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Brace Yourself!

I want to lead into this article with an incredibly simple summation: a properly braced core is what you do when you think you’re about to get punched in the stomach.  Your core is tight, your muscles are ready for impact and your feet are no doubt facing forward.  In this article we will introduce this simple, yet often overlooked, sequence that can change everything about the way you move.

According to the US National Library of Medicine 8 out of 10 people will experience lower back pain at some point in their life.  What’s terrible is that some will allow it to seriously hinder their physical activity and accept this as a part of their life.  One of the most common excuses not to train with heavy weights or to engage in activity is “I have a bad lower back” and this excuse is valid. What is not a valid excuse, however, is saying “there’s nothing I can do about it.”  In this article I’m going to introduce a simple sequence that can strengthen one’s posture, effectively supporting the lower back.

The lower back is interesting, it’s approximately 5-8 inches of spinal cord with the job of supporting the upper body using nothing but the soft tissues around it.  These soft tissues must be consciously activated in order to provide optimal stability to the lumbar spine.  The reason so many of us experience lower back pain post-exercise is because we do not support the lumbar spine.  There is a tool that we can use to train ourselves to effectively support this section of our spine and overall lower our risk of form-related injury: The bracing sequence.

The Bracing Sequence

The bracing sequence is an often overlooked portion of training that should be the first obstacle: you should not engage in vigorous exercise at all if you do not know how to brace your body.  The bracing sequence is a series of cues intended to reset ones stance to include a braced core, straight spine and stable joints.  A bracing sequence is worth working into your everyday activity, whenever your standing and thinking about it you should run through the sequence to reset your stance.  It’s highly effective and the more you engage in it the quicker it becomes an automatic behavior.  To train yourself you will run through the sequence and squeeze/contract your muscles a noticeable amount, once you have run through the sequence you want to try and remain contracted at about 10% total contraction, not much but enough to keep your posture set.

The bracing sequence:

  1. Position your feet under your shoulders (just outside of your shoulder width) and point your toes forward
  2. Allow your hands to hang by your sides.
  3. Engage your shoulders by externally rotating (right side – clockwise, left side – counter clockwise) your  hands.  Feel your upper back contract slightly and the shoulders move back.
  4. Engage your hips by externally rotating your feet into the ground, you want to leave your toes remaining forward but you should feel as through your are “Screwing” yourself into the ground.
  5. Squeeze your butt
  6. Contract your core, as you contract focus on bringing your rib cage down.

To put the bracing sequence to good use you need to turn it into an automatic behavior, this isn’t easy and takes time.  My personal approach is that whenever I’m standing and I think of it – I do it.  It takes less than 5 seconds once you have it down.  During everyday life your goal is to turn this into a new behavior so repeating it often is key, you do not need to contract as hard as you can.  Only contract as much as necessary to correct your posture in everyday settings.  During exercise it is more important to contract forcefully during the bracing sequence.  Imagine you are about to squat your own body weight on the barbell: running through the bracing sequence positions your body to generate torque through your hips down to your feet (resulting in a more powerful lift), well positioned upper body to support the barbell and lastly the core and lower back are braced and balanced to protect against hernia, slipped discs, etc…   The bracing action around the core accomplishes exactly  what weightlifter belts are designed to do (however at extremely heavy weights using a belt may become necessary) without relying on anything outside of yourself.!

The Bracing Sequence and Power Posture

Think of your favorite superhero standing still.  Chances are they are standing with their chin held high, shoulders back and their back is straight.  This posture is visually synonymous with success.  The reason that our favorite superheroes stand like this is because their stance is  modeled after real life instances of great success: professional athletes that just won a match, CEOs fresh from successful negotiations or proud parents watching their child graduate.  When you break down the power posture you begin to see something familiar: feet under shoulder, shoulders held back, back straight, toes forward… It’s the end result of the bracing sequence!

A powerful posture is not just a result of some outside success manifesting itself in how we stand, it can work the other way too! That is, standing with a powerful posture can make us feel more successful and confident.  Engaging and re-engaging in the bracing sequence trains us to stand tall and confident and as a result  you will begin to feel more confident.

Conclusion

A simple bracing sequence is an often overlooked aspect of being active.  Engaging a bracing sequence during activity (especially before lifting heavy weights) lowers the risk of lower back pain later on.  A bracing sequence may replace the need for a lifting belt in the gym, however much of this is personal preference.  Regularly running though the sequence works to retrain your posture to a more anatomically correct position.  A strong posture is often associated with self-confidence and leadership. Merely adopting a strong posture may lead to internalization of feelings of self-confidence.