Welcome back to Squat University! Last week we discussed how to teach the perfect bodyweight squat. We talked about a strategy to maintain stability during a bodyweight squat and that is holding our arms out in front of us. By doing this, it brings our lower back (lumbar spine into a good neutral position.
In order to maintain the integrity of our posture when we squat with a barbell we need to adapt our technique. A barbell places higher demand on our body to stabilize our trunk. In order to meet these demands we need to find a way to increase our stability. A stable core is the platform for which we can perform efficient powerful movements on.
The quality of our movement during the squat is dictated by how stable we maintain our trunk. A bare spine, without any muscles, is 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 (3).
Very often, we see athletes believe that they can improve trunk stability through exercises such as sit-ups or crunches. In reality those movements build isolated muscular strength, not stability. There is a difference between strength and the ability to stabilize.
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 our body while movement takes place around it. A stable spine resists being bent in two by the massive weight of the barbell.
Strengthening a stabilizer (such as the abdominal muscles with crunches or the low back erectors with endless hyperextensions) will not cause those muscles to necessarily stabilize more effectively. Core stability is the synchronous action of the abdominal muscles along with the muscles of the back, hip, pelvic girdle, diaphragm and surrounding fascia. When working together they keep the spine in a safe and stable position while we move. Therefore, core stability has nothing to do with how many crunches you perform or hypers off the glut-ham machine. The essence of stability is based on two things: timing and coordinated recruitment.
In order to recruit our core muscles prior to the squat the cue to “brace for a punch” is recommended. This action increases the stability of our lower back and locks it into a good neutral position. When we turn-on these muscles prior to the descent of the squat we proactively prepare our body to handle the load that we are trying to carry.
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. For too long, professionals in the strength and medical field have failed to incorporate proper breathing during lifts. 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, “Breathe in on the way down and breathe out on the way up.” This is fine for an exercise involving lightweight and higher repetitions (i.e., bench press 3 sets of 10 reps). This breathing mechanic however is not entirely recommended when performing the barbell squat. Can you imagine what would happen if a powerlifter let out his entire breath on the way up from squatting 1,000 lbs?
When we squat heavy weight with a barbell (for example anything over 80% of your 1 rep-maximum), it is advised to take a large breath and hold it through the entire repetition. Usually this type of breathing is not needed for higher repetition sets with low weight. However, when you are squatting heavy for a few reps it is crucial. This breath should be taken prior to and in coordination with the cue to “brace for a punch”. Doing so allows us to dramatically stabilize our core.
To learn how to properly breathe during the squat, try this simple test. Place one hand on your stomach and another on your side (near your lower ribs). Now take a big breath. If you did this properly you will feel your stomach rise and fall. You will also feel your lower rib cage expand laterally (out to the side). Essentially you are feeling the volume increasing inside your core. When we take a big breath the diaphragm just below our lungs contracts and will descend towards our stomach (1).
If you breathe improperly, you will instead 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 volume so important?
When we correctly breathe “into our stomach” and combine the action with bracing our core we find something special happens. With your hand on your stomach again, take a big breath one more time. After the breath is taken, brace your core muscles as if you are about to receive a Mike Tyson punch to the gut. Combining these actions increases the pressure inside the abdominal cavity (intra-abdominal pressure or IAP). This is because the volume can no longer expand.
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.
This is because the diaphragm cannot fully contract and descend if the core is already maximally braced. Increasing IAP in this manner helps stabilize the lower spine to an even greater degree than with bracing alone (3).
To experience the connection between the pressure in your core and your overall strength, try this simple test. Put a barbell on your back and exhale all of the air from your lungs. Feel for how the bar feels on your back. Next, take a big breath and brace your core. Try to create pressure in a 360° manner around your core as if wearing a tight corset. Remember the breath must be taken to expand the front, side and back of our core. Do you notice anything different?
The weight of the bar should now feel much lighter on your back. Does it make sense that using this maneuver might have some application to lifting heavy weights in the squat? This is how the strongest weightlifters and powerlifters are able to squat tremendous weights without breaking in half!
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.
To perform the valsalva maneuver correctly, the breath is exhaled forcefully against a closed airway. This is where the saying “inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up” takes a turn. Exhaling a breath completely during the ascent of a squat can lead to a severe drop in IAP.
As 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. 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. The same goes for our body. However if we only let a small amount of air escape the balloon 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 in tact, 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.
The breath should never be held for more than a few seconds during the squat. Doing so can dramatically increase blood pressure and cause black-outs and other cardiovascular injury for those at risk. While the valsalva maneuver (even when held for short periods) has been shown to cause an increase in systolic blood pressure, it is very safe for healthy athletes. For most this temporary rise in blood pressure is not harmful. That being said, it should be used with caution with older individuals and anyone with a history of heart disease (2).
A proper squat is all about maintaining proper spinal stability. When we combine the coordinated bracing ability of our core muscles and harness the power of our breath we allow our body to move properly and lift tremendous weights safely.