As a lover of all things iron, you have an innate desire to grow stronger. It’s easy to add more weight to the barbell or hoist heavier dumbbells overhead, but going up in numbers won’t render the best results when it comes to strength gains. Getting stronger is like building a house: start with a solid foundation, build the frame, then install the walls, windows, and other details.
Think of adding weight to the bar as the walls and windows. Developing strength and technique to lift safely is the foundation. Progressive overload is one of the many tools to employ to help you put together the framework of a strong, healthy body. If you struggle to make strength gains despite consistency in the gym, you may need to go back to basics by building a solid technical foundation.
Technical efficiency can be thought of as one’s ability to complete a lift without excessive energy leaks and/or compromises in form that might hinder the lift or hurt the lifter. And more often than not, technical inefficiency can be traced back to a lack of core stability.
The body is composed of various segments. That’s to say there are several joints, tissues, and structures that comprise the different parts of the body. These segments can perform individual, isolated actions (like performing leg extensions on a machine) as well as integrated, compound actions involving multiple body segments (such as a barbell squat). One requires little participation from any muscles not acting as prime movers. The other requires stabilization and coordination of many body segments beyond the prime movers.
More segments are involved when performing exercises with longer kinetic chains, which means there’s more room for technical issues to arise should any segment fail to perform its duty.
One weak link in a chain is enough to break it. And since your core is what connects your upper body to your lower body, you can see how stability throughout that region is crucial for minimizing energy leaks and improving force transfer. Not only will you be safer when you have a stable core, but you’ll lift more weight.
As water flows through a pipe, so force travels through the segments of the body. And like water, force will favor the path of least resistance. If the pipe has a hole it’s going to leak, which reduces pressure on the other end of the pipe. If you’ve got a lack of stability at any given body segment, you’re going to leak energy in the same manner. That means some of the force you put into the lift will be lost through the “soft” structures it travels across.
If you hit a baseball with a bat, good contact can send the ball sailing. This is in part because force generated by swinging the bat travels through the body, down the bat, and transfers to the ball.
Now try to hit that baseball with a pool noodle. Swing as hard as you like - it’s going nowhere fast. A pool noodle simply won’t transfer the force you put into it. The majority of the energy you put into it is lost as soon as it meets resistance.
Laxity or “softness” in any body segment can result in a loss of force transmission and result in energy leaks. Therefore, a series of rigid segments and stability between joints will result in a more optimal path for force transfer across body segments.
Lifting weights with a rigid and braced core rather than a lax, un-braced core is the equivalent of opting for a baseball bat over a pool noodle.
If you’re not breathing and bracing properly, you’re batting with a pool noodle.
Getting into neutral position is crucial for bracing and breathing to be effective at stabilizing the lumbar spine. Squeezing the glutes draws the pelvis under the torso and helps neutralize the lumbar spine if it was excessively extended before this reset.
If the pelvis was anteriorly tilted before, it should now be somewhat posteriorly tilted. (The pelvis won’t necessarily remain in rigid PPT through the full range of motion in a squat or deadlift, this is purely illustrating a pelvis reset for the sake of positioning for core stability).
Now to the ribs. A good exhale helps engage the anterior core (rectus and obliques) and draw the ribcage downward.
The rib cage is pulled into its neutral position, allowing the diaphragm to achieve what the Postural Restoration Institute terms an optimal “zone of apposition” which means good positioning for this muscle to do what it does best: help us breathe. Check out the video below for a look at how the diaphragm contracts during breathing cycles with the ribs in anatomical position.
With pelvis and rib positioning nailed down, we can examine a bracing and breathing strategy that will help deliver the core stability we’re after.
I once heard Mike Robertson say learning to “inhale from an exhaled position” was the key to developing core stability in any position. That advice is golden because breathing from an unbraced, ribs up position tends to drive people into an extended posture. But inhale from an exhaled position and the anterior core engages. Combine that supportive breath with a braced core and you’ve got a recipe for core stability.
If you’ve lifted weights for any length of time you’re probably already familiar with the Valsalva Maneuver. It’s basically a term that sums up bracing and breathing for core stability.
Hackett and Chow (2013) determined, "...the Valsalva Maneuver effectively increases Intra-Abdominal Pressure, which may assist with spine stability and trunk rigidity during resistance exercise."
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)’s textbook "Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning" describes the Valsalva Maneuver thusly:
When the diaphragm and the deep muscles of the torso contract, pressure is generated within the abdominal cavity. Because the abdomen is composed mainly of fluid and normally contains very little gas, it is virtually incompressible. The abdominal fluids and tissue kept under pressure by tensing surrounding muscle (deep abdominal muscles and diaphragm) have been described as a “fluid ball” that aids in supporting the vertebral column during resistance training. Such support may significantly reduce both the forces required by the erector spinae muscles to perform an exercise and the associated compressive forces on the disks.
In short, the Valsalva is most effective when the anterior core is engaged prior to inhaling for support. An inhale initiated through the nose allows for a diaphragmatic breath which drives the contents of the intra-abdominal space downward and out against the abdominal wall. This creates 3D expansion of the abdominal wall and results in circumferential pressure that can stabilize the lumbar spine.
Cody Lefever, an accomplished powerlifter and all around cool dude, recently made a guest appearance on Omar Isuf’s YouTube channel with a video on the topic of breathing and bracing for lifting weights.
Using video footage from some of his own powerlifting meets, Cody demonstrates the difference proper bracing can make when lifting heavy weights. His description of proper breathing and bracing is some of the best I’ve come across in all my studies on this topic. I really think you’ll get a lot from his video.
Core stability increases force transfer, reduces injury risk, and ultimately helps lifters who want to lift more... lift more. So if you’ve been plagued by a seemingly unwarranted lack of progress in the department of strength gains, you may need to take a step back and work on core stability.
But here’s the thing - core stability doesn’t just happen under the bar. There are plenty of exercises that develop core stability and most of them don’t even require weights. Lucky for you all, we’re developing a video series of exercise progressions to help you in that area!