Learning how to properly brace your spine does not come with a simple cue or the last second tightening of your stomach. It takes a lot of practice and understanding. In order to keep your spine braced in advanced movements such as the squat or dead-lift, we must first be able to understand how to protect and brace ourselves while standing in a neutral position. This is something that all coaches are experts at cueing (squeeze your stomach, take a deep breath, get braced, get tight, etc) but are not so great at teaching or thoroughly explaining. Bracing your spine should be the first thing an athlete learns and should be practiced outside the gym continuously in order to become proficient and skilled at this task during ALL movements inside the gym. Why is this important?
Learning how to brace your spine properly eliminate one of the greatest threats to the human species, injury to the Central Nervous System (CNS). When an injury to the spine occurs such as a herniated disk or spinal fracture, the whole system is shut down and the human is now unable to run, lift, or move any part of the body quickly without pain and discomfort or further injury.
The second reason why learning and practicing how to brace your spine correctly is important is because a disorganized spine will lead to mechanical compromises. A great example is someone who may be unable to get into a stable position during the deadlift because his/her tight hamstrings. We can lay into those hamstrings with bands and lacrosse balls but sometimes that won’t always fix the issue, but if we can organize his/her spine correctly, the range of motion increases up to 50%. Sometimes, what looks like tight musculature is really the body protecting the nervous system because his/her spine was not organized and protected correctly from the start.
The last reason why bracing your spine is crucial is because it creates torque and force production. When the spine loses positioning in an area; head, ribcage, pelvis (cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine) you will potentially shut down force production and lose the ability to stabilize your primary movers, the hips and shoulders. This means that if your spine is in a bad position, creating a safe and functionally stable hip, knee, ankle, or shoulder position is impossible.
How can you save yourself from injury to the Central Nervous System, mechanical compromises or loss of stable positioning in your primary movers? Here are the steps in properly bracing your spine which should be practiced in a neutral standing position and used during all movements.
1. Squeeze your butt — This will set your pelvis in a neutral position by placing your feet underneath your shoulders, screwing yourself into the ground (external rotation of the hips and knees) and squeezing your glutes. The abdomen does not help you control the position of your pelvis because our trunk is what stabilizes the spine which is why this step must come before tightening the core.
2. Pull your ribcage down — The idea here is to get your ribcage and pelvis aligned on top of one another to prevent any hyper extension of the spine. Another cue is to imagine a string from your ribcage to your belly button, we want to loosen the string by tucking the rib cage in thus making our back completely flat.
3. Get your belly tight — We need to lock in this position with our abdominals because we can’t move with our butt squeezed. the glutes set the position and the core braces the position Take a deep breath of air and then exhale while engaging your abs and getting your belly tight. If done correctly you will be able to continue breathing while staying in a braced position.
4. Get your shoulders stable — Center your head over your shoulders while externally rotating your shoulders and pulling them back and down (known as the retraction of the shoulders). This will put your shoulders in a stable position by locking the humorous into the socket and creating force production during your movements.