If you train heavy deadlifts, you are going to LOVE this exercise...and hate it...but mostly love it.
You'll love it because it's going to allow you to add about 20 to 30 lbs on your maximum deadlift in a matter of DAYS. You'll hate it because it hurts...it is really not comfortable.
Believe me, though, you will work this one despite the discomfort when you feel just how effective it is.
This exercise is going to help you increase your top-end deadlift by addressing what is one of the most common weak links in the deadlift: bracing core strength.
Picture this...you're pulling a 1 rep max deadlift off the floor. You pull a bend in the bar first (so it doesn't pop off the ground and bounce back down), you squeeze it off the ground, then, just as you're about to blow it up, your core folds over and collapses, forcing you to bail out on the lift.
You KNOW your back and legs could handle the weight...your core collapsing forced you to end the lift.
This is what happens to ME when I go for a max deadlift that's a bit beyond my core strength. It's my weak link and I set out to address it.
THIS is the exercise I came up with to do it and it works like crazy.
What is Abdominal Bracing?
This is one of the most fundamental techniques in strength training, especially for deadlifts and squats.
The easiest way to demonstrate abdominal bracing is to imagine you were bracing because you were about to get punched in the stomach.
You tighten up your abs isometrically then inhale. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This contraction along with the air in lungs then becomes a pneumatic stabilizer to help support the spine.
It's absolutely CRITICAL that you utilize this bracing strategy when doing heavy deadlifts. DO NOT pull the navel in towards the spine, as is sometimes recommend. This serves only to destabilize the core during the lift, which can compromise the spine and lead to injury.
Bracing is something that top athletes and powerlifters naturally do (and you probably naturally do already, too, so go with it!).
How This Exercise Strengthens the Muscles Involved in Bracing
The idea behind this exercise is simple...it's going to train your abdominal bracing muscles by putting a bar into your stomach, forcing you to either brace your abs or get folded over the bar.
It teaches proper abdominal bracing with no room for error. You either brace properly or get folded over.
Then it develops strength in those muscles by loading that bracing isometric hold with resistance, holding that bottom deadlift position while holding dumbbells while "barbell-in-stomach" bracing on the bar.
You literally CANNOT fail how to learn proper abdominal bracing when you do this one.
It's going to help you protect your back when lifting heavy and it's going to allow to increase your top-end weights very quickly (and as I mentioned above, a jump of 20 to 30 lbs on your max lifts in a matter of a few weeks of regularly training this exercise is not unreasonable).
How to Do Barbell-In-Stomach Bracing for Deadlift Strength
So to do this one, you'll need two bars and a rack. A bar pad is also useful here, though a rolled-up towel will do in a pinch, if you don't have a bar pad.
Set the safety rails to just above knee height and put the barbell pad on the bar. Push the bar right up against the uprights of the rack.
Set a barbell on the ground just in front of the rack. Start with a lighter weight...just 135 lbs the first time you do this. You can work up from there as needed. I'm using 225 lbs and it's tough.
Next, get yourself into position as though you were about to do a deadlift (the position won't be exactly the same, but very close). The bar in the rack should be right in your belly.
Now lift the bar off the ground. Your abs will NO CHOICE but to brace and brace HARD. Because if they don't, the bar doesn't come off the ground and your internal organs get mashed.
Hold for 10 to 15 seconds or so, then set the bar back down on the ground. Rest a few seconds then repeat. Do 3 to 5 reps then rest 60 to 90 seconds then go again. Do at least 3 sets of this.
This is not only going to train you to brace your core at the start of the deadlift but will also really strengthen those bracing muscles in the core. It's incredibly effective at targeting the exact position needed for preventing that "foldover" that occurs when you get into heavier weights in the deadlift.
This exercise can be trained along with the deadlift or on separate days. If you train it on the same day, you can do it one of two ways...before you do heavy lifting, to fire up those bracing muscles (in which case, you want to stay lighter so you don't pre-fatigue them too much and compromise core stability) or you can do them right after. If you do them after, you can go heavier and not have to worry about it.
Use this exercise at least once a week for 3 to 4 weeks and see how your top-end deadlifts respond. I have a strong feeling you'll be seeing massive improvements in your heavy deadlifting very quickly, especially if core-folding is an issue for you, like it is for me.
Using Dumbbells For Bracing Holds
This technique can also be done very effectively holding onto dumbbells rather than a barbell, too.
The setup for this version is exactly the same as the barbell version.
Set the bar to about mid-thigh height when you're standing in front of it. I also recommend a bar pad or rolled-up towel on the bar - it'll reduce some of the discomfort of the exercise (not all) and allow you to use more weight. So don't think using a barbell pad here makes you a weakling.
Grab a couple of dumbbells (I'm using 65 lb dumbbells in the demo - you should start lighter because I'm a bit nuts) and set them in front of the bar. Set yourself up on the other side of the bar - it should be braced against the uprights of the rack so it doesn't move (same idea on the Smith machine).
Squat down in front of the bar and set your stomach on top of it, just below the rib cage (hard to see in this video because I'm wearing a black shirt and using a black bar pad, but I think you'll get the idea).
Lean over top of the bar and pick up the dumbbells.
Now pull the dumbbells up, bracing your abs hard against the weight of the dumbbells pulling you down against the bar. Now HOLD that position for at least 5 seconds.
It's not going to make you feel happy, I'll tell you that right now, but it WILL build up the exact abdominal bracing strength we're looking for at the bottom of the deadlift.
This also has the bonus of teaching you how to fire your lower back while bracing the core because as you're pulling the dumbbells up into that arched-back position, you're using the muscles of your lower back to do it. The core bracing on the barbell is there to support your upper body.
Now, to make sure this REALLY hits your core hard, when you get to that top hold position, try to imagine like you're pulling your feet off the ground. You won't be able to do it, naturally, but what this will do is force even MORE pressure onto your braced abs.
What I also want to get across here is that we're not doing this exercise BECAUSE it hurts or causes discomfort in the core. We're doing it for a very specific purpose...which is to strengthen the bracing-function of the core at the exact position of a deadlift where the core is likely to show weakness and collapse.
By targeting this very specific portion of the movement and very specific function of the core, you're going to strengthen and hopefully eliminate that weak point in your deadlift and start moving up in your weights very quickly.
Free Hanging Core Bracing
This is an additional method for training the core bracing we're looking for. It's essentially hanging yourself out to dry...there is no external load being applied. Just set the bar to a height where you can set your midsection on top of it, brace, and balance.
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