By now you’ve probably heard about the importance of maintaining a neutral spine when squatting or deadlifting. If not, this article is for you. When it comes to neutral spine positioning, most of the emphasis is focused on the thoracic spine (mid-back) and the lumbo-pelvic region (low-back and hips.) This is for a good reason, too, because lumbo-pelvic positioning during the squat or deadlift movement is simply more important than what your cervical spine (neck) is doing. But hold your horses: just because cervical spine positioning is less important doesn’t mean it is NOT important. It’s like your car: at any given moment it’s probably more important that you have enough fuel in the tank and air in the tires than it is whether you’ve had an oil change in the last 3000-5000 miles. But if you don’t change your oil in 80,000 miles, you could have a major problem.
Let’s consider how neck positioning affects other parts of the body.
Imagine someone with “poor posture.” Their head is jutted forward, their mid-spine is rounded, and their shoulders are turned inward. As it turns out, positioning of the neck, shoulders, and back are linked, or coupled. To reverse this crappy positioning, we want to encourage muscles that drive external rotation at the shoulders, extension of the mid back, and retraction of the neck and shoulder blades. Clinicians spend a lot of time with patients teaching this in effort to resolve the issues the patient came in with.
Now let’s apply this positioning fix to a movement like the deadlift. Contrary to what you instinctively want to do, or have been taught to do (i.e. look up), try to maintain a “double-chin” position throughout the duration of the movement. This sets your cervical spine in a neutral position, and because positioning is often coupled, other parts of your body will be better positioned.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you’re definitely going to get hurt if your neck positioning isn’t perfectly neutral while squatting or deadlifting. Remember, a neutral spine is a “zone” of acceptable positioning, or as Mark Bell (howmuchyabench.net) puts it, “You want to make an effort to be as neutral as possible.” What I am saying is that making an effort to optimize your neck positioning is worth the hassle, especially for a novice or intermediate athlete because it can improve your positioning at other regions of your spine/body which, in turn, carries over to improved long-term performance and decreased likelihood of injury.