If you have followed our content for any longer than a day you will know we promote breathing function heavily. The 90/90 Hip Lift, a PRI based breathing drill, is the first thing we teach any new lifter after they have been through our assessment process for many reasons - understanding how to breathe correctly for big lifts is near the top of that list.
Today, I want to clear up a common misconception in regards to breathing and it’s influence on bracing for the big lifts. It is common knowledge that inhaling prior to a big lift helps to stabilise the trunk and spine, however, for the most part breathing itself is not bracing. Breathing is merely a small portion of what should be occurring during a bracing sequence for the big lifts.
As always, first we need to look at the anatomy to lay down the contextual understanding of what’s occurring when we breathe.
When we draw air into the lungs, our diaphragm decreases the pressure inside the thoracic cavity (rib cage) by contracting and drawing down into the abdominal cavity. This decrease in thoracic pressure as a result of the in increase in available space within the thoracic cavity, draws air into the lungs because the drop in pressure is great enough for external air’s pressure to flow into the lungs. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and resumes its relaxed position inside the thoracic cavity, increasing thoracic pressure and expelling the air from the lungs. This change in pressure relative to available space in a closed area is called Boyle’s Law.
Boyle’s Law states - when temperature is constant, gas pressure and volume is inversely related. So, when more available space is created in the thoracic cavity by a contracting and descending diaphragm, air is brought into the lungs. On exhalation the opposite occurs.
This is the mechanism of which we breathe.
‘Dysfunctional’ breathing works in the same sense - when we inhale with accessory breathing musculature of the neck (Scalenes, SCMs and Upper Traps), the rib cage itself is elevated, the pressure inside drops due to more available space and air is brought into the lungs. Same mechanism, just a different application.
So where does ‘Bracing’ come into the ‘Breathing’ discussion? - Intra Abdominal Pressure
When the diaphragm contracts and descends from the thoracic cavity into the abdominal cavity the available space inside the abdomen is reduced and pressure increases (Boyle’s Law in reverse to what’s seen upon inhalation in the thoracic cavity). This is raise in pressure in the abdominal cavity is called Intra Abdominal Pressure and this is the first step in creating the ‘brace’ that is required for heavy lifting.
What breathing does not include however is co-contraction of the core musculature to provide external, active stability to the trunk and spine. The key muscles of the abdominal wall/ core that assist in this active stability are the obliques, rectus abdominis and the lats as they insert into the thoracolumbar fascia. This muscular co-contraction of abdominal wall is what creates the ‘brace’ - simply pushing air into your belly or lifting belt does not create this muscular stiffness.
Breathing is an important step in the bracing sequence, however, it is not the be all and end all of bracing - they are not one-in the same. We view Breathing and Bracing as a Venn diagram where there is an overlap between the two but not complete coverage.
For bracing to occur optimally we must stiffen the trunk and spine through muscular activation AFTER we breathe in. If the muscular brace was to be set before inhalation we would significantly reduce the amount of intra abdominal pressure that can be created because the rib cage would be compressed by the muscular activation of the rectus abdominis, obliques and lats. This compression would reduce the expansion of the rib cage and reduce the amount of air drawn in. You can sit there and try this yourself.. crunch down hard on your abdominal wall and take a full breath in, it will be significantly less air than if you sat and inhaled in a relaxed state. Bracing must occur AFTER the breath in.
Breathing is cyclical pressure changes in the thoracic cavity allowing for gas exchange in the lungs. Whereas, bracing is the co-contraction of the abdominal musculature that completely encases the abdominal cavity to provide active stability to the trunk and spine. Breathing just so happens to improve your ability to brace the trunk and spine optimally.
How do we go about teaching the breathing and bracing sequence at Melbourne Strength Culture? Next weeks blog will cover this in depth.
We also cover this topic heavily with hands on practical application in our Squat, Deadlift and Core Seminars. Tickets are available here: