When it comes to squatting, the difference between success and failure is often just a matter of technique.
Achieving a proper position can be difficult for those who have never done squats before or are new to powerlifting. It requires a lot more than just having a heavy weight on your back and using brute strength to stand up with it.
The body must be aligned, particularly the spine, which is why you see so many people at the gym getting coached through their spinal position on squats by trainers or coaches.
In addition, there are plenty of things that can go wrong when you do not have a neutral spine.
So how do you squat with a neutral spine? To squat with a neutral spine, you will need to start by orienting your head, pelvis, ribcage, and elbows properly so they align before breathing and bracing to solidify posture. To maintain neutrality when moving, ensure that the load is across the midfoot, the elbows are kept low, and that the brace is maintained.
In this article, we will go through what we mean by a neutral spine and what it looks like, how to squat with a neutral spine, and the reasons why you may struggle to achieve spine neutrality along with what to do about it.
What Does Squatting With A Neutral Spine Look Like?
There are many misconceptions of what a neutral spine is and what may or may not do for you, particularly with regards to lifting weights. We must first understand what the neutral spine is or is not so that we can appropriately pursue this during squats.
The spine has a capacity to move in different ways and has many degrees of freedom. Your spine can rotate, extend (arch back), flex (round forward), and side bend. By definition, what a neutral spine means is a posture of the spine that is halfway between the end ranges of motion.
Another key point to realize is that a neutral spine is not a singular, discrete and static point, it is more of a continuous range. People often think it is a discrete point because a neutral spine is often referred to as an optimal position. It should really be referred to as an optimal zone.
The neutral spine will look largely flat from a distance but will exhibit its mild curvature. The upper back will show mild roundedness i.e. kyphosis, and the lower back will show mild extension i.e. lordosis. The point at which you lose the neutral range will be subjective and dependent on the coach or athlete who is watching.
Most people are confident that squatting with an excessive rounded back is not desirable due to its sheer pressure on the spine and thus increased risk of injury.
For more information, check out this article on How To Fix A Rounded Back During The Squat.
Want to improve your squat technique?
Benefits Of Squatting With A Neutral Spine (4 Benefits)
The benefits of squatting with a neutral spine will provide you with longevity with lifting weights.
Here are 4 benefits of squatting with a neutral spine:
- Improved breathing and bracing
- Efficient force transfer
- Reduce risk of back and hip injuries
- Provides most comfort from squatting
Improved breathing and bracing
Having a neutral spine, allows an even length and tension between the abdominals, obliques and lower back extensors. This means that during inhalation, you will get an even expansion between these core muscles around your lumbar spine.
If you have a more even expansion in your lumbar spine, you are going to have a more rigid unit with your core as there is an even pressure all around. This will make your bracing more effective for the squat.
I talk more about this concept in my article on How To Breathe Properly In The Squat.
Efficient force transfer
The hip and knee extensors will be transferring force onto the barbell through your torso. This will require force to transfer force through the lower back and core. Having a neutral spine will allow the force to transfer more efficiently.
When you have excessive curvature and poor spinal posture, the spine becomes less like a rigid unit and behaves more like a spring. Also, it means that the breathing and bracing becomes less optimal, which means less tightness around the core.
Having a neutral spine and a more rigid core will mean that the energy will transfer more efficiently through the chain and onto the barbell. If not, then the back and core will absorb some of the energy during the squat.
Reduce risk of back and hip injuries
Having a more neutral spine that is under load will reduce the risk of back and hip injuries. Loading the spine in flexion or rounding forward, especially the lumbar portion of the spine will increase the risk of disc herniations.
Maintaining a neutral spine is not preventative of disc herniations but there may be a reduced risk. What you want to avoid is going through flexion and extension throughout the squat under load.
A neutral spine will also allow the hips to be in a neutral orientation and not overly tilted forwards or backwards.
For a complete guide on avoiding injury check out my article on How To Avoid A Powerlifting Injury.
Provides most comfort from squatting
A neutral spine under load will provide the most comfort during squats. If the lower back is over extended, this may cause a lot of uncomfortable tension in the back extensor muscles. If the lower back is rounded, this may pull and strain the lower back extensor muscles.
In terms of being comfortable while squatting, you also need to find the right “back angle”, which relates to whether you squat more upright or more bentover. It will be different based on the individual.
Learn more in my article on What Is The Best Back Angle For Squats?
How To Squat With A Neutral Spine (Step By Step)
To set up a neutral spine for squatting requires some simple steps. Most people do not realize it is not simply just flattening your back before you squat. You will need to pay attention to everything from your head to your feet.
Here are 7 steps to squatting with a neutral spine:
- Ensure that centre of gravity is mid foot
- Tuck pelvis under until your back is largely flat
- Bring rib cage down
- Keep shoulder blades back and down and elbows low
- Keep head stacked
- Inhale through nose and brace
- Squat and keep pressure evenly spread across mid foot
1. Ensure that centre of gravity is mid foot
When you walk the bar out of the squat rack and find your foot stance, you need to first pay attention to the pressure on your foot. You need to make sure that there is evenly spread pressure across your foot to make sure that the centre of gravity around mid foot.
Tip: It may help to first lean towards your heels, then onto your toes before then settling across mid foot.
2. Tuck pelvis under until your back is largely flat
Tuck or posteriorly tilt the pelvis to the point that your lower back is largely flat with a mild extension in the lumbar spine. You do not want to completely rid the lumbar spine of any curvature.
Having too much of an anterior pelvic tilt will lead to overextension of the lumbar spine.
3. Bring rib cage down
Maintaining a neutral spine will also require managing the posture of your ribcage too.
Most people will have a strong tendency to stick their chest out too much, which will lead to the lower back over-extending. So bring the ribcage downwards to the point that the spine looks more neutral. I explain more about this “ribs down” position in my article on Squat Cues.
Tip: If you find difficulty with bringing the ribcage down, perform a full exhalation until you can feel it in your abdominals and obliques engage as these muscles are responsible for pulling the ribcage downwards.
4. Keep shoulder blades back and down and elbows low
To stop your back from rounding or over-extending, it is important that your shoulder blades are pinched backward to keep some extension.
Also keep the elbows down as low as possible so that you do not roll the bar up and forwards so your back rounds or force the bar forward to the point that you end up overextending your back during execution.
5. Keep head stacked
Keep the head stacked over your ribcage and pelvis to provide comfort and even tension around the back of your neck.
The back of your head should go in line with your upper back and hips.
6. Inhale through nose and brace
To solidify the neutral spine, you should inhale through your nose and perform the valsalva maneuver in order to brace.
This is a simultaneous act of a forceful exhalation into closed airways. This brace will increase intra abdominal pressure, which will make your core act like a solid unit
7. Squat and keep pressure evenly spread across mid foot
Ensure that throughout the descent and ascent, the pressure from your center of gravity is across mid foot. Any deviation will lead to potentially losing neutral spine.
If you’re a taller individual, you might find this technique harder. Check out my article on How To Squat If You Have Long Legs (10 Tips).
6 Reasons Why You’re Not Able To Squat With A Neutral Spine
Here are 6 reasons why you may be struggling to maintain a neutral spine during squats:
- Centre of gravity too far on forefoot
- Not knowing how to brace
- Not knowing how to tuck pelvis under
- Overemphasizing sitting back
- Not pinching shoulder blades back
- You are hip shifting to the side
1. Centre of gravity too far on forefoot
If the centre of gravity is too far on the front of the foot, you will naturally stick your ribcage forward in space to achieve having the centre of gravity on forefoot.
Also, if your centre of gravity is too far on your foot, you will naturally want to over extend with your back in order to try and keep your barbell weight backwards so you don’t fall forward.
This is also one of the causes of what’s called the “Good Morning Squat”, where your hips pop up out of the bottom position, which places your torso more horizontal to the floor.
2. Not knowing how to brace
If you do not know how to brace, you will not be able to perform the valsalva maneuver and increase intra abdominal pressure. The increase in intra abdominal pressure will be important for maintaining the posture that your spine is holding.
3. Not knowing how to tuck pelvis under
Pelvic tilting is a very important skill to managing the posture of your spine since your spine is attached to your pelvis. Pelvic tilting should be a prerequisite to squatting under load since the spine becomes proportionally more vulnerable to injury under load.
4. Overemphasizing sitting back
Sometimes certain cues are inappropriate for some people. Overemphasizing sitting back during squats can encourage individuals to hinge too much in the pelvis. This causes an anterior pelvic tilt or forward tilting of the pelvis. This will lead to over extension of the lower back and break away from a neutral spine.
5. Not pinching shoulder blades back
Not retracting your scapula or shoulder blades will mean that the barbell can easily force your upper back to excessively round forward.
6. You are hip shifting to the side
If you have an imbalance where you like to load into one side of your hip, this is going to cause hip shifting in your squat. This can or will lead you to lose your neutral spine particularly in the bottom half of the squat.
I wrote an article on How To Squat With Uneven Legs, which might be a cause for your hips shifting to one side during the squat.
3 Troubleshooting Tips If You Still Can’t Squat With A Neutral Spine
Check your foot pressure
It may not be completely obvious where the pressure is on your foot, so it may be useful during warm ups to improve your proprioception on your foot by shifting far onto your heels and far onto the toes.
Only when you feel confident with knowing how both extremes feel can you confidently stay grounded on mid foot throughout the squat.
Cue your pelvic tilt
Not being able to tilt your pelvis posteriorly or anteriorly can often lead you to not manage your spinal posture well and you can even feel tight hips.
Being able to manage your pelvic tilt outside of a squat is important.
One exercise you can perform is a cat cow, which is a great warm up drill to get you to feel both extremes of over extension and flexion in the spine as well as an anterior pelvic tilt and posterior pelvic tilt.
Train your core with a neutral spine
In order to be able to own a position or posture, you need to spend as much time in that position as possible. Training the core with a neutral spine will be very important as when you spend time under tension in a specific muscle length, you can easily reach that position in other exercises including squats.
Here are 3 good exercises to help you get into a neutral spine:
- Wall Reference Plank
- Bear Plank
Maintaining a neutral spine is a very important component of having training longevity through staying injury free and moving painlessly.
Progressive overload should not occur if either you cannot squat with a neutral spine or you start to lose neutrality due to fatigue.
When you move in a certain way, you practice that technique and make it more permanent. So when you squat without a neutral spine, you reinforce that movement pattern. This will make it harder to undo the more you keep squatting without a neutral spine.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com