How to Brace Correctly for Squats

Last week I touched on the anatomical and scientific underpinnings that explain how Breathing is NOT Bracing, and that breathing is simply a step in the sequence of creating an optimal brace for the big lifts. If you haven’t already, please take a look - Breathing is NOT Bracing.

Today, I am taking you through the exact sequence that we use in order to teach how to brace correctly for squats. We use this sequence A LOT and cover it in depth in our Squat, Deadlift and Core Seminars. (Tickets available for Sydney on March 24th)

Motor skill acquisition is best developed in what we call ‘Low Threshold Learning Environments’. In a gym setting, these environments allow for heightened proprioception from the floor, wall or table. Slow tempos are utilised to better ‘feel’ the movement in it’s entirety and often only involve one or two moving joints. Learning to transition lifters from Low Threshold Environments towards High Threshold Environments is a trait of an experienced coach. This core bracing sequence is an example of how Low Threshold Environments can quickly improve skill expression in Higher Threshold Activities like loaded barbell squats. We have used this exact sequence with nearly every single lifter that has lifted underneath our Strength Culture banner.

1) 90/90 Hip Lift - 2-3 Sets of 5 Complete Exhales

This is about as Low Threshold as you can get in regards to setting an optimal breath for bracing in squats. The 90/90 position provides proprioceptive feedback from the ground in regards to optimal spinal position, allows the lifter to understand how to posteriorly tilt their pelvis TO neutral from extension and how to expand laterally with a 360 degree breath. It also teaches the correct oblique recruitment upon exhalation to control the rib cage and pelvic alignment required for heavy squats.

2) Plank - 1-2 Sets of 5 Complete Exhales

The plank is still low threshold because it is unloaded and prone with minimal moving joints. We are simply progressing the lessons learnt form the 90/90 Hip Lift to a position more specific to the squat. The engaged rib cage and pelvic alignment is similar to that which will need to be established in order to brace correctly for the squat. We teach our lifters 2 key concepts from the plank to be progressed to the squat:

2A) REACH their elbows through the floor to engage bilateral serratus anterior, posteriorly shift the rib cage in the sagittal plane and hopefully drive oblique recruitment. The goal with the reach is to close the space between the rib cage and pelvis in order to control the sagittal plane. This may take a few sessions to fully develop and understand.

2B) Slightly posteriorly tilt the pelvis TO neutral. The great thing with this is context has already been built from the 90/90 Hip Lift. This slight posterior tilt allows the pelvic floor and diaphragm to oppose each other, significantly improving the amount of Intra Abdominal Pressure that can be built.

3) Anterior loaded Tempo Squat - As many sets and reps needed to maintain the brace created through the entirety of the squat.

This is the first step from a Low Threshold Learning Environment to a High Threshold Learning Environment. The lessons learnt and context developed in the 90/90 Hip Lift and the Plank must now be applied to a standing, slightly loaded, multi joint squat movement. The anterior load allows for the same posterior shift of the rib cage as felt with the REACH in the plank. This posterior shift allows for better rib cage and pelvic control in the sagittal plane also known as CORE CONTROL. The anterior load also doubles as a great way to feel the slight posterior tilt required to increase Intra Abdominal Pressure, too.

The Anterior Loaded Squat Sequence is cued:

3A) Push the plate out in front, ribs down and hips under (we teach this as pulling the ‘Belt Buckle Up’ towards the chin)

3B) Exhale as you would in the Plank and feel the obliques contract

3C) Breath in behind that stiffness created , inflate the same way you felt in the plank.

3D) Maintain this pressure though-out the entirety of the squat - if you lose it START A NEW REP!

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We teach our lifters to manage their mid foot pressure along with the brace through this movement. The slow tempo allows for better joint awareness at all stages of the movement. We are looking for consistent oblique ‘tightness’ and a the feeling of Intra Abdominal Pressure throughout the entirety of the rep. We use a 3131 Tempo - 3 Down, 1 Hold, 3 Up, 1 second reset.

4) Barbell Squats

Now it’s just a matter of applying the same feelings felt in the Anterior Loaded Squat to a Barbell Squat. We recommend you still utilise a slow tempo to reinforce what you have learnt from the previous 3 steps. With the barbell on the back it will be harder to feel the same oblique recruitment as we no longer have the posterior shift of the rib cage in the sagittal plane as a result of serratus anterior recruitment. So, we must increase the active stability of the lats pulling on the thoracolumbar fascia. This is done by simply pulling the shoulder blades down to your back pockets HARD. Please note, this is to be done AFTER you have set your rib cage and pelvic alignment and AFTER you have taken your breath in.

Let us know how you go with improving your brace for the squats!

About the Author
Jamie Smith, Owner and Director of Coaching at Melbourne Strength Culture
IG: @j.smith.culture
YouTube: Melbourne Strength Culture