Sitting Back to Spare the Spine

Here is a new article I just got published on MuscleMag.com titled Bulletproof Your Back. This is a very good read so make sure you click on the link and read the article.

If you’ve been personal training for a long time like me, and you’re big on glute training like me, then chances are you’ve heard from dozens of clients that their backs have never felt better. When training new clients, you’ll notice that most want to shift their weight forward and initiate by bending at the knees. Beginners just don’t know how to use their posterior chains effectively during hip extension. This isn’t just the case with newbies. When I give my glute workshops, I have to teach most of the attendees to sit back properly, and the attendees are full of personal trainers, strength coaches, and physios. It’s surprising how much room for improvement most people have in this area.

Teaching people how to sit back properly in all standing hip extension exercises such as squats, deadlifts, good mornings, and kettlbell swings enforces efficient lifting mechanics that distribute the loads through the posterior chain musculature and keep stress off of the spine. Extending the hips this way prevents the spine from flexing or extending under heavy load so the spine receives mostly compressive forces which are easily tolerated. In the case of the American deadlift, you’ll be using around 1/3 of your 1RM and deliberately rotating the pelvis to use more hamtring at the bottom and more glute up top. This is in my opinion the best way to prepare the body to resist flexion spinal forces in hips flexed positions as well as extension spinal forces in hips extended positions.

Here are several exercises you can do to help teach proper lifting mechanics.

Box Squat

Good Morning

45 Degree Hyper

American Deadlift

Hope you like the videos! -BC

No more of this when you learn to lift properly

28 thoughts on “Sitting Back to Spare the Spine

  1. Marianne

    Hey Bret,

    Thanks for this information – it will be a great resource to direct people to.

    Personally I have recently had a lot of success using the Box Squat and Good Mornings to improve by back squat. These, and a few other tips I got from Matt Ladewski, have allowed me to add 15kg to my squat in the last few weeks, plus my form is WAY better!

    Previously I had found the back squat “flared” up pain in my SI Joint but since I added these few things it has actually helped reduce it!

    In addition I have found learning how to “separate” the hip flexion/extension and the lumbar flexion/extension movements within each exercise has helped make a huge difference. While I do this in my glute bridges, I will be adding the 45 degree hypers and the RKC Plank in too. As you said in the RKC Plank Video, it has helped “lock in” the SIJ while strengthening my “core” and low back.

    Thanks for the reassurance that what I am doing is correct and the help in understanding why!

    Cheers
    Marianne

    Reply
  2. John

    Bret- Good read but your junk is flopping around in the GM and squat videos. Maybe put on some compression shorts, or at least give me a NSFW warning.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      LMAO! Sorry John. I just looked and it was a bit awkward. Sorry mate. I always wear boxer briefs…but the sweat pants just don’t hold everything in tight. Had to look up “NSFW” to see what it meant. I’ll do my best in the future to prevent this occurrence again.

      Reply
  3. Bianca

    Hi Bret,

    as Marianne says, this is really a very useful article. I strained my lower back muscles in June, while incorrectly performing a kettlebell single Leg RDL and still have not fully recovered. Any suggestions as to how to recuperate more quickly, so that I can start deadlifting again without fear of getting hurt again?

    Thanks :)

    Bianca

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Bianca –

      1. Try to figure out why you hurt it in the first place. My guess is that your low back rounded at the bottom of the kb sl RDL. Watch my video on the sl RDL and get the form down perfect with bodyweight before adding load. You need to be able to prevent rounding with all of your standing hip extension movements.

      2. Do not do anything that hurts. Find out what you can do pain-free and start working your way up over time.

      3. Train a few times per day (don’t go near failure) so you recuperate faster but do not let fatigue outstrip your ability to recover (stay within Eustress).

      This is a good time to ingrain great motor patterns so don’t feel defeated.

      Cheers, Bret

      Reply
      1. Bianca

        Hi Bret,

        thanks very much for your reply. When you say “Train a few times a day” (point 3), do you actually mean “a day” or “a week”?

        I am quite puzzled. :)

        Bianca

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          I just realized you hurt yourself in June so you’re probably somewhat rehabbed (though not fully recovered) so you probably don’t need to train multiple times per day (if you went this route you’d be going very light so as to not overdo it). You can just train each day or every other day and don’t worry about weight or going to failure; just do high-quality sets with really good form. This should get you back to full-force rather quickly. Just listen to your body and if it hurts don’t do it.

          Reply
  4. Karsten

    Hi Bret,
    There are some studies, I believe by Escamilla et al (I may be wrong about the name), showing greater shear forces in conventional style deadlift (greater trunk inclination) compared to sumostyle deadlift (more vertical trunk). If I extrapolate this information to squats, I will propose that the spine experience greater shear forces in the powerlifting style squat (“sitting back” and thus greater trunk inclination) vs olympic style squat (“pushing the knees forward” and a more vertical torso). I believe that if we want to spare the back in squatting, we should perform squats with a knee break (pushing the knees forward) which results in a more vertical torso in the bottom position.

    As far as the american deadlift, I belive that Gracowetsky in the book “The SPinal Engine” showed that in the uprigth position the spine is the strongest (and with the least disc pressure) with it’s neutral curves. I may understand the purpose of the exercise, if you are a competitive powerlifter, but outside that I am not convinced :-). I don’t quite understand either the need to train to resist extension forces in the upright position??

    With Respect,
    Karsten

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Hey Karsten, thanks for posting your thoughts here and I’ll respond accordingly. I agree that the sumo box squats will place more loading on the spine. I’ve thought this out long and hard so try to see if what I’m saying makes sense.

      When you repeatedly do box squats and good mornings over time, you teach your body to hold the arch – it becomes second nature. Your hammies and adductor magnus get so strong in that range of hip extension (the APT puts them on stretch and takes the glutes out of it a bit when flexed low), and the lower erectors keep the pelvis locked into place, so there is no buckling. Folks who don’t do these lifts lose the arch.

      I’ve read Escamilla’s article and there is more research showing the same and I’m in agreement. But as far as training goes, you teach people how to control their lumbar spines and pelvic tilt with these exercises so you get lumbopelvic bracing down low coupled with pelvifemoral motion (the spine and pelvis stay locked and all movement occurs at the hips), rather than having the spine flex and extend a bit with the pelvis posteriorly then anteriorly tilting a bit. Does this make sense?

      The folks who I’ve trained who always stay vertical always end up hurting their low backs. My two workout partners back home did this repeatedly…injure their backs, then rehab, get stronger, injure again, etc. It was a vicious cycle. When I taught them to sit back they stopped getting injured. The vertical squatters, when going a bit too heavy, tend to round over in the thoracic and lumbar spine in an attempt to keep the weight centered, and at the point the lumbar spine flexes and the pelvis posteriorly tilts is when the injuries occur (as the posterior aspect of the spine is pulled apart).

      So I’d agree with you that upright squatting is less stressful on the spine, but this doesn’t help bullet-proof the low back in my opinion.

      Regarding Gracowetsky’s “Spinal Engine,” I read that a few years ago and then around two months ago and I still can’t adequately grasp it. He’s either the greatest genius or just a really good faker haha. I agree that neutral curves is strongest, but again we’re talking about safe-guarding against injury. If you practice the American Deadlift and get really strong at posteriorly pelvic tilting, you won’t go into anterior pelvic tilt up top and subsequently won’t enter into lumbar hyperextension.

      I have people just stand with heavy weight in their hands (as in a deadlift lockout) and I have them take the load in anterior pelvic tilt (no glutes, strong erector contraction) and then squeeze the glutes and get a little bit of PPT and most tell me that they feel much more comfortable (and less extension torque on their spines) with the latter approach. Try it and tell me what you think.

      Again, good comments mate. I always like to hear what you have to say. Hope you’re doing well! -BC

      Reply
      1. Karsten

        Hi Bret,

        Thank’s for your thoughts! I will give the american deadlift a try and let you know!

        On the concept of the arch, both Gracovetsky and also in “Movement stability and Low back Pain” they recommend a straight spine (no curves) in the bottom position of squats and deadlifts (“distributes the compressive stress”, “maximises back muscle strength and engages passive structures”), not arched. McGill disagree.

        I have seen the buckling in the vertical squatters as well, but typically due to poor form + thoracic kyphosis. One of my local colleques, Trevor Cottrell Phd, and olympic weightlifting instructor even believes that the low back is not a limiting factor in olympic style squats (because of the vertical torso)

        I will be in touch!
        Karsten

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          Hi Karsten, I’m glad to see you’re well-researched on the topic, this allows for a high-powered conversation. As you know, not all researchers recommend neutral; Zatsiorsky recommended an arch right? I’d like to know what you think is best (rather than what the researchers think) as you’re a smart lifter, which means a lot to me.

          On the one hand, I’ve trained certain women who were hypermobile and could hyperextend like crazy and keep APT and lumbar hyperextension with straight legs while taking an empty bar all the way to the ground in a deadlift pattern. Tell these types to arch and they overextend. So I don’t give this advice with many women. However, tell a typical man to arch and he just goes slightly past neutral (which in my opinion is best as the most important thing is simply not buckling at the bottom – and it’s harder to buckle when you’re actively holding an arch rather than trying to stay in neutral). Ideally folks would just stay in neutral during the squat, dead, good morning, etc. but you and I both know that this is a challenge when the weight gets heavy. For this reason I like to cue big arch at the bottom and posterior tilt up top (but if the individual was “too good” at rotating the pelvis then I’d address that and tell them to try to stay in neural, but this isn’t so common with the folks I’ve trained). I think this keeps the most load off the passive structures while keeping more of the load on the active structures (despite what the research says…I base this off of what I feel too, and you can’t deny that you feel more hammy in APT and more glute in PPT, and I don’t think the spine receives too dangerous of forces as long as the APT and PPT doesn’t jack the spine into sufficient extension or flexion, which it doesn’t in most men I’ve trained).

          Definitely let me know when you’ve experimented with it. Thanks Karsten – good chat.

          Reply
          1. Karsten

            Since reading Gracowetsky and Vleeming I have required a straight back in the bottom position of the squat and deadlift and here is what I think :-)

            1: The athletes I have worked have made great progress and not experienced back problems if they train rested. On occasion, they would come to the gym after 2 hours of sport practice and in that situation barbell deadlifts is not a good idea (we actually switched to all thinkable single leg exercises done heavy with great effect)
            2: VERY few athletes would squat to parallel or deadlift of the floor, if we required an actual arch in the bottom position.
            3: I understand why we might tell someone to arch to just get their back straight, but if we do so, I believe that we should the the athletes know that we are cueing an exageration.
            4. This spring I worked with a power lifter (world championship competitor) who attemted what you are suggesting – arch in the bottom and pelvic tilt up top – his back pain went away when I cued him to go for a straight back in the bottom – “Sit back and reach for the floor with your tailbone. Keep your lats tight by breaking the bar over your back”
            5. The arches I have seen are never similar to the standing position, but seem to be “longer” and involve the thoracic spine more.
            6. Just getting the back straight in the bottom postion requires on average 20-25 degrees more range of motion in hip flexion and 15-20 degrees more range of motion in hip external rotation.
            6. I think that the american deadlift might have a place with powerlifters who tend to lock out by hyperextending the back, because in that scenario the posterior tilt will normalise spinal curvatures. Part of my own training involves holding 2 32kg KB’s in the Front Squat postion for time. With the bells in front of the body, the natural tendency is to lean back and I personally feel that “squeezing the glutes” in that position makes me feel better.
            Karsten

          2. Bret Post author

            Good stuff Karsten. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic and I intend to film a video where I discuss my thoughts. One of my clients last year had persistent pain from squatting and deadlifting and I helped him achieve a more neutral position (he was overarching) which fixed things immediately. Though a neutral spine is indeed the safest bet in any position, I’m of the belief that doing some American deadlifts with lighter loads can help improve the spine’s ability to avoid buckling, which I’ll explain in detail through video down the road. I think we have similar views on this topic and it’s always nice having a conversation with an intelligent coach.

          3. voula

            So I was browsing through here to see some more stuff on the american deadlift. I have always ended my rdl with ppt, so when you had made the american deadlift video I was quite happy to see that I was doing something extra good for the glutes in that exercise. I recently rewatched the videos and started overly hyperextending my back in american deadlifts and would feel it a lot in my lower back. Now reading this comment I realize that I guess I am already good at apt when “sitting back” in the deadlift so listening to the que again to keep a strong curve, I should really just keep it “neutral.” In my last squat session I tried the same thing and I felt it less in my glutes and more in my back…so I will go back to keeping my spine neutral and focusing on the glute contraction where it is strongest.

  5. Andy...

    Sparing the spine with a heavy barbell on your back?. Wouldn’t that be impossible.

    Doesn’t that apply huge compressive forces?.

    This is why I don’t think Usain Bolt squats, from watching his races in slow-motion, particularly the WR race in Berlin, he seems to have the best ability of decompressing the spine with every stride (think horse or cheetah). This effectively lengthens the limbs & increases stride length.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      “Sparing” meaning try to create the least “insults” possible with squatting, deadlifting, etc.. You have to consider the stresses on the individual parts of the spine (discs, facets, ligaments, etc.) in the various directions (compression, shear, bending, etc.) and also determine what’s the single most harmful thing (most would agree that it’s buckling). Then you try to train in a manner that creates the least insults and prevents buckling episodes when going heavy.

      And Usain Bolt does squat. Not sure what you mean about decompressing the spine…you’ll get compression from ground reaction forces and much more compression from individual core muscles (erector contraction, abdominal contraction, etc.). So sprinting would create large compression forces on the spine, but good mechanics and structural strength balances will help distribute loads properly to spare the spine while sprinting.

      Reply
      1. Andy...

        Bret, where is the concrete evidence that Usain Bolt squats?.

        With spinal decompression I’m talking about when the spine extends, just like what we see in the animal kingdom. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrestrial_locomotion

        A good example. Asafa’s head/cervical extension @ 1:20 onwards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu2GejA49AY&feature=relmfu

        But Bolt seems to use this quality the best, the prime engine of the cheetah. Heavy resistance exercises such as squats would surely compress the spine which would contradict the spine behaving in this manner?.

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          Andy, I have 2 reasons for believing that Usain squats. One is an article in Stack Magazine, another is from a coach I know who visited Jamaica who allegedly witnessed it. I could be wrong though.

          As for the decompression, I’m not sure….I realize that the spine will undergo various levels of compression and decompression during the sprint, but this is hard to determine because muscular contractions are responsible for most of the compressive forces on the spine. Studies have shown that the erectors and abdominals are highly involved during sprints and the core spine flexes and extends a bit (and rotates a bit too).

          I believe you’re looking too much into this…cheetahs indeed use the spine in this manner as the spinal flexion/extension motion adds considerably to their propulsive power, but for humans I think it’s more about hip extension at higher speeds coupled with some rotational transfer mechanisms in the spine and upper bodies. That said, many researchers believe in the “spinal engine” theory, which makes more sense to me as time goes on (I read this years ago and didn’t have a clue what Gracovetsky was saying). Here are some links in case you haven’t read his work:

          http://www.kalindra.com/gracovetsky_montreal.pdf
          http://www.somatics.de/Gracovetsky/Interview.pdf
          http://www.alinenewton.com/pdf-articles/walking.pdf

          Reply
  6. Simon

    The rounded back DL does activate glutes but surely u gotta retest horizontal hyper with this technique – it gives me both the best glute doms and pump…it’s incredible if the bench allows to pivot. I think the bench makes quite a difference as some seem to discourage glute activation…

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Why Everyone Learns to Squat and The Dangers of the Weekend Yoda’s « RoyPumphrey

  8. Bert

    Dear Bret,

    The last few months I’ve been troubled by extremely tight hip flexors. I’ve always done hip mobility (fire hydrants) and hip stretches plus some foam rolling. Since reading your articles I’ve added weighted hip bridges and have been focusing more on posterior pelvic tilt during squats, deadlifts and overhead pressing. I’ve also temporarily substituted front squats for low bar back squats as this seems to lesson the load on the hip flexors.

    However, the problem remains. Is there something I am overlooking? Do you have any tips?

    Many thanks in advance, you have influenced my training more than any other this last year.

    Bert

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Why Everyone Learns to Squat | Roy Pumphrey MS, C.S.C.S.

  10. Erik

    Do you think jamming the head of the femur into the acetabulum over time might cause excessive wear and arthritis? Just curious as I do lots of Kettlebell swings but do not over emphasize the posterior tilt at the top, rather, getting tall and vertical with respect to cueing others.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>