shield” comes from. The question of “how should you breathe” becomes variable because the demands of the activity dictate the “it depends” statement. The way you breathe during lifting heavy/maximally or doing metabolic conditioning require different strategies of breathing. As with many things in life, there are always tradeoffs. Lifting heavy and maximally will require emphasis on way more stabilization so breathing will be on the back burner. In that scenario you wouldn’t want to exhale all your air and lose airflow because you would lose the pressure to be tight enough to produce force. Endurance activities, on the other hand, will emphasize more on the breathing aspect with constant airflow than the stabilization so you could move effortlessly.
http://articles.reactivetrainingsystems.com/2017/11/14/what-is-squishing-in-powerlifting/#more-1216Dean Somerset: Advanced Core training
Diane Lee: The Pelvic Girdle: An Integration of Clinical Expertise and Research
Mike Reinold and Eric Cressey: Functional Stability Training Core
Tom Myers: Anatomy Trains