We have a client, John, who has just been getting back into lifting after a nice vacation. He's an excellent worker who is also no stranger to pain, so he is fun to work with since his motivation under the bar is more than adequate. But he's been complaining of having back pain with his squats since his come back a few weeks ago.
He, of course, has a desk job, so spends a good chunk of his day sitting in acute hip and knee flexion. Not ideal for a neutral spine (and subsequently, stable movement), and a good predisposing factor to an over-extended lumbar spine and anterior pelvic tilt.
We addressed a few things with this in mind. Firstly, we recommended a few stretch breaks throughout his day, to open his hips (to counteract shortened hip flexors for long hours of sitting), some abdominal exercises to reinforce their role as trunk stabilizers (for this purpose we recommended planks, dead bugs, and McGill crunches to train abdominal tension to aid in a neutral spine and specifically focus on maintaining lower abdominal tension), but probably most importantly, we looked at his actual squat.
John would take the bar out of the rack, and then squat. And while that sounds fine, and while it appears that all lifters do just that, we had him start thinking of three things.
- Before he took the bar out of the rack, we had John brace his trunk to provide low back AND abdominal tension to prepare to support the weight and keep his low back neutral.
- Separate "taking the bar out of the rack" from "stepping away from the rack" into two separate phases. "Treat every set like it's a max," as Chris told him, which in this context meant to treat every set with a procedure that would allow him to exert the most amount of control over the weight.
- Maintaining this trunk tightness throughout the remainder of the set (i.e. cuing upper back tightness, utilizing the Valsalva with each rep to maintain abdominal tension).
If the spine isn't neutral and tension in the lower back and abdominal musculature isn't maintained, it won't stay stable under load. By taking his breath and developing trunk tension before taking the bar out of the rack, John starts from a position of stability. And when he separates "taking the bar off the rack" from "stepping away from the rack," it again minimizes how much the trunk needs to readjust under load, meaning it makes his job of maintaining stability easier. It also means when he actually begins his first squat rep, he's starting from an organized, stable position, standing with a neutral spine. It is much, much simpler to start from a position of stability and maintain it vs. starting over-extended and then trying to find stability after movement - especially when it's heavy weighted movement - has already begun.
Within a few days, John's squatting pain-free. Relatively simple fix for what can be a bit of a complex issue.
Beyond avoiding pain and injury, stable posture has direct value in performance. Being over-extended means the hips will have a harder time coming through to finish in the deadlift (your chest may be upright, but your hips will still need to extend forward which may also expose you to injury), or it may mean you're trying to press from a disadvantaged, less stable position if you're going overhead. In the snatch and clean-and-jerk, an over-extended lumbar spine might mean you feel like you're finishing your pull, but similar to the deadlift, your hips may not be coming through where they need to be to truly reach good extension and therefore impart maximum force into the bar. It may also mean that your jerk dip-and-drive will be less stable and less forceful since the spine and hips aren't organized well (a neutral spine means less movement during the dip, and keeping the hips directly underneath the spine as opposed to tilted means the dip-and-drive will be more vertical as opposed to having more horizontal movement).