Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Relying on a belt for most of your program hinders your ability to grow as a lifter. Plus, it simply doesn’t give you the chance to learn how to brace for lifts properly. Strengthening your core muscles and stability is key to improve your lifting capacity.
Sure, a belt becomes useful for lifts near, at, or above max load capacity. However, being able to maintain core stability without a lifting belt up to 90% should be your goal.
The Core is not Just Your Abs
The common belief is that the “core” means the muscles on the stomach, or even stomach and low back region. Sorry, but a six pack by no means is an indicator you have core strength.
These areas are included when we talk about using the core for bracing, but really this mysterious concept pertains to all the muscles connected to the spine - and those that contract to protect it.
Simply put – basically most the muscles found within your torso. Both superficial and deep. They help direct energy use to different areas of your body, and are what support trunk movement such as twisting and bending.
This list gives you a better idea of what really makes up your core strength:
• Spinal Erectors
• Serratus Anterior
• Internal & External Obliques
• Rectus and Transverse Abdominis
• Pelvic Floor
Are we really contracting all these muscles to do a simple movement such as squats? Absolutely - when you’re bracing correctly at least. This is why I always harp that a belt isn’t going to fix shitty form.
Ever hear your coach, or other coaches, telling athletes to stay tight throughout the movement? This concept basically means tense all these muscles throughout the movement of each repetition.
Not doing so hinders your ability to distribute your full power potential to lift heavier, and may cause movement breakdown leading to a failed lift with possible injury.
How to Properly Brace for Lifts
First, take a deep breath right now. Did you feel this deep breath more in your chest or the stomach? Many who take a breath without thinking about it will “chest breathe” mainly or always.
Here’s a related short story for you that happened to me. At a commercial gym one guy was doing squats across from me, and it happened I was doing my squat program as well.
Watching me lift, he eventually came over (not knowing I was a trainer) and said he notices I breathe in differently prior to squatting.
I explained to him that’s how he should properly be breathing especially if going to have a belt on. Feel the air go into your stomach. This essentially will fill up the space between your belt including your sides and tighten your back.
Anyways, keeping it short, I saw the guy a few weeks later and he thanked me. Told me that he felt much better performing his lifts now from something so simple.
I wouldn’t say it’s that simple for many. It’s just that the misinformed follow the old saying “take a deep breath” before executing a lift, but it’s more than that.
Inhale and feel the pressure from the air push your stomach out. You then will know that you are properly bracing for a lift. For the most part at least.
I’ve seen some coaches get more technical and say it’s not stomach breathing because you’re also expanding your oblique’s.
Honestly, if you’re pushing your stomach out from taking a deep breath, then your body should already be expanding your oblique’s and tightening your lower back.
So technically yeah, it’s true, but let’s not make it too much of a complicated subject for athletes and clients.
Summing it all up – practice “stomach breathing.” Stand up and feel the air create abdominal pressure (your stomach). When at home or doing daily activities breathe in this way before picking up items or moving furniture.
Essentially create a habit to encourage muscle memory. Eventually “I forgot to brace” shouldn’t be an excuse when it becomes second nature.
How to Brace when Wearing a Belt
Lifting belts do come in handy when it comes to heavy lifts, and for some it’s a confidence booster when worn. The mindset of thinking your back in indestructible while wearing one, which can be bad if unable to brace with it on.
The belt shouldn’t be so tight to where your finger has no chance of getting between it and your skin. You should have it on to where it’s snug, but enough room for your core to push out against it.
You accomplish this by the bracing method we already discussed. Take that deep breath into your “stomach”, and notice how your body fills up against the belt in the front and sides.
This abdominal pressure created against the belt will make it tight against your lower back. Many throw up not because they ate too much prior to training, but because their belt was too damn tight.
The belt shouldn’t be incorporated with new lifters. They need to strengthen core muscles by actually using them and understanding how to effectively brace for lifts.
I never encourage clients or athletes to use a belt until I feel their core is strong and their understanding of how to activate it is apparent.
How to Strengthen Core Muscles
There being a significant amount of core muscles, you don’t necessarily need to always try and isolate each one on different days. We train our body the best when using multiple muscles groups in various ranges of motion (ROM).
The following are listed in order of importance for learning to brace better and strengthen your core stability:
• Tempo & Pause Variations
• Unilateral & Offset Loading Exercises
• Core Specific Exercises
Notice how core specific exercises are at the bottom of the list. They are definitely necessary, but when movements are executed right they are just additional training after the other types that are more functional whole body movements.
These closed chain functional exercises like pushups, deadlifts, and squats work much better. They mimic everyday movements, and those used for competition when it comes to starting athletes.
Tempo and Pause Variations for Core Strength
There’s no better way to learn proper bracing than by performing tempo and pause exercises. They both improve core strength and stability drastically when programmed and executed correctly.
Aside from this, they help develop muscular endurance and strength.
Often performed as accessory exercises – although they can be the primary lift of the day with appropriate volume and load.
A tempo exercise is when you perform the movement slower than usual. Usually listed with 3 numbers such as 3.1.1. For example, a 3.1.1 tempo squat means 3 seconds are used as you descend into the squat.
The middle number represents however many seconds paused at the bottom, which in this case is 1. Then the last number is the amount of seconds to ascend. Deadlifts, Olympic cleans, bench press, and several other exercises can be used as a tempo movement.
Tempo exercises require you to brace much longer to maintain core stability, and time under tension (TUT) is emphasized drastically.
Pause movements are when you stop at a certain portion of an exercise, and it can either be during the concentric or eccentric phase.
An example would be pause deadlifts below the knee. You would pull the bar from the floor and then stop immediately for the number of seconds programmed such as 1-3 seconds normally.
After this pause, you resume the pull and finish the lockout. Core muscles will be under plenty of controlled strain while you fight for stability.
Unilateral and Offset Loading Exercises
These training methods enhance core strength, teach you to brace for stability, and helps eliminate imbalances on the body. For the purpose of bracing and core use, the exercises you’d want to perform primarily revolve around not using machines.
We’re not trying to isolate muscle imbalances in this article – although yes, they can be utilized for this too. Instead, we want to cause your core to be placed in an unstable position, which forces you to brace and contract these muscles into forcing stability.
Unilateral training is when you use one side of the body such as only your right leg and not your left – then switch sides to finish the set.
Exercises you’d want to do are lunge variations, step ups, Bulgarian split squats, single arm bent rows (not holding on to anything), single leg RDL – to name a few.
Offset loading is when the weight is heavier on one side than the other. This could be from holding weight with just one hand, or holding weight in both hands with different resistances.
Weight unevenly distributed forces your body to shift towards the heavier direction, which you brace for to stabilize your core and prevent this from happening. An example would be holding weight in your right hand, but doing step ups with your left leg.
Another even easier exercise to execute is a farmer’s walk with one dumbbell, kettlebell, or whatever else you have to hold for resistance. Easy as in learning how to execute.
Unilateral and offset loading are both accessory movements that follow the primary lifts usually.
Core Specific Exercises
Performing exercises that actually isolate your core don’t have to be generic sit-ups and crunches all the time. You’d be better off doing regular or side planks for improved core strength.
Back extensions, dumbbell/kettlebell sit up and press, hanging leg raises, and even plank movements on a stability ball have far better use. Other great powerlifting and weightlifting core exercise alternatives are:
• Banded Dead Bug
• Ab Wheel
• Single Leg Glute Bridge
• Russian Twists
• Lateral Ball Toss
In the end, your core will get stronger with these movements when paired with functional compound exercises. This was not to say isolated core exercises can be skipped, but rather doing a whole workout just for isolation is not necessary.
Now You can Brace Properly for Lifts
This information gives you the knowledge on how to properly brace and strengthen your core. Bracing becomes quite difficult when the muscles are weak and often never activated.
Perform the various exercises given to hit your core in different methods. There’s really not one specific way to accomplish this as all of our body’s react differently.
However, properly bracing is pretty universal. You have to get the air into your stomach region to create abdominal pressure. This will “push” your stomach out and help support your body with or without a lifting belt.