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Should you lift with a flat back or a neutral spine?

Updated: May 26, 2023

Hey there fitness pals! So, we've all heard the mantra "keep your spine straight when lifting", right? The idea is to keep our back in a 'neutral' position to avoid those pesky shear forces that can lead to injuries when lifting. Sounds simple enough, but wait, there's more to the story, particularly when it comes to managing these forces during lifting. Buckle up, as we're going for a deep dive!

First things first, let's clear up the term 'shear.' Imagine you're lifting something heavy. There's a force acting on your spine, let's call it the 'master force'. We can break this master force into smaller forces - the compressive and shear forces. Now, compressive force is like an elephant sitting on your spine - it pushes down. Shear force, on the other hand, tries to slide your spine sideways. Both of these can potentially lead to tissue damage.

Now, imagine bending forward while lifting something. Thanks to gravity, your body wants to fall forward, creating an anterior shear force that your spine has to resist to avoid injury. The more you lean forward (assuming the weight is the same), the more your spine has to fight against these forces.

Interestingly, our spines can handle more compressive force (like the elephant) than shear force before things start to break down. This makes sense because when we lift, the compressive forces are usually bigger than the shear forces. But this could be a bit tricky when we prescribe exercises like deadlifts where the shear forces can get really high, almost reaching the spine's structural limits. That's why we recommend adjusting your lifting technique to control these forces.

We're usually told to keep a 'lordotic' or neutral spine when lifting to minimize this forward force. But recent research suggests that lifting with a slightly more rounded back might actually reduce these forces, especially at the lower back where they're highest during lifting.

Also, our back muscles, the erector spinae, act differently at different levels of the back. In the middle, they can create a force that pushes the spine back (L5/S1), but at the lower end, they actually increase the forward force, adding more load to the joints.

So, the idea of avoiding rounding the back during lifting to reduce these forward forces doesn't seem to hold up. In fact, a bit of rounding could actually be a smart strategy to reduce these forces at the lower back, and we might want to coach for a more flat back instead.

My take? During heavy or fatiguing lifts, having a "flexion moment" (a well-controlled, momentary rounding of the back) could be a good way to build up our body's tolerance. Technique is important in a deadlift, but these moments can help us learn control in high-stress situations. Rather than stopping someone who's still learning the ropes from deadlifting, we can use a lighter weight to help them learn the movement and build up their anti-rounding strength.

As for managing these forward forces during lifting, planning a smart workout routine could be more helpful in avoiding injuries. The resistance to these forces mostly comes from our spinal bones. The stronger these bones, the more force they can handle. As bone strength can be increased with resistance training and plenty of rest, gradually increasing the weight over time could be a great strategy to build up tolerance and minimize the risk of injury.

To wrap up, while adjusting our back posture is part of the solution to reduce the risk from these forces during lifting, a smart workout routine might be more important in helping us handle the forces of heavy lifting.

And remember, even top-notch lifters like Eddie Hall accept that a bit of rounding is part of lifting heavy weights. And so can our clients! I'd suggest starting these exercises when we're fresh and ready to go in our workout session (right after our warm-up).

Now, let's talk collagen. You know, the stuff that keeps our skin looking fresh? It's also in our spine!

Different exercises can have different effects on the collagen in our intervertebral discs (the squishy things between our spine bones). For instance, when we're deadlifting, we're not trying to flex our spine, but to resist it. This resistance can cause collagen to shift or even be removed from the front of these discs over time.

On the other hand, yoga often involves back extension exercises. These can lead to a similar shift or removal of collagen, but from the back of the discs. It's worth noting that these changes aren't necessarily bad. They're part of how our bodies adapt to the stress we put on them and can actually make us stronger in the long run.

In a deadlift, our main goal isn't to flex our spine, but to lift a heavy weight while keeping our spine as neutral as possible. This helps us stay safe and efficient. The body naturally resists flexion in this scenario to protect the spine and keep the weight close to our center of gravity. That's why good deadlift form is all about a neutral spine and engaging the muscles in our back to resist the natural tendency towards flexion under heavy load.

But, it's also normal for our spine to flex a little during heavy lifting. Just look at powerlifters like Eddie Hall! The key is to make sure we're controlling the movement and handling the load safely. Factors like our strength, flexibility, past injuries, and overall health all come into play.

As personal trainers, our job is to help our clients perform these exercises correctly. We need to make sure they have the strength and technique to handle the weight safely. We also need to gradually increase the difficulty of their training to prevent injuries and promote healthy adaptations. So let's get out there and lift, safely and effectively!

Wrap up:

Programming deadlifts with a focus on back extension, rather than maintaining a neutral or flat back, is a somewhat controversial topic in the fitness and strength training community. This approach is often used with the intent of further strengthening the muscles of the lower back, specifically the erector spinae, which are critical for maintaining posture and stability in the spine.

However, it's important to note that lifting with an extended (overly arched) back can increase the risk of injury, especially under heavy loads. The excessive curvature can put undue pressure on the posterior elements of the spine, including the facet joints and the intervertebral discs, potentially leading to issues like disc herniation or facet joint degeneration over time. This is particularly true if the individual lacks proper lifting technique or has pre-existing back issues.

Moreover, lifting with an excessively arched back can also lead to muscle imbalances. It can overemphasize the lower back muscles at the expense of the glutes and hamstrings, which are also crucial for performing a safe and effective deadlift. This can result in an inefficient movement pattern and potentially increase the risk of injury in the long run.

In general, the neutral spine position is typically recommended for deadlifts as it allows for a more even distribution of force across the muscles of the posterior chain (which includes the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings) and minimizes the risk of injury. However, a slight amount of flexion or extension may be acceptable, depending on the individual's specific anatomy, flexibility, and strength levels.

In conclusion, while back extension-focused deadlifts can be used in certain contexts and with appropriate caution, they should not be the default approach for most individuals, particularly those lifting heavy weights. It's crucial to prioritize safety and efficiency in lifting mechanics over purely focusing on muscle activation. And as always, individual coaching and programming should be based on the person's goals, abilities, and overall health status.

To find out more about these types of thought provoking concepts, join my mentorship program: 12 weeks of carefully selected topics in order to help you flourish with your clients!

Further reading:

Deadlift and resistance against flexion:

  • Cholewicki, J., McGill, S. M., & Norman, R. W. (1991). Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 23(10), 1179-1186.

  • McGill, S. M., & Marshall, L. W. (2012). Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(1), 16-27.

Collagen removal and redistribution in the spine:

  • Urban, J. P., & Roberts, S. (2003). Degeneration of the intervertebral disc. Arthritis research & therapy, 5(3), 120.

  • Adams, M. A., & Roughley, P. J. (2006). What is intervertebral disc degeneration, and what causes it? Spine, 31(18), 2151-2161.

Yoga and impact on the spine:

  • Lee, J. A., Kim, J. W., & Kim, D. Y. (2016). Effects of yoga exercise on serum adiponectin and metabolic syndrome factors in obese postmenopausal women. Menopause, 19(3), 296-301.

  • Cramer, H., Lauche, R., Haller, H., & Dobos, G. (2013). A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain. The Clinical journal of pain, 29(5), 450-460.

Eddie Hall and heavy lifting:

  • McKean, M. R., Dunn, P. K., & Burkett, B. J. (2015). The lumbar and sacrum movement pattern during the back squat exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2820-2827.

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