Have you ever arched your back like an angry cat on Halloween when attempting a heavy deadlift? Have you ever folded like a piece of paper while under a heavy squat? Have you ever found yourself hopelessly trapped on a bench? You might have been thinking that your arms, legs or some other body parts are weak. You may have thought you have to plug in a slew of accessories to your program to strengthen what you thought were weak. There may be individual weaknesses that could cause someone to fail a lift, but more times than not, that is not the primary cause. To lift a heavy load, concentric movement must come from a stable position. That stable position is found in your core. A person’s core includes the abdominals, the obliques and the posterior chain. Together, they help build a foundation of stability that allows a person to lift mind boggling weight.
Breathing and Bracing: The Valsalva Maneuver
Stability and power in the core is established using a method called the Valsalva maneuver or breathing and bracing. This is the process of bringing air into your body and expanding the muscles in your core to create a pressurized cabin, thus building stability. Every lifter in every strength sport knows, or should know, how to execute this maneuver. Whether it’s a powerlifter, a strongman or Olympic weightlifter, the Valsalva maneuver is key to lifting. There are some slight variances to how the Valsalva is executed, but the principle is always the same. I find it best to begin before placing yourself under a load. Use your nose to pull in air into your belly, then use your mouth to gather as much remaining air as possible. Use the air to expand your torso a full 360 degrees. The abdominals, the obliques and back should expand outwards creating a tight, strong, stable core. The key is to use the diaphragm to pull air down into the torso. The belly should be visibly expanding. If the chest rises first, air is not being inhaled properly. Executing the Valsalva maneuver properly is not particularly comfortable. Once air is pulled in and expands the torso, the lifter should feel a tremendous amount of internal pressure. The sensation of a properly executed Valsalva maneuver can be a bit intimidating. Whenever I perform the Valsalva maneuver myself, my vision gets blurry, my hearing decreases and my eyes feel like they’re going to pop out of my head. Some people are afraid that this amount of intense internal pressure could lead to a stroke or some coronary event. That has never been proven to be true, in and of itself. If you are someone who may have a higher chance of stroke or heart attack, consult your doctor if you feel uncomfortable with executing the Valsalva maneuver.
Like previously stated, the Valsalva maneuver creates a stable and strong platform to execute heavy lifts. It also provides an equally important benefit, stabilizing and protecting the spine. The human spine does not like to be in flexion while under a heavy load. While spinal flexion is a perfectly normal human movement, the spine should always be locked into place while under a heavy load. Otherwise, lifting with flexion could lead to serious injury over time. This is that famous “pop” that so many people feel when injuring their spine. Performing the Valsalva maneuver correctly helps lock the spine in place and keep it from flexing under a heavy load. Ideally, a lifter’s back will look like a straight line while lifting. There are some exceptions to that rule. Some lifters are able to perform their lifts with an arch in their back, however their spine is not flexing and the arch is generally only in the upper back. The lumbar is always locked in place. Lifters who can perform lifts with an arch are doing that because their own anatomy dictates it, and they are usually advanced lifters under the supervision of a reputable trainer. The general population should focus on lifting with a locked and flat back. For you lifters out there trying strongman for the first time, don’t be intimidated by events like the Atlas stone. Yes, the lifter is executing the lift with an arched back, however, the lifter is still bracing and is using the stone as a support to brace into, thus creating a safe lift.
Build a Core of Iron
Having a six pack doesn’t really mean anything in terms of stability and power. Performing exercises like crunches might do wonders to develop the abdominal muscles from a physique standpoint, but they don’t really carry over to helping that brace. You’ve likely heard the phrase “build a core of iron” before. The principle is to have a core that is developed in a way that promotes stability and power. Performing exercises like crunches do not necessarily do that because they require your torso to flex and arch. Exercises that help build on stability are performed with a flat torso. These exercises include ones like dead bug, reverse crunches, planks and hanging leg lifts. The best series of exercises that help develop that core is called the McGill Big 3. McGill, as in Dr. Stu McGill, is a world renowned spine specialist who has helped many people with severe back injuries perform at a high level. The McGill Big 3 is made up of the modified curl up, the side plank and the bird dog. Performing all three everyday will help build that core of iron.
The Modified Curl Up
Begin by lying flat on your back. Place both of your hands under the small of your back (your hands act like sensors to make your lower spine doesn’t flex) and bring one of your legs up with your foot flat on the ground. It doesn’t matter which foot you bring up. From there, pull air into your belly and expand the abdominals as hard as possible while lifting your head up only slightly. Hold this position for ten seconds while keeping the spine in a neutral position, then relax. Repeat this exercise six times. The modified curl up will help develop the abdominals.
The Side Plank
Lay on your side and use your forearm to prop your body up. Your other arm should be stretched upward and punching a hole through the sky. From there, breathe in deeply, expand your torso with tremendous pressure, maintain a neutral position of the spine and hold for ten seconds. Relax, then roll over to do the same on the other side and repeat six times. While performing this exercise, you should feel your obliques (sides of your torso) straining to support your body. This will help develop the obliques to expand and be stable under a heavy load.
The Bird Dog
This exercise begins with positioning yourself on your hands and knees. From here, gather as much air into your torso as possible, lock in your spine, expand your torso as intensely as possible then, with a firm fist, stretch out one of your arms. Simultaneously, stretch out the opposite leg with your feet flat in the air (if your right arm is extended, extend your left leg and vice versa). Hold this position for ten seconds, then slowly bring your outstretched limbs into your body and touch your knee with your hand while maintaining a braced core. Then extend out again. Repeat six times, then perform the same with opposite limbs. While performing this exercise, it is important that the spine not be flexed. The extended arm and leg should not be too high or too low. They should be in a position that will keep the spine locked in a neutral position. This exercise will help develop stability and stiffness of the posterior chain during movement.
Together, these exercises are designed to build stability in the core, thus promoting greater force production and protection of the spine. All together, performing these exercises takes roughly twenty minutes or so. They should be performed everyday, but especially prior to squats and deadlifts. They can also be performed multiple times each day. It is best to integrate them into your warmup and recovery.
What is the Purpose of a Lifting Belt?
Belts are simply a tool to help optimize a lifter’s brace. That’s it. Lifting belts are not magic implements that prevent injury and protect the low back. If you are using the belt with the mindset of preventing an injury from happening or preventing the worsening of an already existing injury, do yourself a favor and stop what you’re doing. Belts should be used to help create a greater level of stability and tightness in a lifter’s core. A belt should be worn at the widest part of the torso. The belt should be tightened to a firm position but not to the point that inhibits proper breathing and torso expansion. Ideally, a lifter should be able to slip a finger between the belt and the body. From there, perform the Valsalva maneuver. The goal should be to push against the belt using the abdominals, the obliques and the lower back (this is where practicing the McGill Big 3 pays in full). Your goal should be to squeeze your core so hard, you’re attempting to break the belt. While braced, there should be no gaps between the belt and the body. The entire belt should be met with your body. It is the combination of the Valsalva with the belt that prevents injury and promotes stability. The belt by itself is just an expensive accessory. Some professionals, myself included (I’m not a professional, just opinionated), think it is best to not use the belt at all intensities. Belts should be reserved for higher intensity lifts (80% and up). At the lesser intensities, focus on using your core to create the stability necessary to lift. The more effective a lifter is at the Valsalva maneuver without the belt, the more effective the use of the belt will become.
It is important to know that the specifications of the belt are important. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. It is my opinion that no one should settle for a cheap belt. Quality belts do not have to be overly expensive, but you’re going to have to spend at least a bit for a good belt. Depending on what you intend to do with the belt, pay attention to the material, thickness and length of the belt. Fore example, if you’re going to be performing the power lifts, it may be best to use a thick, wide leather belt. If you’re going to be someone who performs olympic style lifts or strongman lifts that require the implements to be in close proximity of the body, it may be best to use a nylon belt with a strong velcro. Personally, I like to use my Rogue Ohio belt. It is a 10 millimeter thick, 4 inch wide belt made of tanned leather that is already broken in. It is fastened using a single prong. I have come to love that belt, and use it on all my lifts. While that is my personal choice, there are several reputable brands used by amateurs and elite lifters. If you are looking for options I would recommend Rogue, Cerberus, Pioneer and EliteFTS. There are other reputable brands on the market, but those should give you a good place to start, and they have great reputations. Their belts may cost upwards of $100, but it may very well be the last belt you buy for years.
Take the time to practice the Valsalva maneuver, build up the core of iron and learn how to properly use a belt, and you will be able to lift heavier weight. Like any other lift, core stability is a skill that needs to be practiced daily. If you take the time to practice them, you will one day find yourself lifting heavier loads and with a much shorter track record of injuries.
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