“Breathe! Brace! Now move! Come on!”
How often have you seen a coach or personal trainer bellowing such commands to an athlete/client as they attempt a heavy lift? Probably too many times to count.
The idea of “breathing and bracing” gets thrown around a lot in training, but to truly understand the term and its importance to athletic performance, we need to unpack it.
The relationship between breathing and bracing isn’t as simple as we might like.
The core or brace strategy you use while running will not be similar to the brace or core strategy you use while lifting a heavy weight off the floor. Simply put, they require different approaches.
Have you ever tried taking a deep breath in, holding it, squeezing all your muscles, and then attempting to run a mile? I’d imagine it’d be very difficult to move. Have you ever seen a powerlifter walking up to his or her one-rep max and breathe like they’re out for a light jog as they attempt to execute the lift? No, because again, this would be very difficult and inefficient.
Or when Serena Williams returns a serve, or a martial artist kicks a heavy bag—have you heard the noise that comes out of their mouth upon contact? What’s their approach to breathing and bracing?
Based on these three examples, we have a basic understanding that breathing and bracing comes in many different flavors.
What about sports like hockey, football, lacrosse, baseball, etc.? Picture a hockey player skating up to the ice, his opponent lining him up for a big hit. This player is left with a decision: Does he brace for impact or blow past him? The core (bracing or tension) strategies are very different. This isn’t simply limited to bracing for impact. What about changing direction on the ice, or preparing to connect with a one-timer?
The fundamental questions to answer on breathing and bracing are:
- Are you able to hold your breath and brace for stability?
- Are you able to breathe while bracing for stability?
- Are you able to mix and match these two abilities on the fly in response to your unique athletic environment?
What’s the message?
It’s not as simple as yelling “brace.”
When someone is learning how to drive, you don’t just instruct them to floor it.
The pressure you place on the gas pedal should be influenced by your ability level, the speed limit and how quickly you need to get somewhere. The pedal-to-the-metal mentality might be acceptable on the Autobahn or the race track, but in a school zone when kids are out, the limit is 20 mph.
What does this have to do with bracing?
Simple. Your brace also differs based on the task at hand. Picking a heavy barbell up off the ground requires you to tense your muscles to a greater extent and probably momentarily hold your breath. This helps you bend at the hips and knees to pull the bar off the floor as opposed to your spine being bent by the load and you yourself being pulled toward the floor.
But if the goal at hand is to run as fast as you can, holding your breath and generating a maximal brace won’t do you much good.
Bracing is not an absolute. Its duration, implementation and intensity varies depending on the person, the task, etc.
What about breathing?
Breathing can be used to further enhance stability during high-tension tasks, such as picking up a barbell or elderly person off the floor. It can also be used to assist folks who need to run a mile to catch the train because their phone died, and Uber is no longer an option! This task would fall under a lower-tension task and will not require the same approach.
Breathing and bracing work together along a spectrum. However, due to the rise in popularity of different mediums such as Youtube, blogs and Instagram, there seems to be a trend leaning toward opposite extremes with little appreciation for the in-between. The only absolute in my opinion is that if you are unable to breathe, you’re dead.
The relationship between breathing and bracing when it comes to movement, lifestyle and sports performance is not black and white. A wise mentor of mine, Dr. Murphy, once said to me something along the lines of, “if the grey areas in life make you uncomfortable, roll up your sleeves and learn to get uncomfortable, or simply get out of the way.”
Now let’s return to the question I posed above. Are we able to truly train our ability to both brace and breathe? To divorce our diaphragm from our “core” muscles?
In hockey, you can be as strong and as muscular as an ox, but that first practice after a long offseason, regardless of how much weight you can lift, you will feel it in your lungs! You’ll be fast, but you may struggle with endurance.
Beyond that, there will be times you’re skating hard, bracing for a hit or getting ready to rip a shot while balancing on one skate. All these examples require different bracing strategies and different levels of tension; however, if these are never exercised, the likelihood of them happening organically is low.
When it comes to training, anyone can play “copycat”—watch a video and copy an exercise. But there’s an art and a nuance to breathing and bracing.
Two people can attempt to perform the exact same movement but have two completely different results based on the relationship between bracing and breathing they’re employing. There isn’t much room for passively copying an exercise when it comes to conditioning and training your core: you have to understand and train that relationship.
Below is an example of one exercise, a Pallof Hold, and how four different breathing strategies impact torso (“core”) stability during this movement. See if you can spot (and hear) the differences:
I explore these and other insights about the diaphragm, breathing, performance and bracing in much more detail in my original research study, which can be found here.
Photo Credit: Ridofranz/iStock