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'Squeeze Your Core!': A Basic Guide to the Core and Bracing

How many times has it happened: you’re in the gym and your coach yells out, “Brace your core!” Okay, you think as you suck in your stomach. Surely that’s enough to include the abs, right? Is that what your coach meant by engaging the core? Is the core more than just the abs? Why does it matter if it’s being engaged?

“Core” is a term that even the most novice athletes recognize. But what exactly is “the core”? The core is a group of interconnecting trunk, hip and pelvic muscles that surround the abdomen, hips and spine. Though it does include both deep and superficial abdominal muscles, it also includes the obliques, paraspinals, hip flexors, diaphragm, glutes, and pelvic floor muscles. These muscles all work together to stabilize the spine against excessive load and help facilitate the load transfer between the upper and lower body. Think about the core as similar to a barrel; in the front of the barrel are the abdominals while the glutes and paraspinals are in the back of the barrel. The top of the barrel is the diaphragm and the bottom of the barrel are the pelvic floor and hip muscles. The sides of the barrel are made up of the inner and outer obliques.

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If this barrel represents the core, then “bracing your core” means filling that barrel up. Bracing is the ability to maintain tension in your core throughout a lift or movement. The more tension that is built up in your core during a challenging lift, also referred to as building intra-abdominal pressure, the more stable your body will be during the movement and the more energy efficient your movement will be. Returning to the barrel, think about the difference between an empty barrel and a full barrel. An empty barrel, under a heavy load, will eventually splinter and collapse. A full barrel is more challenging to collapse since whatever is filling up the barrel creates pressure inside the barrel AND against the barrel walls, effectively reinforcing those walls.

There is a similar process that goes on in the core during a brace; the air that is inhaled at the start of the brace expands the torso in all directions, thereby increasing the tension within the core and providing a more stable movement. Thus, when “bracing the core”, the athlete should take a strong inhaling breath with the intention of physically expanding the torso in all directions. Bracing should be seen as an expansion of the core musculature, not “sucking in”.

However, bracing, while critical, takes plenty of practice. Here are three steps than can help you to make sure you are bracing properly:

  1. Think of bracing your core like crushing a soda can; your torso is the soda can and you are contracting your abdominal muscles to “crush the can”.

  2. Once the soda can is crushed, take a big breath. Focus on breathing through your diaphragm and expanding the belly away from the spine.

  3. Expand your sides; since we now know the core is more than just the abs, think about bracing as expanding your ENTIRE torso. The belly should be expanded out and forward WHILE the sides are expanding out as well.

It’s also helpful to practice these steps with hands around the waist so the athlete can literally feel the core expanding into the hands.

Overall, core bracing is a technique that can revolutionize an athlete’s energy efficiency and ability to lift heavy loads. However, it’s a technique that must be practiced often and correctly. It’s also why the coaches spend a big chunk of time during barbell and kettlebell lifts talking about how and when to brace the core. The more practice, the more automatic the bracing will become. At RF, it doesn’t matter if it’s upper or lower body day; every day is a great day to practice bracing!

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