Squats and deadlifts have a reputation of being inherently dangerous for your back. If you've ever heard any of these common sayings...
...then you know what I'm talking about.
While we as powerlifters know there's no truth to these statements, avoiding injury does come down to proper technique and execution that allows these movements to be safe. In fact, the biggest contributor to keeping a rigid spine and therefore a back-friendly squat and deadlift is proper bracing.
How to Brace Properly (It's not just flexing your abs)
Bracing refers to the Valsalva maneuver used by lifters in weight training for decades. This Valsalva maneuver is “performed by a forceful attempt of exhalation against a closed airway”. This is traditionally done as part of the set-up on squats and deadlifts. A lifter will inhale a big breath of air into their stomach while flexing the abdominal muscles, pulling the ribcage down. This ensures that the spine is locked into position and that you are lifting as safely and efficiently as possible.
Proper Squat Bracing
When it comes to squatting, a lifter will want to overly expand their belly to create a large base to stabilize the weight on their back. The key here is not only to push your belly out but rather “around” as well, this means that you should be focusing on creating 360 degrees of tension throughout the core. The easiest way to ensure you are doing this is to stick your thumbs into your sides and then perform the Valsalva maneuver. If performed correctly you should be able to feel your obliques pushing your thumbs out. This may take a few weeks to perfect, but nonetheless, you should prioritize this in your training if you plan on lifting heavy for a long time.
Bracing for Deadlifts
Moving on to the deadlift, the bracing is a little different. On deadlifts (especially conventional ones) you can’t expand your belly as much compared to squats as the volume of it would prevent you from getting into an optimal starting position. This doesn’t mean that we stop expanding our core, but rather than focusing on creating a big belly we focus on flexing the core and engaging the 360 degrees of tension throughout the core mentioned above.
Using a Belt to Brace
Now let’s talk about bracing with a belt. It’s exactly the same without one, but newer lifters often rely too much on their belt to create tension. The most common mistake I see is lifters tightening their belt as if it was a corset. Overly tightening your belt will only prevent you from expanding and creating as much tension as possible. A properly worn belt should be slightly loose, but somewhat tight as you brace. This allows for optimal expansion and intra-abdominal pressure. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to fit 1-2 fingers in between you and your belt.
Put this Knowledge to Work
Bracing is an extremely important part of powerlifting and should be the main focus of beginners as it will allow them to lift safely and efficiently. Bracing is a skill that needs to be practiced every training session that requires it, with proper breathing, expansion, and tension of the core. When using a belt, remember to not overly tighten it and keep your bracing technique the same as without it. The only difference should be that your core is now pushing against the belt. Practice your bracing technique and lift away.