Maintaining a Neutral Spine in the Squat

Spinal ColumnThe key feature of proper squatting technique is the ability to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. This becomes even more challenging if you’re trying to squat below parallel, and the difficulty that many people have with this only serves to perpetuate the myth that squatting is bad for your back. You may also have observed some really strong lifters performing a squat with a rounded back, which further complicates the issue. While it’s one thing to sacrifice a little bit of form when going for a near maximum-effort lift, this exception doesn’t apply to you if you’re not squatting triple your bodyweight, or if you’re still learning how to squat. Quality of movement should take precedence over the quantity of the resistance being moved.

This doesn’t mean that the lumbar spine should never move into flexion or hyperextension. But it’s probably wise to avoid extreme end ranges of motion when you’re supporting a heavy load on your shoulders. As I explained in a previous post about squatting myths, squats will not destroy your back as long as you do them correctly. Since maintaining a neutral lumbar spine is typically the limiting aspect of the squat, let’s identify the source of the problem and then I’ll show you how you can correct it. First, I want to clear up a widespread misconception in regards to flexibility requirements of the squat.

Hamstring flexibility is unrelated to lower back rounding

Lower back rounding is commonly blamed on poor hamstring flexibility. One physical therapist I’ve spoken with even claimed that squatting below parallel places such an extreme stretch on the hamstrings that you can potentially dislocate the sacroiliac joint in your pelvis. This is simply not true, and these concerns are easily dismissed by comparing the squat movement to the position required for any hamstring stretch. Maximum hamstring extensibility is achieved by flexing at the hip while extending the knee. Full knee joint extension is not required to stretch the hamstrings, but flexing at the knee will always reduce the intensity of any hamstring stretch. Since squatting involves simultaneous flexion at the hips and knees, the hamstrings will essentially remain the same length throughout the entire movement. If you’re stretching for other performance-related goals, your efforts may still be worthwhile (as long as you aren’t trying to prevent injury or muscle soreness), but you can stop stretching your hamstrings for the purpose of improving your squat.

What about the adductor, or groin, muscles? After all, the majority of that muscle group only cross the hip joint, so could they be tight? Well, I hesitate to dismiss that possibility for 100% of all cases, but I think it’s highly unlikely for most people. If you’re suspicious that tight adductors might be your problem, then you can perform this simple test to find out: sit down on a surface that allows your thighs to be about parallel to the ground, with your feet flat on the floor and a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Just get comfortable. Then, reject modern social convention and spread your knees out to the side, widening your stance and turning out your toes as required to remain comfortable without lifting your heels off the floor. Even though you’re sitting, you’ll essentially be emulating the bottom position of a squat. I could be wrong, but I don’t know anyone who can’t do this. As long as you can get into this position, your adductors are not too tight. Next.

Excessive depth with the low bar squat

If a lack of flexibility isn’t the problem, then why does your lower back round in the squat? Well, if you’re performing a low-bar squat, then you may be trying to squat too deep. Attempting to squat below parallel with the low-bar position essentially guarantees that you will round your lower back. The explanation for this is based on simple kinematics, but it’s much easier to follow with a visual aid, which I’ve provided in the video below. Be advised that this will not win any awards for the world’s most exciting squat video, but if you want to understand why you shouldn’t go below parallel with a low-bar squat, then it’s essential information:

Inappropriate use of hip drive in a deep squat

The low bar squat may suit your training purposes just fine as long as you don’t try to squat below parallel. And switching to another squat variation, like a high bar squat or front squat, can allow you to squat deep. However, if you’re still initiating the movement by pushing your hips back, then you’re going to run into the same problem. You should not push your hips back to initiate a deep squat, and you should not be trying to utilize hip drive in a deep squat. This is where hyperextension of the lumbar spine can potentially come into play. If you maintain a more erect torso as you push your hips back into the squat, then the lumbar spine is likely to hyperextend. Then, as you reach maximum squat depth, your lumbar spine will move into flexion as your hips inevitably move forward. At some point, as the resistance is increased, the bar will pin you forward and you will not be able to push your lumbar spine back into extension on the way up. If you want to squat deep, the hips should go down, not back, and the knees should go forward as much as necessary to accommodate the hips. Stop using hip drive in a deep squat!

Create tension to maintain position

Relaxing into the bottom of the squat is another very common mistake. It’s necessary to maintain tension during the entire movement and not just in the lower body muscles of the hips and thighs, but in the upper body as well. It’s possible to create tension and still be out of position though, so it’s critical to learn proper upper body positioning for the squat. With all the emphasis on maintaining a neutral lumbar spine, a typical approach is to focus on keeping the lower back tight, in an attempt to lock it in. I’ve tried that myself and it’s not the solution. What’s needed instead is to create some extension in the thoracic spine, along with sufficient tension to hold that position. Once you start rounding your thoracic spine, the lumbar spine is bound to follow.

You can practice this aspect of your technique without any external resistance, and I like to simulate the high bar back squat for this purpose. Simply stand up tall with your elbows bent and your fists about shoulder height, as if you were preparing for a high bar squat. Then, pull your elbows straight down toward the floor while pushing your chest up and forward. Don’t approach this casually, be a gorilla. Create a big, wide, gorilla chest, and really create some tension in your lats. Once you get the feel of this, try it with an empty bar. Make sure you’re gripping the bar toward your fingers, create that big, strong gorilla chest, and actively pull the bar down into your back. You should not be pushing up into the bar with the base of your palms because you will lose tension in your back that way. If you’re doing this correctly, your elbows will point downward and your wrists will be in a neutral position. If your elbows are pointing behind you and your wrists are bent, then either you’re not creating enough mid-spine extension to begin with, or you’re not generating enough upper body tension to maintain it.

Low Bar Squat

From this position, squatting any deeper will result in rounding of the lower back. Can you see why?

The barbell front squat is a little different because you can’t pull the bar down into your body like that, but you can still create a big chest and then create tension in your lats. While making sure you keep your elbows up, simply pull the elbows straight back toward the bar with your lats, creating tension in your entire upper body as you push your chest up and forward. This is an essential part of your technique, regardless of the squat variation being used. In theory, if you keep your chest up and maintain proper tension in your middle back, the rest of your squat should fall in line. Your torso should stay erect, your knees should track out to the appropriate angle and distance, and your lower back should remain in a neutral position. This doesn’t always happen automatically though, and this is a proprioceptive issue. For one thing, you may not be aware of how much tension you need to create, and you may have been relaxing into your squat without even realizing it. And if you don’t know what a neutral spine should feel like when you’re at the bottom of the squat, then you’re basically just guessing which position to move into and you may be guessing wrong.

Kinesthetic awareness and motor control in the squat

There’s nothing wrong with a little trial and error, and some people have excellent kinesthetic awareness and motor control and the squat movement just comes more naturally to them. But if you’re having a hard time squatting without rounding your lower back, you’ll end up reinforcing a sub-optimal movement pattern every time you squat and this can make it very difficult to un-learn the rounded-back position. If this is your situation, then I would suggest changing your environment a little bit and provide your brain with a different context in which to build a new squat pattern.

First of all, remove any external resistance. Then, reverse the movement and turn the bottom position into the easiest position by starting from a box. The box will also provide more sensory feedback so you can get a better feel for what’s going on in your lower back. And finally, slow the entire movement down so you can pay close attention to what’s happening. You can easily create and maintain a neutral spine position this way, but it’s very important to focus on how that feels if you want to integrate this new pattern into your regular squat movement. Watch this video for a demonstration of how to put that all together:

Once you get a feel for maintaining a neutral spine throughout the squat, that will dictate where you place your feet, where you track your knees, and how to avoid excessive flexion or hyperextension of the lumbar spine through proper positioning and application of tension. You’ll be learning how to squat proprioceptively. This is an important skill to acquire because as you gain experience in the movement and increase the resistance, your form will gradually change as well. Strict rules as to precisely which angle your torso, knees and toes should be at, and the exact squat depth you should reach, etc. do not apply. Incidentally, this is why it’s undesirable to face a mirror when you squat and you should not perform the drills from the video above in view of a mirror. For one thing, the mirror really doesn’t provide accurate visual input, and it will distract you from paying attention to your sensory feedback system.

Make your squat more awesome

Do your lower back a favor and give these suggestions a try. As you can see, they’re much simpler than the typical recommendations for corrective exercise. I’ve shown clients how to go from a horrible-looking squat – back bent over, knees caving in, heels coming up, etc. – to a very solid-looking squat from a box in about 5 minutes by using this approach. Of course, if transferring that new pattern to a heavy back squat is your goal, it will require considerably more time and practice but it will be well worth the effort. Drop the weight, ditch the ego, and learn how to maintain a neutral spine in the squat.

Image Credits: Eyad Hussein, CrossFit Refinery

15 comments to Maintaining a Neutral Spine in the Squat

  • Charlie

    Nice article. A few bits I may have misunderstood. I thought the usual concern is knees more so than back? Leg strength is more of a limiting factor than neutral spine? Slight hip hinge is useful in high bar back squat? Hip drive is useful if done correctly? I thought boxes were more relevant to Powerlifting for depth purposes and potentially risky otherwise? Might be worth mentioning olympic lifting shoes. Some elite oly lifters do elevate elbows in high bar back squat without issue so is this a flexibility matter? Any thoughts on head/eyes? As I said I may have misunderstood elements or just be plain wrong :) thanks

  • Biomechanics Fitness and Performance

    Hi, Charlie. Great questions.

    It’s true, some people are more concerned about their knees when squatting, and maybe it would be more accurate to state that a neutral spine is the more “self-limiting” factor of a squat. Your back will typically give out before your legs do, and you can most likely grind out an extra rep or two (or more) with a rounded back. Again, that’s assuming there’s no issue with the knees, but I was looking at this with a focus on form, not so much dealing with injury or pain.

    Not to get too far off track here, but it’s entirely possible to round your back without experiencing any pain, and you can also have pain in your back even though you’re maintaining a neutral spine. Pain is a separate issue and I want to address that in a future post.

    Hip drive is necessary in a low bar squat, and it can be used in any other parallel squat. Once you drop below parallel, however, using hip hinge and hip drive will cause some issues in the lower back. The principle from my low bar video above will apply to a full-depth high bar squat… if you push the hips back before you reach maximum depth, then they must come forward again, resulting in a rounded lower back.

    When observing elite lifters, I think you are going to find little “breakdowns” in form, especially when they are attempting maximal lifts. And even in their training, they might be able to get away with little discrepancies because they have other advantages: optimal leverages, superior muscle recruitment, etc. I’m not arrogant enough to argue with someone who can squat triple their bodyweight or more, and while I certainly think the rest of us can learn a lot from their training, I’m not of the opinion that we should try to copy everything they do. In the case of an elite lifter who is raising their elbows, I would assume they are maintaining proper tension in spite of doing this. If someone hasn’t mastered the process of generating the required tension, then they should be more strict with their form.

    The purpose of the box here was simply to provide some enhanced sensory feedback, to learn what a neutral spine feels like in a less challenging environment. The next step would be to transfer that to your regular squat without the box, and maybe I wasn’t clear enough about that. I wasn’t suggesting that deep heavy squats should then be performed to a box.

    As far as the head and eyes, I believe it’s helpful to at the very least keep a level gaze, and it may even be desirable to look up a little, as long as this doesn’t create flexion in the lower neck. If you’re creating good extension in the thoracic spine, creating a big chest, and also pulling your chin back (create a double chin), this should automatically tilt your shoulders, neck and head up a bit and your gaze will naturally shift upward along with it. If you look up even further, that should be ok, as long as you’re not jutting your chin forward when you do it. There’s probably a better way to describe that but it’s not coming to me right now.

    Again, excellent questions, I hope I addressed them all. And I realize everyone’s experience may differ, and this is all just my viewpoint. I’ll come back to this later and see if there’s anything else I’d like to add.

  • Charlie

    Thanks very much for the quick and detailed response, there are some other insightful articles on Elite fts, t nation and starting strength re squats too, mostly agreeing with you but some interesting variations/deviations too – probably pendlay and some other usual suspects in terms of olympic lifting too. Great site/articles by the way!

  • Biomechanics Fitness and Performance

    Charlie,

    Yeah, I thought the deviations were interesting enough to share. I’m very familiar with the valuable and highly respected resources you cited, but if there’s some small detail that doesn’t quite make sense to me, then I’m going to question it. And if I turn out to be wrong, then I’ll gladly adjust my thinking (well, maybe not always gladly, but I’ll do it).

    Btw, for olympic lifting, I’ll add Greg Everett/Catalyst Athletics to your list, and I’d also highly recommend Don McCauley’s instructional videos on YouTube.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  • Alvin

    I find all your articles very interesting. Please keep them coming!!

  • Mika

    I always read about squat, because it’s my harder exercice for my morphology. So I want to know a lot about this lift because i really like to do it.

    I want to say that all your articles about squat are really good. You don’t say the same things that we all know and read always everywhere. Your explanation are good, and i want to say thank you, I learned things that i didn’t know and it will be usefull ;)

    (bad english, sorry)

  • Jack

    Thanks so much for this article. I squat high bar and have been plagued by rounding of the lower back. I’ve read all the usual stuff about hamstring flexibility but I wasn’t going to commit myself to months of stretching when I was never really that convinced by it. I used your cue of keeping the elbows down and the wrists straight in order to create thoracic extension and guess what? Problem solved! Thanks again.

    Jack

  • Biomechanics Fitness and Performance

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for coming back to share that! I’m glad that was a helpful cue for you.

  • Mike C

    I really liked this article. I love when people are able to think outside of conventional traditions. One question I have is related to the last video: In your article you spend a great deal of effort building your case against going deeper than a parallel squat, then at the end of the video you demonstrate how to go deeper into a squat. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?

  • Biomechanics Fitness and Performance

    Hello Mike,

    The issue is with the low bar squat as described in Starting Strength. That style of squat requires you to push your hips back, which will result in rounding of the lower back if you try to drop below parallel. I’m in favor of a deep squat with other squat variations, as long as the movement is not initiated by pushing the hips back. Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify.

  • ken patane

    Ben,

    I have a very long fermur & would like your recommendation on best way to squat & leg press.(high on the back or low)(wide stance or narrow)

  • Biomechanics Fitness and Performance

    Hi Ken,

    I would try squatting with a wider stance, turning your toes out more, and then tracking your knees in the direction of your toes. Tracking your knees further out to the side will shorten the moment arm at your hips (as looking from the side) and allow you to maintain a more upright torso. You can gradually try changing your stance and toe position little by little until you find what feels best for you.

    As far as bar position, I’d say that also depends on what you’re most comfortable with. But I’m inclined to suggest high bar, because that will further encourage you to keep your torso more erect. If your torso is relatively shorter, placing the bar low will require a flatter torso angle to keep the bar centered over the mid-foot.

    – Ben

  • Nice article and liked your suggestions in the video for neutral spine. I use similar techniques teaching students how to feel their spine in yoga classes.
    One other suggestion that may help is to squat at different heights without weight and do flexion and extension of the lumbar spine at those different heights.

  • Chris

    Very insightful article. As a PT i have been teaching clients many of these cues in my own way.
    However, i would like to bring up something for discussion. We had an elite-level strength & conditioning / olympic lifting coach come do a series of workshops at my workplace. When going over the high bar back squat, he put major emphasis on maintaining neutral spine from top to bottom, primarily focusing on the hyperextension of the thoracic spine. The Gorilla Chest (the technique i had been taught) apparently causes too much extension in the upper back and causes poor activation in the abdominals.
    He cued us to keep the chest low in towards the the ribs, achieve a neutral spine and brace the core. THEN break at the knees first and descend straight down without sending the butt back (as this causes hyperextension at the lumbar spine)
    He also addressed the “bum-tuck” at the bottom of a deep squat as caused by weak glutes, hams and lumbar erectors.
    Ofcourse the emphasis on the squat was more technical-based towards a deep olympic style (as opposed to a A to B method by any means like the powerlifter)
    I was wondering, as an industry professional, if you could shed some light on the issue of hyperextension, both upper and lower, as most material on the net revolves around the issues of excessive flexion.
    Cheers!

  • Biomechanics Fitness and Performance

    Hi Chris,

    Apologies for the delayed response, you made some interesting comments. As far as I know, spinal hyperextension injuries are going to be the result of repetitive stress (blocking in football, gymnastics, etc.) or a more catastrophic event like rolling an automobile. I guess this is possible with a loaded barbell on the back, but only with relatively lighter loads. As resistance and fatigue increases, it becomes harder and harder to maintain extension (nevermind hyperextension), which is why hyperflexion injuries would appear to be much more common.

    I don’t think it’s even possible to set up for a squat with the thoracic spine in hyperextension without either dropping the bar, or pushing the hips way back to compensate. It would look and probably feel very obviously wrong. I also don’t agree that a little extension results in less abdominal activation, in fact I believe that getting some spinal extension facilitates greater oblique involvement (no hard data on hand to confirm that at the moment.) Abdominal bracing is important, but keeping the chest up will allow the lifter to get more air in, and I think maintaining a neutral spine goes beyond that anyway.

    So does that mean elite coaches and athletes don’t know how to squat? Of course not. But I do think they require different cues, and this is what I’ve filtered out from my training of others, some who were previously attempting to squat like the elites (myself included).

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