Breathing, Bracing and Building Tension

The quality of our movement during the bench is dictated by we are able to maintain tension. Barebones, without any muscles, are nothing but a stack of bones. Without the continuous collaboration of the 29 pairs of muscles that make up our trunk and the fascia that holds them together the weight of our upper body alone would be enough to collapse our spine.

“Strength is the ability to produce force. The harder you can push or pull a weight, the stronger your muscles are. Stability is the ability to resist movement at one part of your body while movement takes place around it. A stable spine resists being bent in two by the massive weight of the barbell.” -The Squat Bible


It is not enough to only brace for a punch when we squat. If you want to move massive weights in a safe manner, you must also learn how to breathe properly. Many have essentially approached our core like a balloon, trying to strengthen the outside rubber walls instead of learning how to increase the pressure within.

Fitness and medical professionals are taught, “Breath in on the way down and breath out on the way up” This is maybe ok for very light high rep work or pregnant ladies, but for big movements, it’s outright wrong.

The purpose of proper breathing and abdominal bracing:

  • Maximize intra-abdominal pressure
  • Stabilize the trunk

Proper breathing and abdominal bracing are critical for:

  • Safely handling heavy loads
  • Increase performance
  • Reduces the risk of injury

If you breathe improperly, you will notice the chest rise and fall. Breathing in this manner does little to increase the volume of our intra-abdominal cavity because the diaphragm is never fully utilized. So why is this rise in intra-abdominal cavity volume so important?

Step by step process to proper breathing and abdominal bracing:

1. Breathe “into our stomach”

  • Hand on stomach and side.
  • Breathe in like filling a ‘barrel of water’

2. Brace
Brace your core muscles as if you are about to receive a Mike Tyson punch to the gut.

This must be done in a step-by-step manner. If we brace first and then try to take a big breath, we limit how much pressure we can create

3. 360-degree of pressure

With a barbell on your back, create pressure in a 360-degree manner around your core as if pushing out against a tight corset.

  • Try Squatting relaxed with “typical breathing”
  • Now apply 360-degree pressure front, side and back holding your breath.

4. Valsalva Manoeuvre

Holding this breath during the execution of the squat will often cause a forced grunt on the ascent. This happens when we try to limit the natural desire to exhale on the way up. This forced hold is called the Valsalva maneuver. Limiting our breath from escaping in this powerful manner is essential in order to maintain our spinal stability.

  1. It’s like trying to blow air through a closed straw
  2. The exhale must be forcefully stopped from fully escaping

If the pressure in our abdomen drops, the stability of the spine will decrease. It doesn’t matter how hard you brace your core muscles. If you let your breath out completely, you will instantly lose stability. Imagine what this would do to a 400kg squat

This transfers harmful pressures onto the small vulnerable structures of the spine (intervertebral discs and ligaments). This is like letting the air out of a balloon too fast. As the air leaves the balloon, it becomes less stable and resistant to deformation. The same goes for our bodies.

However, if we only let a small amount of air escape the ballon by maintaining our squeeze on the opening, the balloon stays stable for longer. In order to keep the pressure in our abdomen and our spinal stability intact, the exhale must be forcefully stopped from fully escaping. Essentially, we need to keep our fingers on the opening of the balloon. There are different ways to do this. Some lifters will use a grunting method or a “tss: sound as they slowly exhale through a small hole in their lips. Both of these methods allow the pressure in the abdomen to stay at a high level during the entirety of the lift.


This exercise is a very easy way to integrate all aspects needed for a stable squat. For beginners, it’s a great training tool and should be done every day until it is well integrated into all of your movement especially squat. I would aim to do it as a warm-up routine for at least the first year of squat training.

  1. Plank Position
    The plank position is face down on your elbows and toes, hips in neutral alignment, head neutral, hands apart
  1. Find your tension point
    Your tension point is pretty much the hardest position you can find in a plank. You will find a point where it is most difficult and that is your tension point.
  1. Big Breath
    Take a big breath into your stomach like filling a barrel of water from the bottom up
  1. White Knuckles
    Clench your fists creating white knuckles. This is a cue used in conjunction with ‘crushing the bar’ as you squeeze the bar as hard as you can across your back.
  1. Elbows to Ankles and Toes to Elbows
    Drive your elbows to your ankles like you’re bending the bar across your back. Then drive your toes up to your elbows.
  1. Squeeze your Lats
    You want to create the same feeling as we did when we were engaging our lats with our middle finger pointing to the ground. Another cue is armpit to the pelvis.
  2. Squeeze your chest
    Squeeze your chest like you want to do a DB Flye. This helps to build more tension.
  3. Brace your Abs
    Squeeze your abs like Mike Tyson is going to punch you in the guts.
  1. Crack a Walnut
    Squeeze you glutes like you’re trying to crack a walnut between your butt cheeks. Exactly like how we were doing when creating external rotational torque.
  2. Quads
    Flex your quad as you want to draw your knee cap up your leg, locking your knees back.

Tension Plank to Barbell

The tension plank creates a cue that starts at the knuckles. The knuckles are the start of crushing the bar with a barbell and signals a lifter to apply all that tension simultaneously without overthinking the full sequence. This cue also increases nervous system activity.

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