Stay Tight! How to Breathe, Brace and Save Your Spine

Stay Tight! How to Breathe, Brace and Save Your Spine

Do you remember the first time someone cue’ed you to stay tight? It’s a common expression in weightlifting and CrossFit but unfortunately, most novice (and intermediate) athletes have no clue what that actually entails.

But not breathing correctly and creating the proper tightness under heavy weight can lead to back pain,  poor midline stability, weak glute activation, tilted pelvises and a host of other issues.

We talked last month about the importance of midline stability, urging people to re-think their core routine beyond sit-ups. But, assuming you’re working on midline stability, how does that carry over into a heavy squat session? How do you avoid overextension on a press or know how to use a belt properly (no, it doesn’t just keep you tight by itself) for a max deadlift?

Staying tight is essentially asking you to brace your core and one of the easiest —and most common— ways to explain that is to tighten up your stomach like you’re about to get punched there.

Try it. Now, try to breathe as well.

Stay Tight! How to Breathe, Brace and Save Your SpineYes, you need to be breathing AND bracing for it to be effective.

Bracing is the only way to keep your core under that high-level of tension and keep you from collapsing under heavy loads. But if you’re bright red, holding your breath while you’re trying to brace —which is a common mistake— you’re placing a ton of tension on your spine, probably overextending and leaving a massive source of force production and power untapped.

Let’s talk about how to brace and really use your diaphragm correctly first. (This will translate over into EVERYTHING you do.)

Try this: place your hands on your obliques and tighten your stomach (again like someone is punching you) and force as much air as possible into the lower part of your stomach. Keep forcing air to your stomach.

You should feel that air move your hands and your ribcage should also start to expand. Congratulations, you’re creating the tension needed to lift.

This is something you need to practice until you can do it consistently on command. The 90/90 breathing drill is a great way to warm-up and reinforce good breathing mechanics. Here’s a quick video on how to do it properly:

The below video has the same principles, in teaching a neutral spine and better mechanics, but adds some different variations.

Ask a coach you trust or start taping your lifts to ensure you’re doing this properly. Too often, people think “staying tight” entails sticking their chest out, sucking their stomach in or flexing their abs. But anyone who’s ever watched a powerlifting meet and seen the crazy amounts of weight lifted has probably seen all of the stomachs hanging over belts.

That’s not an indication of too many cookies – that’s proper bracing and creating all that tension goodness with a belt.

When —and only when— you become effective at learning how to create tension with breathing, you can start to add a belt in for heavier lifts.

The belt HELPS you feel the tension you’ve created, similar to what you felt with your hands on your obliques. But the belt doesn’t CREATE tension. You shouldn’t be just slapping it on the tightest setting imaginable, not thinking about your midline and trying to do a heavy deadlift.

The belt is a tool that you brace against. You should still be actively using your diaphragm here. Done right, you should see a dramatic increase in performance, technique and, most importantly, safety.

Still confused? The below video does a great job simplifying things. Now, go find your power belly.