Hunting for the Neutral Spine

I think I’ve finally figured out what I’ve been doing wrong, particularly with my squats and deadlifts.

It’s all thanks to a comment made by Onomatopoeicbliss, and particularly a link he shared about Front Squats.

While I’m still not attracted to this particular style of squat, especially now that I’ve read the caveats at the Robertson Training Systems (same link as above) website, a short YouTube video he posted on Neutral Spine finally made the light bulb go off over my head.

Here it is.

At about 1:16 into the video (it’s only a little over 2 minutes long total), Robertson illustrates what he means by a neutral spine using another person and a broomstick. At 1:35 into the movie, you see how to maintain a neutral spine while bending at the waist, perhaps the way you’d do when preparing for a deadlift.

But the most illuminating moment for me was at about 1:50, when, with Robertson still holding the stick against the guy’s head, back, and butt, the guy (his name is Lance, actually) performed a bodyweight squat.

It was at that moment when I realized what I’d been doing wrong in both squats and deadlifts, and why I can only go just so low when doing back squats, before my lower right back starts to hurt.

Notice how the position of the head affects the position of the spine. Credit:

It’s my head position. I remember reading Rippetoe on squats and he said to look somewhat downward, but I didn’t get why. Now I can see that in doing both squats and deadlifts, I’ve been lifting my head up so I can see my reflection in the mirror.

But when I did that, I stopped having a neutral spine (if I ever started out with one) and my back became arched or extended (see position B in the photo above). This led, under load, to me extending my spine and trying to squat, and especially to extending my spine and pulling a 250 pound barbell off the floor, resulting in my lumbar injuries.

I use the plural because I’m sure I’ve hurt myself more than once because of poor form.

look down
Now I get why where I look is so important when squatting. Credit:

I looked up a bunch of image files, and I’ve put a few here, to show the three basic positions of the spine and how head position affects them. Looking down too low will result in a rounded back. Looking up too high (like I’ve been doing) causes the back to become extended. Only angling the head in a very specific way maintains the neutral spine.

But I can’t look at myself while I’m lifting, not unless I look in a mirror, and anyway, I wouldn’t have the right vantage point to see if my spine was staying neutral or not.

But this makes so much sense. This is why I can’t get my thighs parallel to the floor during back squats. I bet I could go lower if I could maintain a neutral spine. I’m probably better at doing this when performing zercher squats because the position of the barbell is completely different.

I checked in with my back this morning, a day after doing zercher squats and rack pulls, and the offending area is feeling sore, maybe even a bit more sore than it did yesterday. This is telling me that I did something wrong while lifting.

OK, maybe it wasn’t disastrously wrong, but I shouldn’t be feeling pain at all. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) I can understand. But that’s not what I’m feeling.

posture belt
I feel like I should wear one of these. Credit: activeortho’s YouTube channel

In Rip’s book Starting Strength, he outlines a way a person can get a sense for what a neutral spine feels like. I put a bookmark on that page, but haven’t revisited it to test the technique on myself. Sounds like I’d better to it soon if I intend on lifting again tomorrow.

If I can keep from reinjuring myself, and I can master maintaining a neutral spine in all my lifts, then potentially, I can get past my current plateau, which seems to be more about lack of good form than lack of raw strength, and become stronger than I am right now.

I’m looking forward to it.

By the way, the Robertson article is an extremely detailed description of everything you would ever want to know about front squats. If you’re interested, I highly recommend it.

You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.

William Faulkner


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