The Deadlift Series: Creating Tension, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I explained how taking the slack out of the bar can help you deadlift more efficiently, increasing tension at the onset of the lift.

In today’s article, I’ll discuss another crucial aspect of the set-up that can add kilos to your lifts, while reducing the risk of injuries to the spine and surrounding musculature: abdominal bracing.

Bracing is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in strength training.

It’s not simply about ‘tensing up’ the core musculature, although that’d make for a much easier article to write.

In the realm of strength sports, what we call bracing typically refers to at least two different concepts: diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal bracing and (usually, but not always) the Valsalva maneuver.

All three elements contribute to the creation of intra-abdominal pressure, which is the cornerstone to lifting heavy and safely.

Your ‘core’ is comparable to a cylinder, or a soda can. The muscles of your trunk, your spinal stabilizers, make up the walls of the can.

Pressurizing the inside of the can will increase its rigidity – this is what we mean by intra-abdominal pressure. We want to be able to keep the can full, stable and strong.

A strong and stable core is better able to transmit forces between your upper and lower regions of the body.

It’s also more resilient against spinal or musculoskeletal injuries that can occur when lifting very heavy loads.

In order to achieve adequate intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), we must start with proper breathing.

Enter the diaphragm.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Also known as belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing involves the contraction of the mystical diaphragm, the odd dome-shaped muscle found inside your thorax.

When contracted, the diaphragm flattens to make room for the chest cavity to expand. At the same time, it pushes down on the contents of the abdomen, causing your belly to stick out.

Photo credit: Dynamicyoga.in

Contrary to popular belief, you’re not actually pulling air into your stomach during belly breathing; that’s the illusion we’re given as our torso expands front to back and side to side.

If you’ve never breathed with your diaphragm, try this:

Stand up straight with one hand on your chest, and one hand on your abdomen.

Take a deep breath in.

Which hand do you feel has risen more, the one on your chest or the one on your abdomen? If it’s the former, you’ve got some practicing to do.

As with any other skill, diaphragmatic breathing takes practice, but it too can become second nature.

Abdominal Bracing

Bracing is the simpler of the three elements to explain, as it’s something we’re all intuitively capable of doing.

Imagine Mike Tyson is standing right in front of you, ready to deliver a hard blow to your stomach. Without a doubt, you’d brace as hard as you could to absorb the shock of the punch.

Bracing involves the co-contraction of the deep muscles of your trunk: your local stabilizers. They include the transverse abdominis, multifidus, external obliques, the posterior fibers of the psoas, the diaphragm, and the muscles of the pelvic floor.

Photo credit: agilityphysio.com

Note that bracing doesn’t mean sucking in your stomach. Instead, you should be able to tense up your core muscles without changing the geometric dimensions of your trunk.

The spine by itself isn’t very stable, it’s a column of stacked vertebrae that has no additional bony support; relying on its surrounding musculature for protection.

In order to increase intra-abdominal pressure, bracing is most effective when paired with diaphragmatic breathing, which fills the trunk with air. Bracing, then, can be seen as a way of “locking in” the breath while we lift and reinforcing the sturdiness of the walls of the trunk.

When done properly, bracing can help you steer clear of injuries, while adding kilos to your lifts and making each repetition look purposeful and, in turn, more powerful.

The last piece of the puzzle, the Valsalva maneuver, helps maintain and control intra-abdominal pressure during heavy lifts.

Valsalva Maneuver

This simple yet highly effective trick helps us manage how much air goes in and out of our system during a lift. 

The Valsalva maneuver involves closing the glottis while forcefully exhaling against a closed windpipe. This keeps the breath inside the abdominal cavity, where we need it the most, during the hardest parts of the lift.

At the top of the lift, you’d then exhale, take a fresh breath in, and hold it for the duration of the repetition.

Try this: inhale, then place your tongue on the roof of your mouth. If you tried to exhale, you shouldn’t be able to let any air through.

What you end up with is greater pressure inside your abdominal and thoracic cavities, which in turn helps create even more stability and support for the spine and its surrounding musculature.

This technique can be potentially dangerous for those who have a history of high blood pressure or heart problems, predisposition to fainting, or lightheadedness. For that reason, it is often contraindicated by many trainers and fitness professionals alike.

For most of us, though, it’s completely harmless when performed right and can yield dramatic results in terms of strength and power development.

When it comes to light weights and lots of repetitions, breathing in during the eccentric and exhaling during the concentric part of the lift will have practically no impact on performance.

However, if your goal is to move near-maximal weights in the most efficient and safe manner, creating and maintaining internal pressure via the Valsalva maneuver is a technique that will certainly help you achieve superior results.

Putting it All Together

Quick recap:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing is the precursor to abdominal bracing if the goal is to increase and maximize intra-abdominal pressure (IAP).
  • The contraction of the trunk musculature (‘bracing’) helps stabilize the spine and add rigidity to the core muscles.
  • The Valsalva maneuver helps control the pressure inside the abdominal and thoracic cavities during a repetition.

As you can imagine, the need for creating IAP isn’t exclusive to the deadlift. In fact, if you want to maximize your strength performance, you should be applying these techniques to most, if not all barbell compound lifts.

Because the starting position of the deadlift involves at least some degree of hip flexion, most individuals will find it difficult to get in a full breath while in a bent over position.

For that reason, I generally advise to breathe and brace at the top, prior to grabbing the bar. This means the process must be relatively streamlined so that you won’t be holding your breath for long while setting up at the bottom.

In most lifts, you’d breathe and brace prior to lowering the weight, as in at the top of a squat, for example.

Unless we deliberately control the eccentric or lowering portion of the deadlift, each repetition in the deadlift is comprised of a concentric contraction only, which means bracing takes place right before the bar leaves the floor.

If bracing is a new concept to you, I suggest breaking down your high-repetition sets into multiple singles, coming up to a fully extended position without the bar in between every rep.

This will allow you to practice your set-up, as well as dial in the timing for breathing and bracing prior to the start of each repetition.

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About The Author

Barbara M.

Barbara is a strength coach for females looking to get stronger, both online and in person at Barbell Strength. Her passion lies in helping women of all fitness levels feel more confident in and out of the gym.