Creating an abdominal brace is one of the fundamentals you need to learn prior to lifting weights. Often the emphasis for people when performing squats and deadlifts is to avoid rounding the back. In their attempts to do this you frequently see an excessive lumbar curve being created and little abdominal engagement.
Abdominal bracing is the use of the muscles around the midline to maintain the lumber spine in a fixed position. It is often used for heavier lifts in conjunction with the Valsalva technique. This is a breathing technique that helps create pressure and stability in the torso and should be applied for when athletes are lifting significantly heavy loads. I will not go into this further today but will expand on this in the future.
One of the best exercises for learning to brace is the birddog. This exercise is frequently performed poorly. If you do this exercise correctly it is a fantastic way to learn to switch on the core muscles for the brace. Performed incorrectly is does absolutely nothing.
To perform the birddog:
· start on all fours.
· Knees under hips and hands below shoulders.
· Then find neutral spine. Do this by moving through and arched back position by tilting the pelvis anteriorly, then into a rounded position by tilting the pelvis posteriorly. Move back to the arch and then find the middle position where the back is flat. I like to perform this way as finding the neutral position when moving from an arch allows you to feel yourself engage your abdominals.
· Now from this position the key is to extend the opposite arm and leg to either end of the room. The crucial part is that you should be working hard to maintain the brace throughout. Therefore, your back should remain fixed in position. This is the really challenging part of the exercise. Initially when you do this you may not be able to get your arm and leg to the end position of the arm being fully flexed and the leg and hip being fully extended to create a straight line from your fingers to your toes. That is fine whilst learning to brace it takes some time to create the neuromuscular connection to allow this to happen.
Your goal is to be able to get into the complete position. If you can do this then you have trained your body to be able to brace when your hips reach full extension, you should be able to contract your glute at the top of the movement without losing the brace. Which is actually much harder that you may think. The importance of being able to do this is huge. Think about all the movements you perform where your hip goes from flexion to extension. Running, jumping, squats, deadlifts, basically any compound lower body exercise. If you cannot perform a brace in the most controlled position of a birddog then you are certainly not going to be able to do so at speed or heavy loads.
The ability of the arm to get to a fully flexed horizontal position during the birddog with the brace being maintained is going to be limited by your shoulder mobility. With our lifestyle causing postural problems this can be a hugely difficult position for people, especially male athletes. Guess what, if you cannot stay braced whilst extending your arm in the birddog you are not going to be able to press overhead or in an inverted position perform a HSPU keeping your midline tight.
Lessons from the birddog
· Whether you lose midline stabilisation from during hip extension or pressing overhead the consequences are the same. You lose efficiency and more importantly you increase your risk of injury.
· The birddog is a good screening tool to identify the ability of an athlete to engage the midline and also any limitation in the range of motion through shoulder flexion and hip extension. If it is a mobility problem then the birddog is one of the tools used to improve this.
· I would suggest that birddogs are included as a warmup frequently, especially before heavy days. Newer athletes learning to brace should perform these regularly. 2-3 sets of around 60s each should be plenty so it easy to fit into any warmup.
Bracing is not always performed with a neutral spine
As a final note I want to clarify one thing. Although lumbar neutral is where we train bracing in the birddog we should be able to brace in all spinal positions. Gym exercises as well as life sometimes put us in more compromised positions. In the gym we may be using an atlas stone or D-ball. If you watch when I do this you will seen that I have to be in a flexed spine. In everyday life it could be lifting heavy bags of compost from the boot of the car or picking up your pet or kids. In these cases, you may also have some lateral flexion. We still use tight brace in these positions. In the case of lateral flexion, you are trying to use the midline to hold the spine in position until the weight is in a position that gives you a better lever advantage and feels light enough to adjust the spine. Even when we are straight with the weight on one side we are bracing. This is why when we train we perform exercises such as the single arm farmers carry.
Extended spine positions will also require the brace maintained. The Olympic lifts and overhead squat are prime examples of this.
Bracing is the ability to use the midline muscles to create tightness and stability to increase our ability to produce force and reduce our risk of injury. Test yourself with some birddogs today and learn the correct way to brace your abdominals.