Neutral Spine: How to Deadlift and Squat Without Hurting Your Back

The human spine is a robust and durable structure. It has the ability to flex, extend, and rotate through incredible ranges of motion while also able to lock down allowing the transfer of force between the lower and upper limbs so we can jump, run, throw, swing or lift heavy things.

While both motion and force transfer are normal healthy things a spine should and can do, combining motion with loading can be a problem.

The solution? Move weights, land, or create power with a spine that is in a neutral alignment.

Neutral, so keep your back straight?

Straight is close, but it's not technically correct.

Neutral can be defined as “the normal curvature of the spine present in a standing posture”. A neutral spine has alternating sections of lordotic (lumbar and cervical) and kyphotic (Thoracic and sacral) curves.

These subtle curves form an S shape allowing even distribution of load through the intervertebral discs, placing a balanced compressive force on them.

Anterior longitudinal ligament of the spine
Anterior longitudinal ligament of the spine

When the spine is out of neutral, compressive force that is applied pushes unevenly on the discs, stressing the annulus. This is a big problem for the discs in flexion as the spine has no supporting posterior ligament means when a compressive force is applied to a flexed spine. The spine has an inbuilt anterior ligament (a hangover from our evolution from quadruped) which keeps the discs from bulging forwards, as a result, discs cope well under extension (although the vertebral joints themselves don’t fare so well). but are pushed backward stretching and stressing the rear annulus wall.

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Flexed spine

This presents two key problems:

  1. We tend to outlive our discs - Discs are the shock absorbing jelly between the vertebrae, over the course of a lifetime, they become worn down gradually and are very slow to heal and regenerate (if they regenerate at all). The discs of a twenty-something-year-old are flexible and pliable, almost like camembert cheese, as we age these discs become brittle fragile and by middle adulthood are more parmesan than camembert.
  2. Herniated discs don’t fix easily - Once a disc is bulging (prolapsed, herniated) it doesn't heal itself, this irreparable damage can be surgically fixed (with great difficulty, and no guarantee of success). Herniated discs are pretty common in middle and older populations and can often be asymptomatic, but that's not a gamble I would want to be taking
Disc bulge and degeneration in stages

Get as low as you can, whilst maintaining neutral

Here at Core Advantage, we have a golden rule, any lifts performed with axial loading (squats, deadlifts etc) must be done with the spine in a neutral alignment. We use seats to control depth on squats, and we use blocks to control the depth on our Corelift, deadlift, and Olympic lifting variations, which we adjust according to individual's mobility and control.

Squatting with seats.jpg

That doesn't mean that we're afraid of flexion, or any motion for that matter, but what we do is we separate them out, so we do our heavy lifting in a neutral spine alignment, and then if we're going to add any flexion to the spine, we do it when the spine is unloaded in something that we call a ROM squat. ROM Squats allow you to chase excellent range without the loads on the spine, improving the ability to get down into a low athletic stance to help us move better laterally.

Liz Cambage executing a perfect ROM squat. The ROM squat is great for court sports (basketball, netball, tennis, squash, badminton) for helping an athlete get stronger and more comfortable in a low athletic stance. NB - We don't load the ROM squat, instead we progres reps and range.
Liz Cambage performing a ROM-squat to improve control through range. NB - We don't load the ROM squat, instead we progres reps and range.

How to Minimise Disc Stress

There is plenty we can do to reduce the stress on the structure of our spine, building strength while minimising the wear and tear on our bodies.

  • Regular breaks from the desk - Sitting puts the spine in a flexed & compressed position with our core muscles. Take calls standing, have meetings on the go, get a standing desk. If you have to sit, set timers for standing breaks, every 30-45 minutes is ideal to minimise muscular creep. These anti-desk workouts are a good start.
Spinal forces
  • Pick things up with a neutral spine - Learn proper lifting technique, bend the knees, hinge over from the hips and protect your spine. Perfectly neutral isn't always possible, but the closer to neutral you can habitually lift the better you will be in the long run.
Lifting safely
  • Strengthen the glutes - Weak glutes leads to an overload on the lower back. Strong active glutes will help your sporting and gym performance and can be a lead domino in any chronic back pain/tightness.
  • Rotate your programming - Full range Deadlifts and deep squats are only compulsory exercises for Powerlifting. Chances are you (like the majority of the population) are unable to deadlift from the floor or squat below parallel while maintaining a neutral spinal alignment. But that's ok! There are no rules that say you have to squat or deadlift like this (outside competitive Powerlifting). Modified lifts are still incredible at building strength, hypertrophy and power, (in some cases they are actually better - see the Instagram post below). Block or rack pulls and using a box for your squats to control depth are great ways of reducing the stress to your discs while continuing to get most of the benefit for lower body training effect. A further option is to change exercises completely, trying different movements, implements or training unilaterally to challenge yourself in the gym in other ways.