Relaxing does have its benefits. Winning the League MVP, having a hot girlfriend, the adulation of an entire fanbase – all through the power of r-e-l-a-x-ation. Relaxing may have worked for Aaron Rodgers, but it won’t work for you if you want to be the strongest version of yourself. If you don’t master the ability to create full body tension, you are leaving potential untapped, and keeping pounds off the bar. However, it’s not that complicated – just follow the bracing sequence outlined below, and you are well on your way to getting tight and staying tight throughout your lifts!
Where does full body tension start? Tension starts right in the middle on the body – bracing your core to handle big weights. You can yell at the barbell and listen to Metallica until your ears bleed, but it wont make you properly brace for a big lift. Consistent, proper core bracing will keep you healthy and strong – even after the caffeine and loud music wears off.
The Bracing Sequence
- Squeeze your butt to set your hips to neutral
- Make sure your rib cage is positioned directly over your hips
- Breathe in a big breath into your stomach (diaphragm)
- Release some air, then clamp down your stomach muscles by squeezing. You are trying to push out the air in your belly – like how air expands a balloon
- Keep tension in your core for the duration of the set
I do not advocate breathing in as you lower the weight in any compound movement – not getting as tight as possible before moving can have negative consequences for your back.
Not only is this the best method for becoming a strong lifter, it is also the safest way to lift for your spine, which will prolong your gym career while keeping you out of the doctor’s office. You cannot have any compromising of your spine while lifting. It must stay rigid. Any slight bend may lead to a disc herniation or muscle strain.
The great thing about the bracing sequence is that it’s universal – it can be applied to any movement, loaded or unloaded. You can approach a heavy squat the exact same way you would a strict press, or how you would push a sled. Good movement is good movement.
What about the rest of your body?
Now that you have a tight, braced core, your arms and legs will be given the green light for maximum performance to your nervous system. Think of it like your brain has taken the parking break off. You may even feel like your range of motion is greater than before because you have created a stable core. Proximal mobility through distal stability.
This is the point when you should focus on applying force to the barbell or floor. I like to cue athletes to squeeze the bar, or try to break the bar in half in order to create massive tension in your shoulders and arms – the key to a big bench, deadlift and even pull ups.
If you are squatting or deadlifting, you should think about spreading the floor apart with your feet – this cue will light up your glutes, ensuring the tension created in your core will transmit to the hips, and then finally into the ground.
Ok, you just followed each step perfectly and you are now as tight as steel cable. But how are you supposed to string together reps in a sequence without passing out?! The key is to have a breathing strategy. You cannot approach a one rep max the same way as a set of 20.
My general breathing recommendations:
- 1-2 reps – “Valsalva maneuver” – hold your breath to maintain high intra-abdominal pressure (if someone punched you in the stomach, they should feel like they punched a brick wall). Try to stay as rigid as possible. This will lead to the best performance – health risks are low because the set is very short in duration.
- 3-10 reps – “Partial Valsalva maneuver” – I recommend a slight exhale on the way up and a quick, shallow inhale between every rep (or every other rep, depending on how you are feeling). Don’t skimp on breathing – if you need to take a bigger breath, take it. This technique allows you to reap the performance benefits while maintaining the ability to catch your breath, avoid dizziness and make sure you don’t blackout.
- 10+ reps – Once the reps increase to endurance levels, I recommend pausing at the top and taking a full new breath every couple of reps. Make sure to prioritize intra-abdominal pressure on the descending portion of the lift. Sets with reps this high should be treated as cardio – you wouldn’t run a mile without breathing, would you?!
Certain lifts may require a different approach. They key is to balance the need for performance with the need for safety.
Mulligan Fitness and Hylete.com
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