Breathing/ Bracing Pt. 1: What is it?This is the first article in a series about breathing and bracing. Why is an involuntary human response that literally every human does in order to survive being broken up into multiple pieces? It’s something that we don’t have to think about, why change that? Well, because it really isn’t quite as simple as just breathing.
What is breathing?
Well breathing is simply the act of inflating and deflating the lungs to transport oxygen to the body and expel carbon dioxide. “No shit? Thanks, pal.”. In the context of lifting, however, there is a bit more nuance than just facilitating cell function.
The first time I heard anyone discuss breathing in the context of lifting was my first foray into strength & conditioning research and my reading of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. In it, he referred to something known as the Valsalva Maneuver. Mirriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines Valsalva Maneuver as: a forceful attempt at expiration when the airway is closed at some point; especially : a conscious effort made while holding the nostrils closed and keeping the mouth shut especially for the purpose of testing the patency of the eustachian tubes, adjusting middle ear pressure, or aborting supraventricular tachycardia—called also Valsalva
So, what does this mean? Think of when you’ve flown on an airplane and you’ve tried to make your ears pop. You plug your nose and force the air thats present in your lungs out of your ears. The pressure created has no where to go and so it finds the only opening it can, in this case the eustachian tubes or ears. While I understood Valsalva for clearing my ears, I didn’t understand how it could help in lifting. I mean, why would I try to pop my ears on a squat? This is where the first part of the equation comes in, diaphramatic breathing.
Diaphramatic breathing is simply the act of taking a breath but pulling it into your “belly” instead of your chest. To inflate the diaphragm (the large muscle that divides the chest and abdomen), as opposed to the lungs. If you tell someone to take a deep breath you will normally see their chest rise and fall as they breathe in and out (the exception is classically trained actors and vocalists, stage training teaches to breathe diaphragmaticly as a way to project the voice into the back reaches of a crowded theatre, thank you Mom & Dad for the years of Opera training). With diaphragmatic breathing you will actually see the abdomen expand like after a big meal. Not the most flattering look in fitness.
Pavarotti had a great squat by the way.
If you take the idea of diaphragmatic breathing, and add in the Valsalva Maneuver while the diaphragm is fully inflated pressure is created, pressure equal to the outside force being exerted on the abdomen. When performed correctly, this will neutralize spinal position (neither flexion nor extension) and place the spine in its optimal position to avoid injury. At this point, the body is bracing. Bracing is the mechanism that supports the spine (a relatively fragile structure) by adding support through the rigidity of the “core” or abs and low back which in contrast are very strong.
A great example of how effective bracing is can’t be seen in the basic application. The largest advantage for a lifter who knows how to properly brace (in addition to preventing injury) is in the expression of strength using supportive gear. The most commonly seen supportive gear by the general public is the weightlifting belt. Generally it is seen being worn by a 135lb gentleman doing 45lb barbell curls in the squat rack. While I’m sure that said gentleman is getting the best out of his bicep boner and Valsalvaing away, lets discuss a big squat. When a lifter is getting ready to go for a max effort squat and puts a belt on before, the large surface area constricting the soft tissue of the abdomen will get pretty tight. When the lifter gets under the bar they will take a deep diaphragmatic breath, expanding the belly. Then, with the application of Valsalva, the abdomen is forced into the leather of the belt creating a very rigid structure. The larger the belt (and lifter) the more surface area there is creating tension and more rigidity can be expressed.
Now that we all know what proper breathing and bracing is, we can be aware of it and try to observe it both in ourselves and others. Next, I will delve into the techniques for proper breathing/bracing and how to start to develop the techniques.