The term “engage your core” or “brace your core” is something that most people have heard of, even if they would not consider themselves a big-time fitness enthusiast. That said, it has been my experience that even most dedicated fitness nuts often do not have a great grasp on what their core should be doing, or at the very least there seems to be no shortage of disagreement on the topic. I think a big part of it is that “what your core should be doing” changes based on context – different activities warrant different actions from the core, so it is naïve to think there is a one-size-fits-all approach.
A useful term to become familiar with here is “strategy” – and it means something close to what you might think: there is a task that you want to accomplish and there is more than one way to go about it, and each different method can be considered a “strategy.” In the context of what you should be doing when it comes to bracing your core, there are many different “strategies” to choose from. Rather than saying one is better than another across the board it is more correct to say that different activities warrant different strategies, and that FOR A GIVEN ACTIVITY you can certainly make a case that one strategy is better than another. Let’s take a look at a handful of different strategies and identify reasons why you might choose a particular one.
- How do you do it? This technique involves expanding your mid-section as if you are trying to take the shape of a barrel, taking a deep breath by pushing your diaphragm down (this is a big aspect of the expansion … the air pushes everything out), and simultaneously holding your breath while tensing all your core muscles. The breath is held and the muscles remain maximally tense for the duration of the effort / activity you are doing.
- Why would you do it? This is by far the strongest way to brace your core. Without exception, every single one of the world’s strongest lifters does this for their heaviest lifts. It is undoubtedly the best core-bracing strategy to use when lifting something very heavy for a small number of repetitions (both for strength and for lower back safety). Note that “very heavy” is meant in absolute terms here … a “very heavy” biceps curl is not nearly as heavy as even a modest deadlift. This technique is used more for the latter … heavy deadlifts, squats, or even pushing your car off to the side of the road if the situation calls for it.
- What shortcomings does it have? The primary use of this strategy is for very heavy weights for low reps. Because the breath is held for the duration, it is not suitable for longer efforts. The exact rep-range can vary from person-to-person, but a reasonable ball-park is to say that things over 5-reps probably do not warrant this. Also, if you are hypertensive (have high blood pressure) this may be contraindicated for you.
- What else is there to know? A lot of people get confused at the mechanism of how this works. This strategy actually braces your core and stabilizes your spine in two different ways: 1) pneumatically (air pressure) and 2) mechanically (muscular stiffness). By concurrently maximizing both you end up with the strongest possible bracing strategy. One question we get a lot is why you should expand your core like a barrel – especially people who have been told they should “suck in” their core to. To start with, big jobs should be done by big muscles. If we are choosing to do a Valsalva maneuver it means we have a big job to do (protect our spine while lifting very heavy weights). That means we want to use the biggest and strongest core muscles available – your abs, obliques, and erector spinae muscles (as compared to the smaller, weaker muscles that are beneath them closer to the spine). Secondly, we want to give those big muscles the largest mechanical advantage possible, and that is achieved by expanding our core so they move a little further away from the spine. Think about it like trying to loosen a stuck bolt with a wrench – if you make your grip on the wrench close to the bolt you have poor leverage, and most likely the bolt will stay stuck. On the contrary, if you slide your hand to the farthest end of the wrench you will then have optimal leverage and you’ll be able to successfully loosen the bolt. Your core muscles work the same way – if the task calls for the absolute maximum amount of strength then we want to optimize our mechanical advantage, and we accomplish that by expanding the core. Thirdly, remember that we also want to stabilize pneumatically (in fact this is a huge aspect of what is going on here), so we need to breathe in a lot of air in order to create a lot of pressure. If you were to try and draw in your stomach, keep it that way, and take a deep breath, it would feel silly (go ahead and try). You cannot draw your stomach in and take a deep breath at the same time – the two are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, if you expand your midsection as you take a deep breath, it will allow the biggest and deepest possible breath, giving you the best opportunity to create intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize and protect your spine.
BREATHING BEHIND THE SHIELD
- How do you do it? With this technique the core maintains its original position (we do not actively expand like with the Valsalva above, nor do we draw it inwards), but similarly we tense all the muscles as if we are trying to turn them into a 360° corset of strength. One key difference between this and the Valsalva is here we do NOT hold our breath – we turn our core muscles into a “shield” and breath behind it.
- Why would you do it? This is arguably the most useful core bracing strategy for most people most of the time. It gives the spine the second highest level of stabilization (behind the Valsalva) yet is sustainable enough to do in almost any scenario (including higher repetition lifting). From my experience most people in the gym do not lift heavy enough to warrant the Valsalva very often, and this technique of breathing behind the shield is more than sufficient for most of their needs.
- What shortcomings does it have? This is a good technique to choose if you want “sustainable stiffness” from your core. However, some activities or gym exercises actually suffer if you have too much stiffness because it makes you slow. Examples of this include powerful rotational movements like throwing a medicine ball or swinging a golf club. Breathing behind the shield is a great choice for most gym activities that are not exceptionally heavy and are performed mostly in the sagittal plane (e.g. front-to-back like push ups, lunges, and kettlebell swings).
- What else is there to know? I’ve been around a lot of people who use the Valsalva maneuver as their default core bracing strategy (even if the situation does not call for it). Those people end up getting EXHAUSTED so quickly even on things that probably should not feel like cardio. If you are someone who has a background in very heavy lifting (powerlifting, weightlifting, etc.) you should also learn to breathe behind the shield so that you do not exhaust yourself by using the wrong bracing strategy on less intense activities. Again, I think breathing behind the shield should be the default bracing strategy for most gym-goers most of the time.
(This is sometimes called “hollowing” – but that term is confusing because “the hollow position” is a specific exercise that can be done for core training, yet is completely different than “drawing in”)
- How do you do it? You make a conscious effort to pull your belly button in closer to your spine
- Why would you do it? This technique is designed to target a small muscle called your transverse adbominis, or “TA” for short. Some people describe your TA as a paper-thin muscle that is behind your six-pack abs. Sometimes clinicians (doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors) want their patient to do exercises involving this technique to help with certain conditions they may be working through (for example recovering from some injuries, surgeries, child birth, and so on).
- What shortcomings does it have? For the same reason that the Valsalva maneuver is incredibly strong (it uses big muscles and gives them maximal mechanical advantage) the drawing-in maneuver is inherently weak. It emphasizes the use of small muscles instead large ones, and it creates poor mechanical advantage. The only real reason to use this method is if you are working under the supervision of a clinician who wants you to do it for a specific reason (in which case I encourage you to follow their guidance) – otherwise it has no value in strength training or athletic performance, and it would actually be quite dangerous to try to lift heavy weights using this bracing strategy. Circling back to the Valsva description, remember that drawing in your stomach also tends to impede your breathing, so trying to do this during strenuous exercise is almost certainly going to be counterproductive.
REFLEXIVE BRACING / STABILIZING
- How do you do it? This is the only one of the four methods included here that does not involve conscious activation of muscles. This, on the other hand, is more of a “sub-conscious” technique in most instances. In order to do it you should have reasonable levels of both body awareness and baseline core strength. If those pre-requisites are in place, then the technique is essentially having an idea of what position / alignment you want your spine in for a certain exercise or activity, and just letting your body do it. You only consciously activate muscles or change positions if you feel yourself coming out of the desired position and you want to correct it.
- Why would you do it? There are a handful of scenarios where this can be a useful strategy. 1) You are doing an activity that requires movement from your core / changing of position, again like throwing a medicine ball, swinging a baseball bat, or playing tennis. 2) You are doing exercises in the gym that have a low-load on the spine and there isn’t much need for to consciously brace of your core – riding a stationary bike, doing biceps curls, or calf raises. 3) You have sufficient core strength where your core muscles are “on” enough without you needing to think about them. Some people have plenty of core strength to do push ups, pull ups, lunges, or even Turkish Get Ups without really needing to “think” about their core much at all, whereas other people who are not yet at that level would need conscious activation of their core in order to keep a good position on those exercises. This will be individual from person-to-person.
- What shortcomings does it have? The biggest concern here is you might unknowingly slip from “active” stability strategies to “passive” stability strategies – and that can often lead to lower back pain (or other problems). The term “active” stability basically means using your muscles to stabilize your spine and control its motion – this can be done consciously or subconsciously. The term “passive” stability means your muscles are not providing sufficient stability on their own, so your body needs to find more stability from somewhere else (this is almost never a good thing). Depending on what the activity is your body will find different passive strategies to provide that stability. For example, if you have ever done either a plank or ab wheel exercise and felt a pain in your lower back (often a jamming or pinching sensation) that is almost certainly a sign that you have exceeded your limit for active stability and now your body is basically jamming together the vertebrae in your lower back as a means of creating passive stability (needless to say, this is not good).
I hope that offers some insight as to the different methods of bracing your core and under what circumstances you would choose one strategy over another. A one-size-fits-all approach is not helpful when it comes to core bracing, and it is important to be able to make an informed decision about which strategy to use based on the task at hand.