WIDWID: #WELOOKDOWN

WIDWID- Why I Do What I Do. WIDWID articles explain the mechanics behind a specific element of my lifting or coaching to explore not just the what of lifting but the why, howand when

Photo by Thomas Campitelli- All Rights Reserved

From the beginning of the squat teaching progression, I tell all my beginning lifters to fix their gaze on a spot on the ground about 6-7 feet in front of them (or if there’s a mirror/wall in front of them, the equivalent point on the wall). After they’ve squatted into the bottom position (no barbell yet), I’ll check to make sure their neck isn’t craned upwards or flexed down (compared to the arch of the upper back) and make minor corrections in body position or their gaze point.

From this point forward, “eyes,” “eyes down,” or “spot” become the cue for the lifter to refocus their attention and put their eyes back to that point.

Why?

First: The Teaching Method

Teaching the barbell squat, it helps to get the lifter to feel the correct depth, knee, and back position before they get under the bar. This poses a problem because an air squat is not a barbell squat.

When there is no barbell on their back, the lifter can assume many possible combinations of knee angle, back angle, and arm position to stay in balance. Adding the barbell changes that. Since the most efficient place for the bar is directly over the middle of the foot, as the weight gets heavier, and efficiency becomes more important, the lifter has fewer degrees of freedom (that is, if they want to successfully lift the weight). Since we want the lifter starting with an angle as close to correct as possible, this is a potential problem.

The cue to look down elegantly solves this dilemma. Looking down, the lifter will naturally want to lean forward, correcting the natural tendency of most people (especially those with prior exposure to certain squat styles), to try to stay more upright than possible in the squat. While the lifter is in the bottom position, the coach can then manually or verbally cue the lifter into the right position: the one where the imaginary barbell is over the center of the foot and the weight is balanced. Once set by the coach, the head position then reinforces this body position for the lifter.

Correcting the correction: “Chest up!” 

Most new lifters have a tendency to let their gaze drift up at the bottom of the squat. There’s a natural desire to see where one is going and a feeling that somehow, by looking up, it’ll make UP happen. This is sometimes compounded by the cue “Chest up!” (a useful cue that is often misunderstood)

If the lifter immediately lifts the chest out of the bottom, the barbell will almost by definition move behind the middle of the foot and the knees will tend to push forward just slightly. When the bar moves backwards off the center point of balance, you’re doing additional work. When the knees go forwards, the quads (which are already working like crazy) have to deal with an even greater moment arm (greater forward distance from the bar), meaning they have to work even harder.

No bueno.

If you’re not sure what I mean about the chest-up/balance-back/knees-forward issue, try this: stand up and assume a good half-to-3/4 squat. Try slowly craning to look up to a point just behind you on the ceiling, allowing your chest to come with it. You’ll feel what I mean.

If you’re looking to demonstrate it to someone else, try this drill we use at Starting Strength seminars: when the lifter is at the bottom of the air squat, apply downward pressure on their lower back while they squat up. Have them do it twice, once looking up at the ceiling, once looking down at the correct point. Almost every lifter I’ve done this with or watched do this has experienced how the eyes-up position sucks the power out of the squat.

[On a side note, I was lucky enough to go to a gym with a 3-D camera system and measured mean and peak bar speed for different eyes gazes: straight down, ‘correct,’ straight forward, and up at the ceiling. Between ‘correct’ and straight forward, bar speed stayed essentially the same, but as soon as I started looking at the horizon or above, bar speed went through the floor at the same (relatively) light weight. If you’ve got the toys (Tendo, bar speed accelerometer, 3-D camera) and you’re game, give it a try and let me know if your results were like mine (I did 12 total sets of 2 reps at 70% 1RM for 3 separate sessions, varying the order).]

It’s All About Safety 

There’s another reason, and I almost hesitate to mention it: the possibility for neck injury.

We frequently extend the neck (look up) without injury and some have argued that because the barbell is below the neck, the cervical spine isn’t under load and the head position doesn’t affect injury risk.

Under a heavy barbell load, the traps inevitably contract. This is a feature, not a bug- tightening the muscles of the upper back and retracting the shoulder blades helps to provide a solid base of support for the bar and helps resist forward rolling of the shoulders. However, the upper traps connect at the base of the back of the skull.

Häggström, Mikael. “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762

When you reach your neck to look back, there isn’t much pressure on the cervical vertebrae or the muscles surrounding it. If you crunch your neck to do so (think thrusting the chin forward instead of up, which is what we tend to do under the bar), you probably feel discomfort as you reach your end-range-of-motion. Combine that with the downward pull of the contracted traps (especially if you’re ‘whipping’ the neck back in the lift) and you risk going beyond that range and causing injury.

This same thing can happen if you crane your neck up to make a pullup or deadlifts. I (sadly) have personal experience giving myself mild neck sprains with these exercises during my first 2 years of ‘getting after it.’

This isn’t idle speculation: according to the NEISS database (use notepad), 618 people reported incidents of “neck strain/sprain” while at a “sports/recreation facility” in 2014. Of those, at least 30 were reported as being from “lifting weights” (1 directly from squats, 2 from pullups). Using the NEISS’s (loose) extrapolations, that means over a thousand neck sprains in the gym annually in the US. Just because the barbell isn’t directly sitting on the neck doesn’t mean it can’t cause a neck injury.

[Side note: the single funniest reported injury in 2014: OLD MALE USING TREADMILL AT GYM AND CRANED NECK TO SEE TV SET AND NOW HAS NECK STRAIN. Before you ask, that one was not included in my count.]

All that being said, I said I hesitate to mention injury risk, and here’s why. First, it’s a minor issue. I’ve never heard of a ruptured cervical disk from squatting. Mostly we’re looking at sprains and strains and, yes, they will definitely put a damper on your dance card for a few days, but you can train through them.

Second, debating this point back and forth, a great question keeps coming up: what does a ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’ head position look like? We know when we’re looking at something that’s just ugly, and most coaches can agree on what neutral looks like (mostly), but when does it become excessive? It’s one of those fuzzy areas- “I know it when I see it”- and that’s just not convincing.

In the end, can I tell you confidently that your neck position will get you hurt or that it’ll derail your training? No. But it might increase your chances of injury. YOLO, I guess.

Also, disclaimer: if you experience particularly severe neck pain, tingling or numbness in the arms or extremities associated with neck pain, or painful neck stiffness beyond 2 or 3 days after exercise… go see a doctor!

But CJ, what about… 

X famous/strong lifter who looks forward/up? 

There are several reasons why high-level lifters (and others) choose not to look down. Many are just fine… some are bad.

First off, the type of squat you’re doing matters. Unless the lifter has shoulder issues or some other reason not to, I generally coach a squat with the bar in the ‘low bar’ position (the bar sitting just under the knob on the outside of your shoulder). If you’re doing an air squat, front squat, or high-bar squat (bar sitting on the traps), a neutral spine at the bottom of the squat will keep you looking slightly higher (or even dead ahead) because you’re more vertical. Okay.

There are some low-bar lifters who look up just fine. Remember, the eyes-down cue is a teaching aid and a secondary cue: it gets the lifter doing something else that’s critical to movement success. Through a combination of good mobility and experience, some lifters have developed the ability to point their head very high without any loss of hip drive.

I’ve personally seen one lifter like this at a Squat Camp in New York: it didn’t matter where he looked or what kind of squat he did, his eye gaze seemed to be totally disconnected from what his hips were doing. He’s something of a special case. For a video example, check out Aliana Ludwig’s excellent 400# squat from Renaissance Periodization’s Facebook page.

Her neck is clearly hiked back… and yet she has a near-vertical bar path, good balance, and good hip drive. If I were her coach, correcting her neck position would be at the bottom of my priority list (something to correct if she’s game and doesn’t have a meet approaching) unless she complained of pain because she’s already got the technique that the head position was supposed to cue. 

So… when is looking forward or up bad for an intermediate/advanced lifter? When it’s killing their hip drive! It doesn’t matter if that’s what they’ve always done or if they’re a high-level competitor: if bar speed tanks when the chest lifts, and they’re looking up, that might be the change that saves the lift. 

“Look up, go up.” 

I honestly don’t know where this expression comes from, but the argument usually runs like this: the body follows the head (called the ‘arc reflex’) so lifting the head activates muscles that help lift the body.

What lifting the head tends to do is lift the chest, and as I discussed earlier, lifting the chest when a barbell is on your back starts a chain of generally bad juju we’re trying to avoid. If you’ve seen good evidence that looking up actually increases the force output of the legs, glutes, and spinal erectors in the squat, I’d love to see it. Until then, I’m filing this one under ‘broscience.’

“Shouldn’t I keep a neutral spine?” 

When I hear this and ask the lifter to show me what a ‘neutral spine’ is in the squat, they inevitably show me a head-forward position, which is NOT a neutral spine. A neutral spine forms a straight line from the hips to the neck (with the exception of the slight curves in the lower and upper back).

Unfortunately, the exercise science community doesn’t help here: the NSCA (one of the biggest names in exercise science) recently published a thorough article on the squat which recommends:

When instructing head position during the back squat, ensure that the athlete can self-identify and maintain a neutral head position.

Included are example photos like the two below.

Red lines added by me to demonstrate sharp changes in direction. Left model has a relatively neutral lumbar and thoracic spine with an extended cervical spine whereas the lifter on the right is extended through all three.
Red lines added. The left model has a relatively neutral lumbar and thoracic spine with an extended cervical spine whereas the lifter on the right is extended through all three.

‘Neutral’ is not always the easiest thing to define, but look closely at these photos and compare them to the title photo at the start of this article. If being neutral really is something you care about and your torso is inclined forward, you must be looking downwards or you’ve extended something along the spine to get there! 

 

If keeping a neutral neck is so important, why wouldn’t the lifter’s gaze change through the lift (as the lifter bends over and straightens)?

This is a valid question, I think. If the lifter looks down at the start of the movement, begins the squats with the neck in mild to moderate flexion.

For a while, I tried keeping a fixed neck angle in my own practice and found very quickly that the shifting point of reference made it harder to keep my balance over the midfoot and drew me forward as I descended into the squat.

All things considered, keeping a fixed reference and being in the correct position at the squat’s hardest moment (the initial ascent out of the hole) make the downward gaze ideal despite the initial flexion.

And… there you have it. 

That marks the end of the first WIDWID. I hope this explained a few things and got you thinking about the squat in a new way. If you find an error or want to point something out, add a comment here or on Facebook or shoot me an e-mail. If you’re right and it improves my model of how to squat, I’ll re-up the post with the change and credit you for the idea! This isn’t about “who is right or wrong?” but “what is right or wrong?”- challenging our collective assumptions to find the best way to efficiently get the most people as strong as they want to be.

Fare forward, voyagers!

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