There are two cues I often hear coaches giving athletes during the squat that I believe are not the best cues. I outline both cues in this article and the reasons why they can be destructive.
Cue #1 Having an Athlete “Look Up”
This is a topic that really shouldn’t be a topic. When we are squatting or deadlifting we want our heads to be in a neutral position the entire time. The common, yet incorrect coaching cue is to tell the athlete to look up. What this is supposed to do is to align the spine in a better, load-bearing position while giving the athlete a target to drive toward.
The problem with this is two-fold. First, as we know from our sprinting mechanics, is that our head position dictates our spinal alignment. Of course! That’s why you’re looking up, right? Wrong. While we don’t want our spine in flexion while we are under the compressive load of a squat or a deadlift, we are cueing the wrong thing. Looking up actually triggers the low-back musculature to, in essence, activate to bring the lumbar into lordosis to try to match the cervical. With such a heavy load, these muscles can easily become overloaded, and it can cause tightness and/or pain in your low back.
Second, is that while our cervical position tells our low back, essentially, what to do, our Thoracic spine (upper back) does not necessarily follow. I have seen many athletes squat or deadlift while looking up, and their T-spine is in terrible position to bear the load. So, that argument for “look up” is out the window.
A better coaching cue is to keep the head neutral, chest up and the core tight to maintain a good squatting or deadlifting position. A neutral head position does not mean that an athlete is looking straight ahead the entire time. It means that you match your head with your spinal position and angle. Think of a man in a neck brace. The reason he is in the brace is because he is hurt, and this neutral position is the healthiest position to put him in. Another way to think about it is to make a double chin while performing exercise. Not by looking down, but by bringing your chin in.
Cue #2 Having an Athlete Squat “All the Way Down”
This one is a simple concept that people don’t always seem to understand. While there are many people who can squat “all the way down” or “ATG”, the majority of people are not able to achieve this position while maintaining a healthy, neutral spinal position. So, we all understand that getting under a bar hunch-backed is a bad position to be in, right? Why?This is because adding compression to flexion is a really bad idea.
As Dr. Stuart McGill, the foremost leader in back research and performance, said in an interview, “A flexed spine uses less hip strength but increases the hydraulic pressure on the posterior part of the disc. This increases collagen delamination and the risk of a bulging disc…In other words, lifting with a neutral spine increases the tolerable training volume.”
This means an athlete can do more if he or she is lifting with a neutral spine as opposed to a flexed spine, while a flexed spine also leaves you at risk for an injury. I know what you’re thinking. What the heck does this have to do with squatting all the way down? Simple.
Posterior Pelvic Tilt
When many athletes squat, you reach a point where your body goes into what is called posterior pelvic tilt. This is the point at which the athlete’s butt rolls downward. Usually, this happens around 90 degrees of hip flexion. This is the threshold you do not want to pass. Now, everyone is different in this area. It largely depends on an individual’s biomechanics and the lever-lengths of the athlete’s lower half. There is also a large component of various mobility constraints and core stability.
Olympic lifters typically can go well past 90 degrees while not going into posterior pelvic tilt. This can be improved subtly, but not infinitely and not always fully to an ATG position. Improving your mobility and really hammering away at your squat mechanics can both help delay, to an extent, your pelvic tilt.
Now, going into this pelvic tilt is not in and of itself entirely bad for an athlete’s back. It becomes especially problematic when compressive loads are added. Here’s where it really gets to the point. The lumbar spine is attached to the posterior aspect of the pelvis. When the pelvis tilts, it takes the lumbar spine with it, causing the lumbar spine to flex under a compressive load. Remember, flexion plus compression is a no-no. Looking back at Dr. McGill’s quote, we all understand that lifting with a flexed spine is problematic, right? Now I ask, does it matter which area of the spine is flexed? Nope, it’s all bad, but even more so in the lumbar spine, which is not meant to be a mobile area but a stable one.
To test where an athlete’s pelvis goes into posterior tilt, have them take off their shirt and stand sideways looking into a mirror and squat down. Notice the point where their butt tucks underneath them. When you are loading your spine, do not go past that point. Retest it every so often. Check out our blog on increasing squat depth without compromising spine neutrality.