You can learn how to brace your core to avoid straining your lower back and neck while doing abdominal exercises and other lifting moves.
“Abdominal bracing happens when you contract the muscles around your spine to create a rigid midsection,” said physical therapist Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, CSCS, and founder of Movement Vault. This bracing protects your spine from moving in a position that can cause damage or injury.
Because your nervous system, and more specifically your spinal cord and the nerves that run off your spinal cord, travel through your vertebrae, Wickham says, it’s very important to protect your spine from positions that could cause damage to your spinal cord, vertebrae, or nerves.
The most common movements that cause injury to your spine include loaded spinal flexion and loaded spinal flexion with rotation.
To get a better idea of abdominal bracing in action, Wickham says to think of it as creating a stiff muscular corset, which protects your back and nervous system. “This is especially important when moving heavy loads, or moving in explosive ways that generate a lot of force,” he said.
Abdominal bracing is something you can practice and perfect with repetition. The ultimate goal is to be able to subconsciously create intra-abdominal pressure with abdominal bracing.
Muscles used for ab bracing
The core muscles Wickham is referring to include the:
- transversus abdominis
- internal and external obliques
- quadratus lumborum
- spinal erectors
- rectus abdominis
These muscles create intra-abdominal pressure to hold your spine in a safe, neutral position.
Strong core muscles are key to performing daily tasks and activities. To strengthen these muscles, experts often recommend doing abdominal exercises several times a week.
When done correctly, core workouts can help tighten and tone your midsection and reduce your risk of injury. But if you’re not using proper form, you may end up with pain in the exact areas you’re trying to protect.
Lift objects safely and more efficiently
Learning how to brace your midsection will allow you to perform daily tasks and movements safely and more efficiently. “The extent to which we need to brace our midsection depends on the demand of the movement that we are doing,” said Wickham.
For example, the amount of bracing required to bend down and pick up a shoe is going to be very different than the amount of bracing needed to bend down and deadlift 400 pounds.
“So essentially, we are always creating some level of abdominal bracing, but the activity will demand the level of intensity,” he added.
Engages more ab muscles
Improve running form and gait
For runners, using the abdominal bracing method to activate abdominal muscles can help support your lower back if you’re experiencing an excessive rocking motion in your pelvis while running, according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s Current Sports Medicine Reports.
Good prep for contact sports
In addition to being beneficial when performing heavy lifts, the American Council on Exercise also says abdominal bracing is a useful strategy when preparing for impact.
For example, increasing the rigidity around your trunk is helpful during contact sports such as soccer, rugby, or football.
Can be used during most activities
What’s so great about abdominal bracing is you can practice it with almost any exercise or daily activity that requires you to protect your spine.
Now that you understand the importance of abdominal bracing, it’s time to apply that knowledge and learn how to perform the move.
There are two basic steps to the abdominal bracing technique. You can practice the steps in many positions.
Step 1: Deep breath in
Take a deep breath in, expanding your rib cage.
- Standing or lying down, take a breath in using your diaphragm, preferably breathing through the nose, expanding your rib cage.
- The volume of breath that you inhale is dependent on the activity you’re bracing for. For example, when performing a high-intensity movement like a heavy deadlift, you’ll want to inhale around 70 percent of your total lung capacity. But if you’re doing a less intense move, such as bending over to pick up your backpack, you only need to inhale a small amount of air, around 5 to 10 percent of your total lung capacity.
- Wickham also points out that you typically don’t have to consciously think about bracing your core to perform low-intensity movements as your body will do it automatically.
Step 2: Brace the abdominal muscles
Create rigidity by contracting all your core muscles.
- To create rigidity in all the muscles that surround your midsection, pull your rib cage down. Think of it as creating a stiff muscular corset, which protects your back and nervous system. Tighten your midsection by pulling in your belly button towards the spine. Remember to breathe while doing this.
- Just like the first step, you’ll vary the intensity of your core contraction to the activity you’re doing. For example, when performing a heavy deadlift, you’ll want to contract the core muscles maximally. But if you’re picking up a backpack, you can do a low-level contraction such as 5 percent of the contraction intensity.
Ab bracing progression
When Wickham teaches abdominal bracing to clients, he starts them in a back-lying position. Then after they master the move while lying down, he moves them to a hands and knees position. After learning the bracing technique in this position, he has them perform a static squat while bracing the abdominal muscles.
Again, abdominal bracing can be done during all sorts of exercises and everyday activities where you want to support and protect your back.
In the gym, focus on bracing before you do exercises like:
You can also practice abdominal bracing when doing core exercises like:
- side planks
- bird dogs (alternate arm and leg raise exercise)
- pelvic floor exercises
Practicing abdominal bracing while exercising or performing daily tasks such as heavy lifting can help reduce the strain on your neck and lower back. It can also protect these injury-prone areas from straining.
While bracing the abdominals may feel awkward as you get used to the action, discomfort or pain isn’t normal.
If you experience sharp pain or find this move to be extremely uncomfortable, stop what you’re doing and consult a physical therapist. They can help you practice the steps and watch you do the bracing move while performing other exercises.