Six “Bracing” Exercises to Build Core Strength by Squeezing Your Gut
When I was recovering from getting hit by a pick-up truck while on my bike, I did a lot of isometric leg presses.
I squeezed my quads as hard as I could for as long as I could. It was something I could easily do all day long while I was still restricted to my bed.
An isometric movement is a contraction of the muscle without any observable l joint movement.
I’ve been reading research about issues around traditional crunches and situps.
Most research suggests that doing active isometric work to build core strength is far more effective and safer than crunches.
Menachem Brodie has done a lot of work with McGill Crunches, a form of active isometric. He calls the isometric movement “bracing.”
Michael Boyle, in his book Functional Training for Sports, used something similar called a draw-in.
I took the idea of active isometrics and created a list of six exercises that build core strength.
“Bracing” is an Active Isometric Strength Tool
Brodie and other researchers and scientists advocate for “bracing” instead of crunches to build core strength.
The idea of “bracing” is squeezing your core as if you were going to get punched really, really hard in the gut.
That engages all the muscles in your belly as well as other stabilizers.
You really have to squeeze your gut, and you can’t breathe much!
The longer you are able to hold your core under tension, the more strength – and definition – you gain.
As you push your spine into the mat – “brace” or “draw-in,” you are creating an active isometric hold that will fatigue your muscle more and build strength.
Brodie also suggested using bracing for planks and side planks.
If you try to extend planks for longer periods of time, you end up recruiting muscles other than your core to support your body.
Using the bracing idea, I adapted some core work to involve bracing to build core strength.
Six Bracing Exercises to Build Core Strength
1. McGill Crunch
Lie on your back with one leg extended and one with the foot by the glute.
Place your hands beneath the curve of your spine. Inhale and brace your belly and press your hands into the floor for eight seconds. Repeat 10 times.
An alternative, if your hands don’t feel comfortable under the hollow of your back, is to place them on your chest.
2. Glute Bridge
Lie on your back with both feet by your glutes. Raise your hips off the ground. Inhale and brace your belly and squeeze your glutes by raising your hips higher.
Do this for eight seconds. Repeat 10 times.
For an additional challenge, raise one foot to the ceiling.
For another challenge, place your feet on a stability ball.
3. Super Hero
Lie on your belly with your arms extended over your head. Inhale and brace your belly.
Press your belly button down into the floor while raising your hands and feet off the ground.
Since we often focus on belly strength, superheroes build core strength for endurance sports like no other.
4. Elbow plank
Lie on your belly with your elbows under your shoulders and hands on the floor in front of you.
Lift your hips off the ground and keep your body straight like you would for a usual plank.
This time, though, brace your belly and hold for eight seconds.
This is a great way build core strength by focusing on the entire front and back core.
Dr. Glenn Wright, associate professor of exercise science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, says planks develop the core muscles in the way they were intended to be strengthened.
“A lot of strength trainers realized that the main function of the abs is to stop, not start motion, and the plank came out of what the abs are asked to do, which is resist the spine from moving, such as when fighting off an opponent, and strengthening the lower back.”
5. Side plank
Lie on your side with your hips stacked on top of each other.
Your elbow should be under your shoulder.
Raise your hip off the ground, again, like you would for any side plank.
This time, though, also brace your belly by squeezing and hold for eight seconds. You can take a breath after bracing and repeat.
To modify, keep a knee on the ground.
For an additional challenge, raise your top foot off the ground!
6. Bird Dog
Doing Bird Dogs slowly and under control is way more challenging that it seems.
Get on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
Reach your right hand toward the front wall as far as you can without twisting your body.
Reach your left heel toward the back wall as far as you can.
When you are fully extended, brace your core, then relax.
For an additional challenge, bring your right elbow and meet your left knee while it comes off the ground. Repeat 10 times. Switch sides.
Maintain Good Form in Core Strength Exercises
They key to doing this work is doing it slowly and correctly.
I’ve had clients tell me how difficult the work can be!
Be forewarned, though, that the Superman and Bird Dog can wake up muscles in your back that would rather stay sleeping!
If you’ve had some back issues in the past, start with three or four Bird Dogs and really focus on form.
Plus, yoga is a great tool for building core strength.
Got Questions? Want to Know More?
Try these exercises and see how they work for you.
If you have questions about execution, effectiveness, or form, let me know!