One of the more common coaching cues you hear with the Olympic lifts is keeping the head pointed straight ahead or “look out at the horizon” when in the bottom position and preparing for the drive up (see image 1 below).
Image 1: Example of the cervical extension (often confused with a neutral neck) at the bottom position of the Olympic lifts
Many coaches confuse this position as a neutral neck where in reality this position is cervical extension. Is this a problem? Unfortunately, there isn’t enough hard evidence to definitively prove or disprove the effectiveness of a neutral or extended neck on safety or performance. It is my opinion however that as a coach you need to instruct your clientele with the most relevant, evidence based information available. After years of analyzing video, monitoring athlete injury complaints and performance gains I am of the opinion that a packed neck is the safest and most practical position for the neck to be in during these types of lifts. I am also of the belief that a slightly packed neck at the onset of the golf swing promotes more effective body control and power generation throughout the golf swing. The purpose of this presentation is to provide my reasoning for utilizing this position and why I do not teach the traditional position; neck extension.
One of the difficulties when talking with many S & C coaches is they don’t understand what a neutral neck is. Many of the coaches I have spoken with believe they are teaching a neutral neck position when they have their athlete maintain their chin parallel to the ground and the eyes looking out at the horizon. Their reasoning is that the head has not changed position relative to the floor. This is the same type of logic as golf coaches who do not appreciate the significance of their athletes possessing adequate (or full) cervical range of motion for the golf swing. They again use the reasoning “the head doesn’t move in the back swing, at impact and for many players the head doesn’t move during the initial phases of the follow through”. The problem with this “logic” is that the neck actually requires a greater range of motion the less the head moves. You can see Image 2 for a demonstration of the type of cervical rotation required at the top of the backswing with no head movement.
Image 2: Demonstration of cervical range of motion at the top of the back swing. In the second picture the hands are lowered and the torso turned but no change in neck rotation when compared to the first image.
If you are in the bottom of your deadlift or Power Clean and chin is parallel to the ground this is NOT a neutral neck. Your thoracic spine is tilted forward compared to a normal standing posture and so should your neck (ie. Your nose should be pointed at an angle down and forward).
- Low back pain can be a debilitating injury that is experienced by an incredibly high percentage of the population. As such, there has been considerable research and attention addressed to this area. We are well aware that a strong majority of the public compensate for inefficient motor control of their pelvis and spinal structures. In the literature many authors have referred to this position of “lower cross syndrome” and is visualized with the athlete possessing an anterior / forward tilt of the pelvis. In an anterior tilt position the muscles in the abdominal pelvis do not need to be as active because the anterior tilt of the pelvis, and subsequent compensatory hyper lordosis of the lumbar spine, results in the approximation of the lumbar facet joints. The approximation of the facet joints produces a bony stability that minimizes the requirements on the neuromuscular system for stabilization. Although this position enables a form of stabilization to occur it does so in a manner that invites injury in the long term and requires the remainder of the spine to adapt to the increased lumbar curve.
- The spine, because it linked system, will compensate by increasing both the thoracic and cervical curves. So, what you see in someone who does not have proper motor control of their pelvis and core (and a compensatory reliance on bony approximation for stability) is an increase in both thoracic kyphosis and cervical lordosis. In other words, the slouched upper back and chin protruding posture typical to the majority of our population. The bony approximation is absolutely no good for golfers as it puts the facet joints in an extremely compromised position when a golfer utilizes their lower back for rotation when the thoracic spine and hips are not moving well.
As in every mechanical system in the body, the spine acts as kinetic necklace. What happens in one section has a significant, repeatable and predictable effect on the other segments within that system. When we dissect tissue we are able to realize their truly is no start and / or end point to the chains in our body; hence the reference to a necklace. We describe various chains (whether the posterior superficial chain, the spiral line, etc,) as having a start and stop point but really the end points continue (either directly or through bone) as a supporting network to the other side of the body or body part.
If we use the information and look at the effect an increased lumbar lordois has on the remainder of the spine we can extrapolate and infer the effects an increased cervical spine lordosis would have on the other areas of the spine.
It is easy to demonstrate these effects on your self. Try this:
Stand in your own normal posture. Now push your chin forward and up. What did you notice about the rest of your spine?
Yes, the upper back rounded / slouched and your lower back increased its curve. These changes in the curves are a compensatory mechanism to maintain the body’s weight inside its base of support.
What else do you notice about your body? You are in a vulnerable undesirable position that would useless for most any athletic endeavor.
Why is this?
The segmental local deep neck flexors are those muscles responsible for pulling your chin into your neck (yes, I know that gives you a double chin). The deep neck flexor muscles are called the Longus Capitis and Longus Colli muscles.
When these muscles are inhibited and not activating properly a loss of motor control and consequently alignment is the result. A loss of desired posture in the cervical spine occurs locally and this results in a secondary loss in posture throughout the spine.
Lets consider the bottom position of an Olympic movement, Kettle Bell Swing, Battle Rope Slam, etc. If you look straight ahead at the horizon, you are actually removing the stability within the neck. The inhibition of the deep local stabilizers of the neck will have chain reaction effect on the whole spine and will result in the local stabilizers of the lumbar spine to also be inhibited.
We are going to take a look at the neck and lower back in the following exercises:
1) Dead Lift
2) Power Clean
3) KB Swings
What we will do is show each of these movements in normal speed and slow motion with the chin retracted and also with the head positioned in extension so that the chin is parallel to the ground and the eyes are looking straight out at the horizon.
In the Dead Lift you can see the difference in the head position in the bottom position.
Video 1: You can see the head move through a range of extension in the bottom position and flexion during the standing aspect of the movement when compared to the thoracic spine
Video 2: With the neck packed, you can see the head moves much more naturally in line with the rest of the spine
Video 3: The Power Clean is performed with the neck in extension from the start with the chin parallel to the ground at the bottom position. Unlike the Dead Lift, the Power Clean into Deep Squat requires you to bring the bar up and then catch it at chest level. This is a much more explosive movement and you can see the neck move from extension at the bottom into flexion as you get into the pull phase of the upward drive and then back into extension as you move into the catch phase. This can lead to a great deal of stress to the cervical spine as well as the upper thoracic spine. The facet joints do not like this too much!
Video 4: The neck is packed in the bottom position. You can see there is much less deviation of the head and neck in relation to the thoracic spine. The neck remains in a much more protected packed position throughout the exercise. If you look closely the lower back and pelvis are also in a much safer, more powerful position throughout the movement.
Kettle Bell Swing:
Video 5: You can again see the neck is in unpacked position. The effect on the lower back becomes more pronounced in the kettle bell swing because there is no stopping during this exercise. This prevents any corrections to occur between repetitions so the poor mechanics in the neck are allowed to compound throughout the exercise and truly result in a destabilized spinal chain. I believe this is one of the reasons Stu McGill found such poor biomechanics within the lumbar spine in his suspect study on the Kettle Bell Swing.
Video 6: The neck remains packed throughout the exercise and the neck does not go through the hyper flexion / extension you saw in Video 7. The lower back is also in a better position thru out the exercise as the spinal stabilizers are facilitated through the activation of the deep neck flexors.
I hope this article creates some dialogue between fitness professionals, athletes and anyone who gets after it in the gym. If you have an alternative opinion please let me know what your thoughts are.
We are focusing on the deep neck flexor activation in this article but it is important to be aware of the full body when doing these complex but brilliant movements. Stay safe, Stay strong.