Breathing & Bracing

Go to a mirror and lift up your shirt until your entire stomach is exposed.  Now take a very deep breath and observe what happens.  

Did your shoulders and chest rise or did your belly expand outward? If you are like 99% of people, your shoulders/chest rose. This basically means that you are only using about half of your lung capacity. That is bad. 

Don’t worry though, it’s an easy fix. That is good.

Next time you have the opportunity, observe a sleeping baby.  Notice that when they inhale, their stomach will expand and contract with every breath while their shoulders will typically stay fairly motionless.  That is because they they are performing what is known as diaphragmatic breathing.  Somehow, right out of the box, innately, humans know how to breathe correctly and use every bit of our lung capacity.  I’m not sure when or why we forgot that this was important, but we did.  Diaphragmatic breathing is what opera singers are trained to use to project their voices into entire amphitheaters without the help of microphones and it also explains the crazy amount of volume an unhappy baby’s lungs can produce.   

Diaphragmatic breathing is also a much more efficient way to oxygenate your blood, which greatly aides in recovery during conditioning workouts, naturally reduces stress levels and blood pressure, heightens mental acuity and is one of the greatest factors when it comes to reaching world record levels of strength.  

Proper breathing should be the cornerstone of every single thing you do in life.  If you think it isn’t important, try sprinting 400 meters while breathing through a drinking straw. If your chest and shoulders are the only things moving when you inhale, you are only operating at a fraction of your lung’s full capacity; which, in reality, is essentially just breathing through a bigger straw.  Becoming great is about improving the basics…and it doesn’t get more basic than breathing. 

Try this:
Prone yourself out, flat on your back and gently place your hands over the lower part of your abdomen.  Through your nose, breathe in as deeply as you can. Make a conscious effort to fill every last inch of your belly with air.  Your hands are resting on your stomach just to help you focus where the oxygen should be going. Now release the air through your mouth.

Do the same thing again, but this time, once you think you have inhaled to your full capacity, attempt to take in a little more air by filling your obliques and all the lower parts on your abdomen down toward your groin area.  Now release it slowly through your mouth.  You were able to take in even more oxygen, weren’t you?

Okay, last time.  Through your nose, fill your stomach, obliques, and lower groin area all with air.  Now, allow your shoulders and chest to rise as you take in even more oxygen.  Hold it for a count of four, and slowly release it through your mouth. It was amazing how much more air you were able to take in, wasn’t it? Compare that to how much oxygen you normally inhale while just allowing your chest and shoulders to rise.

Stay prone on the floor and practice taking a few more of those “full” breaths just so you can remember what it feels like to breath with the entirety of your lungs rather than just part of them. Be careful when standing back up, though. Many people tend to get light headed due to how much oxygen is now in their bloodstream.  

Next time you are feeling stressed or are taking a moment of rest during a hard conditioning session, grab a few of these large, full-lung capacity breaths and see how quickly your heart rate drops back down and your breathing returns to normal.  Also, make a conscious effort to remind yourself throughout the day to pause and “fix” your breathing by cuing your stomach to expand on the inhale until this technique becomes habit.  You will be a much less stressed and healthier person for doing so.  

All of this gets important to meatheads soon. I promise…Okay, moving on. 

Now that you have a better understanding of how your diaphragm and lungs work, how can you apply this to achieve bigger numbers in the gym?

Go return to the mirror from earlier and pull your shirt back up.  Now flex your abs as hard as you can and observe how your core reacts.  Did your midsection “shrink” a little bit? That is because most people tend to suck in their gut slightly and round their shoulders forward when they flex their abs.  This is one form of bracing.  it is great if you are about to get punched in the stomach or are trying to impress someone while walking down the beach, but will do little to help you stabilize your core with 900 pounds on your back.

Imagine your torso as a soda can.  A cylinder shape like that is able to withstand a great amount of weight as long as it holds its form.  If you were to place an empty soda can on the ground and put a 45b plate on top of it, it will not collapse. But if you tap the side of the can just hard enough to create a small dent, it will quickly lose its integrity and the can will get crushed.  With a heavy squat bar on your back, if you suck in your gut and round your shoulders at all when bracing, think of it as creating a dent in your can.  Dented cans get crushed.  This is exactly what happens to most athletes when they miss a heavy attempt.  

Try this:
Get back in front of that mirror and fill your stomach with air.  (Just like you would if your were imitating a pregnant woman).  Now, inhale more air and push it “down” until you have filled up your obliques and groin area. (Just like our second breath from the exercise above) Once you feel you are at total capacity, now flex your abs as hard as you can.  Make a concentrated effort not to collapse or compromise your torso at all.  Think of pushing your flexed abs “out and down”. Your shoulders should be back and your chest should be high. 

If you are not making a ridiculous face in the mirror, you are not flexing hard enough. This position is not very flattering and probably shouldn’t be the one you are showing off at the beach, but it is exactly the one you want right before you go for a max effort squat or deadlift. 

Back to the soda can…  

Now, if you were to hold any of the below in your hand, which would be the hardest to crush? 
A. An empty soda can
B. A half filled opened can of soda
C. A sealed, factory reject, half filled can of soda
D. A sealed, completely filled, shaken up, fully carbonated can of soda?

Obviously, the correct answer is D.  The last can is so robust and sturdy because the significant stress inside of the container is pushing hard to get out, while the cylinder itself fights back against the pressure to hold its shape. The result is a very durable vehicle on which heavy weights can be supported.  

When bracing, think of the belly breath inhalation as soda filling up your torso (can) and your flexed abs as the hard aluminum outer shell.  The more soda and carbonation (air) you can fit inside the can, the more stable you will become.  As long as the outside of the cylinder holds its integrity (by bearing down and flexing your abs as hard as you are able), the amount of weight which you are capable of safely supporting grows exponentially.  

Hopefully everyone is still with me here…
Try this:
Grab a broomstick, PVC Pipe or even empty lifting bar and place it across your back in the starting position of a squat. You should be attempting to bend the bar across your shoulders and your butt should be flexed.   This will straighten your torso and bring the bar over the center of your foot. (I previously wrote an entire article on squat set up here:   ... if you need help)

Make sure to go through all of your normal cues to ensure that you are in the best starting position possible, because the position you lock-in at the beginning of your squat is going to be the exact same one you are bracing and stabilizing throughout the entire lift. Your upper body position and tightness should not change from start to finish.

Right before you begin your descent, draw as much air as possible into your stomach, obliques and groin area. Then hold it. 

Now flex your abs and bear down as hard as you are able.  You should not have compromised your torso, chest or shoulder position at all when you braced your core. Now your upper body is locked into position.  You are still holding your breath.

Focus on keeping your torso pushed outward and slowly descend into to hole. Nothing about your upper body’s position should have changed other the the angle of your spine.  Think of your upper body and lower body as being independent of each other. The top half  stays locked in place while the legs bend and the hips hinge. 
Hit depth, reverse the motion and complete the squat. Again, there should be no folding of your torso, no extra, inefficient movement at all.  Once you get your breath, brace your core and lock your upper body in place, it doesn’t get unlocked or released until the rep is complete. 

Once the rep is complete, exhale through your mouth.  

Complete as many reps of this as needed until it becomes part of your squat setup ritual.  

If you have never tried bracing like this before, you may find it very uncomfortable and the internal pressure that builds up can seem overwhelming. That is a normal feeling that you will grow accustomed to. 

It may not be much fun but it is very, very  effective.  On movements such as the deadlift or squat where loosing your core tightness can lead to everything from poor results to very serious injury, using a set up like this is not only your safest option, but it is also the most advantageous to moving a lot of weight.  I hope this article has been informative and helped some of your out.

~ If you have any questions or comments, feel free to send them to