Stability and Bracing

Stability and Bracing by Kevin Steinhaus

What is stability?
Stability is the ability to maintain a desired position or movement without losing control in position. For the purpose of this blog article, I want you to think about stability as the ability to resist unwanted change in position or motion. For example, not allowing your back to extend during the overhead phase of a push press. The foundation of stabilization of the body is pressure within the abdominal cavity, or what we will call intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). This pressure stabilizes the spine, pelvic floor, and ribcage, creating a solid fixed point where muscles can pull in order to create control and prevent unwanted movement within the spine.

What is bracing?
First of all, breathing is not bracing! Many people who teach breathing as bracing misunderstand that air is not the stabilizing force. Yes, breathing in air is used to build pressure, but a big belly full of air is not bracing. We must mention that a big belly full of air towards the front such as breathing taught in yoga or breathing in to pull your belly button towards your back is even worse. bracing is the pressure being generated between the diaphragm and pelvic floor that is being transmitted equally outward 360 degrees around the core and at the same time is being resisted by the tissues surrounding the abdominal cavity.

Anatomy note
The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that is Attached to the lower four ribs and the spine at the thoracolumbar junction (mid low back region), the diaphragm separates the thoracic cavity (where the heart sits) from the abdominal cavity (where the intestines are). The pelvic floor consist of the muscles, ligaments, connective tissues that support the pelvic organs, and assist in urinary continence. Pelvic floor issues such as incontinence (involuntary urination) is often a issue of not being able to properly stabilize and brace while performing movements. (I won’t get in depth with this, maybe you’ll see an article about this issue and how to fix it later!)

Bad body position = Bad stabilization
Before addressing actual stabilization and bracing approaches, we must first address position. Without proper body position, stabilization will not work effectively. If we want to have optimal stabilization to occur we must be in proper position before thinking about bracing. In order to stabilize we must have the thoracic diaphragm and pelvic floor positioned parallel to each other. In this position, the spine will have its normal curve (commonly referred to neutral spine), the ribcage will be down, and the low back (lumbar spine) will have a small concave curve, and the pelvis will be in a neutral position. When the diaphragm is horizontally oriented over the pelvic floor, we are able to optimally generate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). If the diaphragm is obliquely oriented to the pelvic floor (flared rib cage) then contraction or pulling down of the diaphragm will move more forward compared to the pelvic floor where we want it to be pulled downward towards the pelvic floor. When assuming proper positional alignment which should be maintained in most weightlifting and resistance training movements, the diaphragm concentrically contracts and is pulled down towards the pelvic floor. This action decreases the volume and compresses the contents in the abdomen, creating an outward-pushing force that pushes into and activates the abdominal wall, pelvic floor, and posterior stabilizers which includes the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, and thoracolumbar fascia. It is important to understand that the abdominal wall, pelvic floor, and back musculature should be activated in response to the outward-pushing force created by the diaphragm approximating (getting closer) with the pelvic floor, instead concentrically activate to stabilize the trunk (flaring the ribs up, drawing the belly inward and hollowing or arching the lower back). Concentric activation of these structures inhibits full function of the diaphragm, does not allow us to get in an optimal position, and prevents optimal generation of IAP. Improper positioning of the diaphragm will not allow much change in volume of your abdominal cavity which can result in not enough intra abdominal pressure (remember that volume and pressure are inversely related) for the exercise being executed, such as trying a 1 rep max deadlift off the floor, which in turn will force the athlete to use a less efficient, compensatory strategy to stabilize and have less power output. (MEANING NO PRs).

In the video that I shot about bracing, I showed the relationship of the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. As described and showed in the video, the proper position of optimal stability is having the diaphragm and pelvic floor parallel to each other. On the video, I also showed what incorrect pressurization is. Unfortunately, the incorrect pressurization and positioning is the “desired” hourglass figure people often go for, with clean, evident oblique lines and a tight belly. This is one reason I am not a fan of core work that advertises to “tone” your ab muscles and that are not focused on quality intra-abdominal pressurization such as sit up, crunches, Russian twist, etc. It reinforces the disconnect between the outer abdominal sheath and the function of the diaphragm in stabilization. It reinforces pathological patterns (caused by physical disease) that break down stabilization functions. On the right is the correct pressurized condition.

Dial up/Dial down
The amount of pressure in the abdominal cavity at any given moment is dependent on the stability requirements for the task being executed. If the load demand for the task is small (1 mile run) then the IAP will be minimal. If, however, the task is very load demanding (1 rep max deadlift) then the IAP must be elevated. The amount of pressure in the abdomen is regulated constantly to meet the demands of the movement being executed. Think about it as a 0-10 dial where 0 is little requirement of stabilization and little bracing and 10 being max stabilization and max bracing. If you’re going to run marathon, you’re going to need a lot of oxygen, bracing isn’t going to be that critical. You’re going to turn that dial down and you’re going to be using very little of the bracing sequence. If you start doing a MetCon like Grace (30 clean and jerks at a relatively light weight for time), your going to need some requirement for stabilization and breathing so your dial might be at a 4 or 5.
Let’s talk about metcon type of workouts and where we can get in trouble. Most metcons can require high demands of breathing and stabilization. We have to be conscious in our positioning during these workouts because we do not want to do basic core loaded human movements (squat, deadlift, cleans, etc,) to fatigue failure. It’s simple, if you use up the breathing respiration function and your diaphragm gets fatigued, it will not be able to function in its role in stability. what do you think is going to happen to your bracing? What’s going to happen to your back? Probably something that your tissues are not ready for in a position under load which means injury. Because you’re in a heavy loaded core movement, You want to make sure that you are not doing these type of movements when your going to be failing on the breathing side.

How does this affect training?
It changes the way in which we think about stabilizing the spine and pelvis for a lift or movement. When getting ready for a maximal to sub-maximal lift, bracing should focus on generating IAP and not pulling your belly in to tighten up your abs (abdominal hollowing). It is important to note that bracing and generating max IAP should only be done for short periods of time (1rep max, 2-5 rep heavy sets). Athletes should not be holding their breath for long periods of time, breathing every 1-2 repetitions. Breathing is pretty important, oxygen is a good thing!

BRACING Sequence
1. Breath into the abdomen thinking that you have a loose weight belt and you have to breath into the belt to make it tight. This will concentrically contract the diaphragm creating an outward-pushing force, which eccentrically activates the abdominal wall, posterior back muscles, and pelvic floor.

2. Without breathing the air out, activate the abdominal wall and pull the
ribs downward. Do this be thinking about getting punched in the stomach. This ensures that the diaphragm is positioned properly and the abdominal wall is adequately activated. It is important that we do not breath out at this point because breathing out elevates the diaphragm, causing an increase in intra-abdominal volume and a reduction in intra-abdominal pressure (remember, that pressure and volume are inversely related). For this, we need full activation of both the abdominal wall and the diaphragm, not just the abdominal wall. I must also emphasize that bringing the ribs down should happen without bending the back forward (spinal flexion). Often, because athletes struggle with moving their rib cage without moving their spine, in an attempt to pull the ribs
downward, they will flex the spine instead of downwardly rotating the costovertebral joints (the joints where the ribs meet the spine). Flexing the spine to get the ribs down can get the ribs in the right position but does so at the cost of proper and safe spinal positioning.

3. Once the abdomen has been pressurized and the ribs pulled downward, we are properly stabilized and can begin the movement. In most pressing exercises (like the squat) the transition position between the eccentric (going down during the squat) and concentric (standing back up during the squat) phases is the weakest position in the entire movement. This weakness is the result of an increase in power output necessary to maintain or move through the position.

4. As someone completes the transition and moves through the concentric portion of the squat, we can slowly expire to reduce the level of the bracing because of the elevation of the diaphragm. One can lighten up their bracing as he or she
continues the concentric phase (standing up in the squat) of the lift because the load on the core is less at the top of the squat compared to the bottom position of the squat.

5. When attempting a max heavy set (2-5 reps), an athlete should breath out at the top of the movement and breath in again to brace before the next repetition.
Now this might be different from athlete to athlete. Some athletes might be to hold their breath and stay stabilized through a few reps. The main point is to stay braced throughout the transition phase of the lift. For loads that do not require intense bracing (20 rep squat), the athlete should maintain respiration
throughout most of the movement other than perhaps the transition point. Meaning that athletes should maintain respiration (breath) on the descent until at a depth which they will need to brace (increase IAP) through the transition point and begin the concentric portion where they can resume breathing again.