Old is new while new sometimes gets old.
Do ya smell it? That toil and brain juice spent on wheel re-invention leaves a distinct odor, like an intellectual curry. The latest round of body cues to supposedly keep the spine strong and the posture good now involves something called ‘neck packing.’
Is head position important? Sure. Does it ‘trickle down’ to the rest of your posture? Possibly, but not quite like he describes. Play with your cervical spine all ya like… really, try it, move that head around… do you feel the rest of your spine, or your shoulder blades, changing position? Nope. Now move your shoulders around… forwards and backwards. I bet your hips DID reply to that. They do move in unison, and changing the position of one will make the other want to dance. No amount of neck packing can control that, or will have anything to do with it, once that relationship is understood.
Out of the growing handful of folks I’ve encountered who have hopped on the neck-packing bandwagon, a great majority of them forgot about some part of the rest of their body, and their form suffered. It is an awareness cue that seems to fail for embodiment, and there is one simple reason. Whereas the shoulders and the hips have a happy (but not always desired) synchronicity that can be utilized with the correct cues, the neck isn’t really wired into the system to that degree.
Now there is one exception. Mel Siff pointed out many years ago that a flexed cervical spine (when ya drop your head down) can send a signal to those pesky shoulder blades to relax. But he postulated that even just looking down WITHOUT dropping the head might have the same effect, since the body wants to go where we look (remember you ski lessons, anyone… don’t look at the trees), and there was some evidence that just dropping the eyes could trigger the body to ‘follow’ that gaze by letting the shoulders follow forward (and, as we pointed out, the hips would want to follow by tucking under).
But the ‘trickle down biomechanics’ of neck packing doesn’t seems to take the shoulder/hip relationship into account. Instead it assumes that everything will follow the neck/head position. But it doesn’t, no matter how hard you dream or how many big words you use. “Ocular mobility?” I was there once too… young, eager to sound smart.
You can keep your neck neutral and still… “packed” if you will. But it doesn’t lead to a controlled lift. If it is the outcome of the lift, if it is a simple piece of the spinal puzzle, the go for it. But shoulders and hips come first. In other words, controlling the neck doesn’t control the spine. Period. But controlling the spine, having everything else dialed in, allows you to align your neck as an extension of the locked spine (unmoving, facing down when the hips hinge), or to keep looking forward (not up please.. then problems can arise).
Nick Best shows the example of how having your hips and shoulders in complete and consistent control can allow your head and neck to do what they need to. Notice the difference between the first reps and the last reps (30 reps at 405 pounds!). The body and spine don’t change, but the head starts to change from looking down (“neutral”) to switching between forward and down. His lats are on and his entire trunk is a piece of steel. No neck position will help control that as much as, well, lats and trunk.
On a related tidbit, I’m revising my first book, Lift With Your Head… adding some stuff, changing some stuff, updating some stuff, deleting old, ugly pictures of me. One thing that isn’t changing too much is the chapter about the spine. Here it is, which we will follow next week with how this leads to a deadlift…
Now that we’re going to discuss actual movement, the flux of life, the dance of the universe, the hoe down with gravity that we’ll label as “exercise,” let’s begin with some talk about the spine. Before we embark on this mystical journey into the inner workings of the Physical SubCulture, we need to address some common myths and ideas that are currently holding a lot of people back from actually being strong. Once again, the Blond Bomber’s words are better than my own.
“Gyms are full of 40-something folks who can’t bend over to pick up a nickel, a dime or a quarter. For a dollar they’ll fall on top of the thing, stash it in their shirt and wait for someone to pick them up. Then there are those who exercise regularly, but shy away from lifts that put a load on the lower back. “Hurt it once. Don’t want to hurt it again.” Listen. Be aware, be cautious, but don’t be foolish. Think twice; work the abdominals and the hip and lower back areas. I encourage you to consider light and thoughtful deadlifts and squats as a regular part of your workout to strengthen your core structure. These, like water and air, are necessary, safe and delicious when used correctly and not tampered with or overdone. If the region is weak, it needs therapy and repair and continual building, slow and sure, as only weight training can provide.”
Our Friend, the Spine
The Neutral Spine. Trainers and health professionals love to ramble on about the ‘neutral spine.’ What does it do? Not fight in international conflicts? Mediate disputes between feuding parties? Although this term is ubiquitous among trendy trainers and health practitioners, it seems grossly misunderstood. Since true understanding means it can be explained to an 8 year-old, my small trainer brain will describe it simply as the supported and stabilized position of the body (not just the spine) that makes a movement as safe on the spine as possible. The term ‘neutral’ seems so passive, almost wishy-washy. It is actually anything but.
A ‘neutral’ spine, following our above definition, will be different for different situations. Remember, we defined it as the stabilized position of the body, and that means that proper positioning needs to be considered for all situations. The safest position in a squat isn’t the same as in an overhead press, nor is it the same for sitting on a computer. In fact, using sitting as an example, there isn’t even a single correct seated position, despite what chair and ergonomic equipment companies are selling you.
“Despite the myth perpetuated in many ergonomic guidelines regarding a single ‘ideal’ posture for sitting, the ideal sitting posture is one that continually changes, thus preventing any single tissue from accumulating too much strain. “
– Dr. Stuart McGill, Low Back Disorders
In weight training, an experienced powerlifter or competitive weightlifter will tell you that the stabilization (neutral spine) required for an overhead motion will be different than that of a squat, and the pushup plank position is yet an even different consideration. No matter how hard the new young coaches who haven’t trained anyone try to tell you otherwise, no matter how many experts want to impress upon you the concept of one spinal position for everything (or one hip position, one neck position, one shoulder position… whatever), it ain’t the case. It is so easy to make something feel right on paper. But we live in flux, we move in varying levels of grace, and, ultimately individual awareness will have the final say. Simply put, gravity is a constant in the equation, but body mechanics aren’t. A one-shape-fits-all attitude towards movement, especially loaded movement, does not work.
This is where clinicians and weight trainers need to come together a bit. By the books, there looks like there should be one ‘neutral spine.’ But, for instance, upon examination of a competitive powerlifter, you’ll see hypertrophy (muscle development) in regions of the spine a little different from a non-lifter, or even an athlete from a different sport. This is because the position of the body and spine needed to accept the load from a squat is different from that of an overhead standing, or seated, motion. Here’s why, but it is technical gobbly goop and skipping down a paragraph is completely allowed:
Competitive powerlifters have a greater development of the iliocostalis and longissimus muscles (yeah… see, I told you this is goobly goop), especially in the thoracic region, since, even though they’re located higher up on the spine, they are major extensors of the lumbar. This is due to the positioning of the load on the spine during a squatting motion. To accept the amount of compression a weighted squat provides, the traditional ‘neutral spine’ model couldn’t handle it. This is why it is essential to keep a tight lumbar region (an arch, but not an exaggerated arch!) during squatting motions, and why, during squatting, any athletic coach should recommend a ‘tight arch,’ which would be considered lumbar extension slightly beyond a traditional ‘neutral’ spine. Despite what non-squatting clinicians say, the effect this arch has on the lumbar, by tightening the major erectors, adds support beyond what a more ‘neutral’ position can offer in squatting motions. That’s right… even the ‘centration’ folks, who preach the gospel of being as perfectly centrally lined up as possible, are missing the point. There’s a reason that elite level powerlifters (or weightlifters, or strongmen), don’t focus on having a ‘flat’ or ‘centered’ back. The tight arch also helps keep the pelvis from tilting against the pull of the hamstring muscles, which is also very important in spinal safety, but that’s a different story…
So all this modern talk about ‘centration,’ keeping the spine as ‘neutrally centered’ as possible, doesn’t support the squat, or deadlift, as well as it seems to on paper. We’ll chat a bit more about this when we get to the deadlift next week.
And what of the body in motion? Does a neutral position then become moot? Heck no, since we can still stabilize the spine and hip complex even during athletic movements. That’s right; a spine doesn’t have to be totally rigid to be protected. If that were true, we’d be popping discs with every clog dance, cartwheel, or kickball game. So the argument that there is one ‘neutral’ spine and it is the best way to receive load on the body seems to be a load of hooey.
So, when performing any exercise, be aware that your goal is to keep the trunk, spine and hip complex pretty darn controlled. By having a variety of awareness cues in your arsenal, like locking the ribs to the hips, or bracing the belly (never ‘sucking in’) for movements with planted feet, you’ll build an embodiment that should transfer to more complex and unstable movements as well.
Be proud of your spine. It has a support and stabilization system that is worthy of an award. We just have to use it correctly, and the number one rule of using it correctly is to actually use it in the first place. BE ACTIVE!
(Part II of this article, how to actually deadlift, is here.)