Here's what you need to know...
• Old school lifters say to maintain a big arch when squatting, benching, and deadlifting. While an aggressive arch has helped many people lift ridiculous amounts of weight, it's not the healthiest thing for your spine.
• Owning or maintaining your rib position by not allowing your ribcage to flare out and bracing is an effective alternative to the arch.
• A cue to help maintain tension and to prevent yourself from hinging through your lower back is to think about squeezing oranges in your armpits.
Bracing versus arching – the argument over which is better for hoisting heavy loads is a feisty one. Seemingly smart strength coaches are choosing sides and steadfastly sticking to it, making the gulf between the two positions grow larger.
On one side you have those who prefer to coach the arch, and arch hard! These are generally old-school powerlifters and strength coaches who were told to do so when they were first starting out. As such, they coach their athletes and clients to do the same.
It's not inherently wrong. Many lifters have moved an ungodly amount of weight by emphasizing an aggressive arch when squatting, deadlifting, or lifting anything heavy. Part of the rationale is simple biomechanics. Arching the back helps protect the spine from the stress being placed upon it. As Dr. Stuart McGill has noted on numerous occasions, the spine doesn't buckle until 12,000-15,000N of compression (or 1,800-2,800N in shear) is applied.
The monkey wrench, however, is that powerlifters and weightlifters alike easily exceed these "maximum acceptable loads" on an almost daily basis.
Consider that Cappozzo et al., found that squatting to parallel with only 1.6 times bodyweight (what might be "average" for the typical weekend warrior) led to compressive loads of ten times body weight at L3-L4! Likewise, in a study of 57 Olympic lifters, Cholewicki et al., found that L4-L5 compressive loads were often greater than 17,000N.
How is it possible that the spines of big and even modestly big lifters haven't collapsed like blocks in a game of Jenga?
How Come They Ain't All Dead?
It's fairly simple. They're strong and have learned to use their active restraints (muscles) to offset stress/loading on their passive restraints (tendons, ligaments, labrum, etc.).
In non-geek speak, they've programmed themselves to place their spine in an advantageous position to lift heavy things. Now Dr. McGill has shown, almost resoundingly so, that repeated (loaded) spinal flexion isn't the healthiest thing for your spine and is the exact mechanism for disc herniation. That's why these guys are emphasizing the arch to prevent spinal flexion under load.
Moreover, when referring to trainees who exhibit poor hip or ankle mobility and would otherwise default into spinal flexion, it's not uncommon for them to be coached to excessively arch in an effort to keep them in "neutral."
While this train of thought isn't wrong, it's far from ideal. Something that's made me reexamine how I go about training my athletes over the past year is a concept that physical therapist, Mike Reinold, brought up.
There's always been a rift in the physical therapy world – and by extension the strength and conditioning realm – over which should be prioritized first, mobility or stability. According to Reinold, while both are certainly important and both deserve their time under the spotlight, the answer is neither! Instead, attaining optimal alignment should be the goal or end game.
Think of it this way: If you lengthen (mobilize) in misalignment, you tend to create more instability.
I can't tell you how many people I've worked with who complain that the front of their hip always feels "tight," and as such, conventional wisdom kicks in and dictates they should constantly stretch that area.
Most will end up stretching while in anterior pelvic tilt (misalignment), which forces the femoral head to glide anteriorly (femoral glide syndrome), thereby causing "protective tension," which then just feeds into the issue more, causing the cycle to repeat.
The real fix in this instance would be to get them to stop stretching and focus instead on encouraging more posterior pelvic tilt by activating the glutes, which then places the hips into better alignment. Problem solved.
Flawed Active Stability
Here's another point that many trainees gloss over:
If you strengthen (stabilize) in misalignment, you tend to create more imbalances. Teaching someone to arch hard (which is encouraging misalignment) is forcing them into using what Mike Robertson calls "flawed active stability," in that we're cueing them into "using passive stabilizers, via a poor/suboptimal motor program."
As he notes, "When you cue someone to arch hard, you're telling them to maximally engage their paraspinals/spinal erectors to develop stability."
This can lead to a few issues:
• When you cue someone to actively extend their spine, you're concurrently cueing them to lengthen the front, in this case the abdominals.
• As a result, this places an incredible amount of compressive load on the posterior elements of the lumbar spine, effectively crushing them in an effort to attain stability.
Listen, before someone chimes in and accuses me of being soft, I realize that lifting heavy things isn't going to look pretty 100% of the time. As a coach I don't start to hyperventilate into a brown paper bag every time someone happens to round his or her back or excessively arches into hyperextension.
I will say, though, that a large part of my job is to help keep my athletes healthy for the long haul, and while an aggressive arch isn't the end of the world – and has helped many people lift ridiculous amounts of weight – it's certainly not the healthiest thing for your spine long-term. Besides, the safer way may also be the more efficient way.
A Simple Squat Fix: Owning Your Rib Position
Squatting is something that shouldn't be approached with a haphazard attitude, and while it's a basic human movement pattern, the game changes once you start adding a load.
Furthermore, there's no shortage of coaching cues that are tossed around, and it's not surprising so many trainees often feel overwhelmed when it comes to perfecting technique.
• Get your air!
• Spread the floor with your feet!
• Keep your chin tucked!
• Squeeze your shoulder blades together, find your shelf!
• Push your knees out!
• Sit back!
• Pull down on the bar!
The fact is, when it comes to squatting big weight, you have to be locked in with your technique. However, even if squatting a metric shit-ton isn't your goal, it still doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention to the details.
One cue that I've been using quite a bit lately is the notion of owning your rib position. Namely, the more I get people into the mindset of not overarching, maintaining their rib position (not allowing their ribcage to flare out and promoting alignment), and learning to brace, cool things start to happen.
Here's an example of what I mean by poor rib position:
As you can see, I revert to more of an aggressive arch in my lower back and then begin my descent by initiating directly through my TL (thoracic-lumbar) junction (rather than through my hips), and my rib cage flares out. All told, I'm in misalignment, not maintaining tension, leaking energy, making my spine hate me, and could arguably be leaving total poundage in the tank!
Instead, I'd like to see this:
This time I focus on bracing my abs and pretend there's an imaginary line between my nipple line and my belly button. When I un-rack the barbell, I get my air and then "lock my rib position," and make sure the line between my nipples and belly button doesn't get longer.
Because we tend to see anterior pelvic tilt (and subsequent rib flare) emerging in the athletic/meathead population, we can take the same idea and apply it to the deadlift as well. Check out the video below where I break down proper rib/chest position during the deadlift:
It's a subtle difference, but the keen observer should've noticed that I braced my abs to start, locked my rib position in, hinged through my hips (rather than my lower back), and once I grabbed the bar to pull my chest tall, I did so by encouraging more posterior tilt of my scapulae rather than hinging even more through my lower back.
As an aside, another fantastic cue to keep in your back pocket to help maintain tension and to prevent yourself from hinging through your lower back is to think about squeezing oranges in your armpits.
And Yes, This Works
I'm not going to promise that bracing over arching will add 50 pounds to your deadlift or squat over-night, but it might.
Recently, Dean Somerset and I held a workshop where we discussed many of these same talking points, and after coaching one individual and demonstrating how to properly own rib position and how to get more tension, he instantly added 40 pounds to his deadlift PR by pulling 405 for an easy single.
I can't say this will be everyone's experience, but it's not uncommon for me to see instant improvement in one's performance with just a little more attention to detail with regards to spinal position.
Cappozzo, A, et al (1985). "Lumbar spine loading during half-squat exercises." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Oct 17(5): 613-20.
Cholewicki, J, et al (1991). "Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Oct 23 (10): 1179-86.