Abdominal bracing is an exercise motion that you’ve likely encountered and performed, whether you realize it or not. It’s the movement that’s implied when your coach, fitness instructor, or physical therapist tells you to tighten your core or brace your abs.
This motion comes into play in a lot of exercises because your lower back is more stable when your core muscles are braced. But improper abdominal bracing can impede your physical progress. Before attempting abdominal bracing exercises, make sure that you understand when and where you actually need this move.
What Is Abdominal Bracing?
Abdominal bracing is the process of quickly activating all of your core muscles and sucking in your stomach. You then hold this tightness while you perform a particular exercise motion.
This action creates a lot of pressure in your abdomen and prevents you from loosely moving this part of your body. Together, these actions help support your lower back.
What Are Your Abdominal Bracing Muscles?
The muscles that you use when you brace your abdomen are called your core muscles. They’re a combination of abdominal muscles and back muscles that all attach to either your spine or your pelvis. They include your:
- Transverse abdominis. This acts like a brace around the front of your body and helps maintain abdominal pressure. It wraps around your front much like a corset made of muscle.
- Internal obliques. These are located just inside your hip bones and help your torso twist from side to side.
- External obliques. These are long muscles on each side of your body that work with your internal obliques to twist your torso from side to side.
- Multifidus. These are muscles deep in your back that run along your spine. Their main purpose is to stabilize your spine.
- Pelvic floor. These muscles are the farthest down your body in the core group. They’re located near your pelvis and help maintain abdominal pressure.
What Are Abdominal Bracing Benefits?
The main benefit to abdominal bracing is that it provides a lot of support for your spine — particularly in your lower back. This support is crucial because your lower back is one of the easiest areas to injury when you’re exercising.
Without proper core support, you’re way more likely to sprain the ligaments or tear the muscles in your lower back. You’re also more likely to get a herniated disc — a painful injury that happens when one of the squishy discs in your spine gets pinched between two of the bones in your spine, called vertebrae.
The main exercise scenarios that benefit from using abdominal bracing are when you’re preparing for an impact or performing a lift. Impacts are common in sports like football and soccer, and the strength of a braced core can help keep your body steady and your spine secure.
Lifts — including deadlifts, bench presses, and squats — require a lot of core strength and stability so you can safely move heavy weights. For these exercises, you can brace your core by taking a big breath before starting the lift and then holding it until you’re bringing the weight back down.
What Are Alternatives to Abdominal Bracing?
The problem with abdominal bracing is that it can interfere with the way that your body naturally moves. This can limit the amount of functional strength that you gain from exercises that use bracing. Functional strength is the kind that actually benefits your performance in both sports and daily activities.
When your core is firmly braced, your body struggles to transmit energy and motion from the lower half of your body to the upper half and vice versa. But this is exactly what your core is supposed to do in most functional activities.
Think about the way that your core needs to both move and maintain stability when you’re walking, running, pitching a ball, or swinging a racket. This type of core strength is called dynamic stability — which is stability with motion.
To understand the difference, start from a neutral position and then go through the motions of pitching a ball or swinging a racket. Do this both with and without your core muscles tightly braced. You’ll likely have a much smaller range of motion when you’re bracing them than when you’re not.
To encourage core strength that supports movement, you should focus less on tightening up all of those muscles and more on moving your body like a stretched rope with tension on both ends.
Instead of trying to crunch up your core during a particular exercise, try to work on elongating your spine. For example, focus on instructions like “lengthen your spine” or “reach your head to the ceiling” instead of “brace your core” or “tighten your abs.” Both provide strength, but elongation provides a much more flexible kind of stability.
Abdominal Bracing as an Exercise
You can use just the motion of bracing your abdominals as an exercise by itself. It makes for a good warmup activity — particularly in combination with another simple move called abdominal hollowing.
To turn abdominal bracing into an exercise, you should:
- Stand in a sturdy, balanced position with your feet and hips facing forward
- Focusing on tightening your core and squeezing in your stomach while minimizing all other muscle activity — meaning you should avoid moving your legs or twisting your torso around while you tighten
- Hold this position for five seconds, then release your muscles until you’re in your starting position
- Repeat this move 30 times
If you’d like, you can immediately start abdominal hollowing exercises from the same position that you were in for the bracing exercise. To perform abdominal hollowing you exhale all of the air in your lungs and empty out your abdominal region. Then suck in your belly button as far as you can towards your spine. Hold this position for five seconds and exhale as you return to your neutral position.
You can also repeat this exercise 30 times for a simple but thorough abdominal bracing exercise. Practicing this combination of exercises is a simply way to build core strength while practicing proper bracing posture.
Additional Abdominal Bracing Exercises
When selecting abdominal bracing exercises, it’s best to choose ones that strengthen your core muscles along with ones that focus on more dynamic types of stability.
Some exercises can accomplish both of these goals at the same time. A great example of this is the whimsically named bird-dog exercise. To perform this move, you should:
- Get down on your hands and knees while keeping your spine in a straight, neutral posture
- Slowly lift and stretch out your left leg and your right arm at the exact same time while keeping your limbs as straight as possible and maintaining your balance — your arm will reach out in front of you while your leg stretches out behind you
- Hold this position for a few moments
- Slowly return to the starting position then repeat the motion with your right leg and left arm
The number of times that you repeat this motion depends on the other abdominal exercises that you have planned for the day and your relative fitness level. You don’t want to overdo it if you have a lot of other abdominal exercises scheduled or are a beginner.
Exercises that focus more on core strength than dynamic stability include modified curl-ups and side bridges.
Exercises that particularly focus on dynamic stability include the “don’t move me” drill and single-arm carries.
Talk to a physical therapist, personal trainer, or expert in sports medicine about the right way to do these exercises and the ones that are safest for your body’s unique needs.