Bracing simply means contracting or squeezing your muscles without movement at the joints (isometric contraction for you fitness gurus). For example, my elbow is already hanging in the straight position but if I then very purposefully straighten it and lock it out hard, my triceps isometrically contract. If you’ve ever done a plank, you’re familiar with bracing. Before you start any lift get tight, squeeze everything, and flex every muscle in your body. Bracing primes your central nervous system to bear a load and helps you involve more muscles in a given lift.
This maneuver is extremely helpful for lifting heavy weight. The Valsalva maneuver is performed by inhaling a huge breath prior to the lift and holding it for the duration of the repetition. By doing this, you create intra-abdominal pressure which then translates into a force to help move whatever it is you’re lifting or moving.
3. Change Directions Quickly
Most every lift has two parts, the way up and the way down. Think of a bicep curl or a bench press. Fitness professionals will recognize these parts of a lift as concentric and eccentric contractions, but that’s not important to an average lifter. What is important is that you realize there is a stretch reflex you can engage between the two motions that will help you, so you should! The best way to do this is to sharply turn the lift around, or change directions quickly, as opposed to hanging out at the bottom. For example, a bench press is going to feel easier and go up faster if you “touch and go” at the chest as opposed to hanging out down there for a moment and then pressing the weight back up. Same goes for a pull up or squat. Hanging out at the bottom is just going to shave reps off your set. On to the next one.
4. Smooth it Out
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So why would you want to work the weight any more than you need to? The most effective path is a smooth and straight line. If your bench press is wiggling its way down and back up, you are losing a lot of energy stabilizing the weight in space. That same energy will be better used to push the weight up and control it down in a straight line. Improving curvy bar paths is often improved by simply thinking about moving the weight in a straight and smooth path. If the movement is new to you, it may take a set or two to get the feel for a smooth lift.
5. Stay With It
When the weight gets heavy, it moves slowly. Sometimes, very slowly. I have even been known to stop with the weight on the way up. The best thing you can do when you’re not sure if you’re going to make a lift is to stay with it and give it what you’ve got, assuming you’re not breaking form (jerking, twisting, un-planting your feet). One of the most dangerous and counter-productive things you can do is to give up on it completely, or drop it. On a bench press, you could end up in a life-threatening situation, even with a spotter! Plus, you’ll never know if you could have made if if you don’t stay with it and really try. If you’re going to fail a lift, descend the weight in a controlled way by moving the weight back down as you are still exerting some force. If you’ve ever pushed through a slow bench press and it felt eternal, you were staying with the weight, good on you!