Whether you’ve been following our content for years or you’re just starting to dive in, you’ve likely noticed we start many of our corrective strategies with bracing and spinal mechanics. We don’t do this to over simplify the process but, because so often the dysfunction or issue in question is driven by poor spinal mechanics. Bracing is a logical place to go for people with back pain or other issues directly related to their spine, but it’ll also explain some ways in which spinal mechanics influence the mechanics of distal joints, like hips and shoulders.
It’s worth outlining what we’re even talking about with regards to either bracing or spinal mechanics and put some context to it. In many cases, this article will be directed towards powerlifters or other sagittal plane athletes but can applied broadly to other types of athletes as well depending on the situation.
Why we feel bracing is so important begins with a discussion about spinal mechanics. It’s not news that you want to minimize changes in spinal position during most axial loaded movements especially from a safety standpoint. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that thinks you should egregiously round your spine throughout the course of a pull to be a better deadlifter. There are nuanced discussions where people make arguments for starting in a bit more flexion particularly in the thoracic spine, but there’s always the caveat of “if it stays locked”. I used the example of flexion, but this applies to spinal extension too. You want your spine to be rigid through movements like the deadlift and not shifting into extension. We can even set the safety discussion aside and talk about performance in this regard. Your spine is meant to stabilize and transfer energy from your prime movers (hips and shoulders) into the implement (barbell). If you’re getting excessive motion here, force that could be being put into the barbell is instead being lost. For example; if you are on the concentric portion of a squat and your back is rounding as your hips continue to rise and the bar is staying in relatively the same position even though you’re moving up, the bar isn’t actually moving upwards in space, and you’re ending up in a less advantageous position to lift the weight.
The word bracing is something that I find myself getting further and further away from as time goes on. I still hear plenty of coaches cue this this way, and we do as well, but bracing to me, implies tensing your abdominal muscles in a manner like you’re going to take a punch in the stomach/ This is not what I am talking about in this discussion, and generally not what we’re referring to doing exclusively when we talk about creating intra-abdominal pressure. Discussions on the nuance of bracing could be an article entirely on its own, so for some more in-depth explanation of that, I’d recommend starting with these two videos:
Intra-abdominal pressure is the way in which we use the descending of the diaphragm to create pressure through the abdominal cavity, creating tension on the muscles of the abdomen. This works through a series of opposite tension (think guy wire system on a bridge) to stabilize the spine. This isn’t best done through flexing the abs like you’re trying to take that perfect mirror picture for Instagram and is generally the opposite. You want pressure outward in all directions. You should be able to press out through not only your belly, but horizontally through your obliques, and posteriorly through your lower back.
So, we’ve established what we’re trying to do and a small part of why we feel that it’s important. Why is it though, that if someone has an issue like for instance, hitting depth in the squat, that we’re still going to this first? Bracing and spinal mechanics make up the foundation of our system because of the dramatic effect it can have on the function of our hip and shoulder joints. If you arch your back and go into an extreme amount of spinal extension and try to squat, you’ll find that you have a little trouble going as deep as you would if you go the opposite way and go into extreme flexion, where you’ll be able to sit deep into a bodyweight squat. Changes in spinal position affect the mobility of your other joints. This goes beyond just the hips and lumbar spine as well. If you hunch over and go into extreme thoracic flexion and try to bring your shoulders overhead/into flexion, you’ll notice you’re a bit limited there. Likewise, if you go into extreme extension you’ll find it easier to bring your arms overhead.
Now, the position of the most mobility isn’t the position of the greatest strength, so just because you have more mobility in an over extended position doesn’t mean that’s how you should lift. Similarly, with the squat, you wouldn’t want to squat in extreme amounts of flexion even if it’s more mobile and you’ll likely open yourself up to a higher likelihood for back pain in either of these instances. This is where a balance of the two – being in “neutral” comes in. Neutral is a range and this is something that’s been brought up with increasing frequency lately but is usually paired with someone saying, “there is no such thing as good positions” and I see their point of view. The way we describe neutral and what we talk about is maintaining a position where your rib cage is stacked over your pelvis, and the position where you’re able to create and maintain the best intra-abdominal pressure.
To tie all of this together, we use bracing and being in a neutral spine position as a way of finding a position of maximum stability and the necessary mobility. Being able to control changes in spinal position due to outside forces (like picking up a barbell off the floor) is accomplished through intra-abdominal pressure. This is not only one of the most beneficial things you can do for performance in your lifting but tends to clean up a whole host of “mobility” issues that people constantly chase without success. If you’re having pain because you can’t control your spinal position and are constantly loading it in excess flexion or extension, this will also become imperative for not continuing to make that pain worse. When somebody can properly create intra-abdominal pressure, properly upright their spine, and hinge well, other things tend to fall very much in line, and that is why this is the first priority in our system.