When your coach/trainer breaks down an exercise sometimes it can feel like they are speaking some sort of gibberish. A lot of exercises with barbells seem pretty simple when you see someone perform them, but for many of us out there our bodies have developed their own ways to compensate and “cheat” in our movements. Ever notice how when your coach/trainer shows you the correct way to perform a movement suddenly you feel muscles you didn’t know you had before?
The squat is one movement where you see a lot of compensating with beginners and even some people who have lifted for a few months. The squat seems simple: put a barbell on your back, bend your legs until you are parallel and then stand up. The squat, in and of itself, has quite a few cues when it comes to proper form and execution.
Keep your knees in line with your toes, sit back in your heels, push the butt back, maintain a neutral spine, watch out for the butt wink, don’t crop dust the dude benching behind you…knew I should not have had that Chipotle bowl at lunch, damn!
All of these cues can be pretty intimidating to anyone who is new to exercise but can even make regular weight lifters a lot more self-conscious about their movement patterns. One of the toughest cues to coach and one that took me a while to learn myself was keeping a “neutral” spine.
What the heck does that even mean?
In science terms, it generally means you lack thoracic spine stability and when you start to round in your thoracic spine (this is the upper and middle portion of your back) your lumbar spine will typically follow and round as well. Squatting like this can lead to lower-back pain at some point.
This is why you hear coaches constantly telling you to keep a “neutral” spine. This can already be a challenge for many of us who sit at computers all day hammering away for hours on end. Our backs have begun to conform to that rounded (hunched) shape. Thanks to pounding the keys like modern less musically inclined Mozart, many of us lack the stability or mobility in our thoracic spine so it’s only natural that squatting, for some, will happen with a non-neutral spine.
In those extremes, you would want to implement some mobility and stability drills to help free up your thoracic spine. In this case let’s say you have a problem keeping your back as “neutral” as possible and round it a little when you are squatting. In the video below, I go over a quick cue you can use that will help you “stiffen” your back and maintain a more “neutral” spine.
I found this cue helpful for myself and my clients. Imagining that you are about to push the bar off your back as if you are pressing it overhead, will help you to stiffen your thoracic spine and thus maintain a “neutral” spine as you are squatting.
If you are struggling with keeping a “neutral” spine with your back squat, I will give you two options.
Number 1, lower the weight on the back squat until you find the weight where you can keep the form and practice that slowly adding 5-10 pounds each week until your form becomes more solid.
Number 2, take a month and focus on the dumbbell goblet squat and the front squat. Both of these anteriorly load the weight and force you to keep an upright position which might help you keep a more “neutral” spine.
Once you have it ingrained in your mind of how to keep a “neutral” spine you can return to the back squat or stick with the front squat and start learning some Olympic style lifts where the front squat is used a lot. Your call bro.