Lynn Asks: Hi Greg, I don't know if this is mostly in women, but I'd love an article or an answer about setting up with excessive arching in the lower back. Many people, when they learned how to lift, learned to arch the back instead of finding some type of neutral pelvis. Because most women are so flexible in the hamstrings it seems like this allows us to set up in an exaggerated position. Recently I've gotten a bulging L5 so I'm doing Pilates (I know, I know, I'm practically a soccer mom, I want to kill myself), and there is a lot of talk and work on "neutral" pelvis. I think that a lot of women don't understand that excessive arching can be bad too (uneven disc compression, facet wear, etc). "Loading the hamstrings" is not an answer as Debbie and I can both, effortlessly, put our palms on the ground from a straight legged standing position.
So, with that being some of the background on the question, I guess the short question is: "What are the risks of setting up and executing the Olympic lifts with excessive lumbar back arching? What are some ways to fine tune a neutral pelvis setup and execution, including in an individual with extremely flexible hamstrings and thus no "feedback"?"
Greg Says: First, let’s distinguish between two things: lifting for performance, and lifting for health. For the former, we may do things that are somewhat riskier because they increase athletic performance (in this case snatching or clean & jerking as much as possible); for the latter, we are more conservative and may choose to do things in a way that does not maximize performance, but might presumably improve longevity.
For the sake of longterm orthopedic health, a totally neutral spine is probably a good idea generally speaking. However, I point I continue to make in my book and elsewhere is that the ideal position for the spine is arguably different with different positions and loading patterns. With a directly vertical compressive force, a neutral spine is what we want always. The vertebrae are actually somewhat wedge-shaped to create the natural lordosis in the lumbar spine and kyphosis in the thoracic spine; that is, when the spine is in its natural curvature, this wedge shape ensures that there is even contact and pressure across the vertebrae and intervertebral discs. If you’re standing vertically with a weight on top of your head, you want a neutral spine because the force is straight down on the vertebrae and discs, so even pressure will ensure stability and prevent bulging, etc.
When we start talking about the pull of the snatch or clean, however, we’re no longer talking about strictly compressive force down the length of the spine—now we’re looking at torque that wants to bend the spine at each articulation, more so in the lumbar spine because it’s the farthest from the end of the lever at which the force is being applied. The biggest concern with regard to back safety is loaded lumbar flexion—preventing this is the priority with any lifting or daily activity (this is not to say that lumbar flexion is necessarily injurious, but it is certainly risky).
Because the lumbar spine’s natural lordosis means that even pressure on the vertebrae and discs occurs in an arched position, a forward curve (flexion) will place an extreme amount of pressure on the anterior part of the discs and vertebrae. Additionally, the leverage of the muscles that extend the spine are poor as it is—once the arch of the lower back is lost, that leverage is even worse, and when in flexion, you’re essentially using nothing but connective tissue to support your back.
When we are in a pulling position (i.e. leaned forward at the hip with weight attached to the shoulders), we are stabilizing primarily against the torque that wants to round the spine forward. The compression of the spine is largely coming from our own muscular contractions that are holding the position of the back. Of course, this shifts as we extend the hip—the closer to vertical the trunk becomes, the more vertical compression force and less torque there is.
I prefer to slightly exaggerate the extension of the lower back and minimize the forward curve of the upper back (in effect creating a continuous arch along the length of the spine) when pulling. This acts as a hedge against potential flexion of the lumbar spine by 1) starting with the spine farther from flexion; 2) decreasing the mechanical disadvantage of the spinal extensors that maintain the lumbar arch; 3) effectively shortening the length of the spine (lever arm) and therefore decreasing the mechanical disadvantage of hip and spine extension and making hip extension stronger and faster.
Now, is this the healthiest possible position for the lumbar spine? Perhaps not, although I also don’t believe it’s a concern (remember, we’re talking about very SLIGHT hyperextension, not such severe hyperextension that we’re looking at chipping off the ends of the spinous processes against each other). Being able to do this properly requires strong abdominal muscles and the ability to activate them properly, as well as knowing how to properly pressurize the trunk during lifts.
What you see in a lot of women (athletic or not) is what we used to call hairdresser back at NorCal Strength & Conditioning—short psoas, loose hamstrings, and poor abdominal muscle tone—resulting in the gal literally just collapsing on her own hyperextended lumbar spine. This is not the same thing we’re talking about with regard to the pulling position. I have written a few articles and a significant section of my book discussing excessive flexibility and the problems it can create in lifting—this is a perfect example. So yes, this is a more common problem in women than men simply because women tend to be more flexible than men by nature.
I think the fix for this is first deciding what exactly constitutes “excessive” extension. Honestly, I think lately it’s become fashionable to prescribe a neutral spine to an extent that some people are overdoing it and are flattening the normal arch beyond neutral. As I’ve said above, I will always err on the side of extension when it comes to pulling. Dedicate plenty of time to strengthening the abs and make activating them (especially the lower abs) a priority when setting your starting position for snatches and cleans. It’s always this balance among all of the trunk musculature, along with a good mechanical position, that stabilizes the spine and ensures both performance and safety.
Be conscious of your posture when standing and sitting and ensure that your spine is in fact neutral and that your abs have reasonable tone. This will help establish a reference point when positioning yourself in the lifts—if your “normal” spinal position is already hyperextended and you then want to extend your spine to set a pulling position, you’re getting into excessive extension. If you learn to recognize the feel of a truly neutral spine as a part of your daily posture, you then can extend slightly beyond it and be in the perfect position, balancing and stabilizing with strong and active abs.
Jaime Asks: i just received the 2nd edition book and it's awesome. within a few minutes of reading i already learned a few things that have already helped me. now my fiance just ordered the book and dvd cuz she was trying to read mine. lol
anyways, i just have a quick question. i only have 1 day week 1 1/2 hrs to practice olympic lifts. most programs are multiple days a week for months at a time. how would you guys recommend using that small time to improve. i'm guessing you cannot do a strength program 1 day a week, so i would just like to be more technical in my lifts.
Greg Says: Without knowing what, if anything, else you’re doing, it’s hard to give the perfect answer, but with such limited time, I would recommend trying to snatch and clean & jerk each time you train. This doesn’t mean you can’t do variations of the lifts, but do variations of each or the classic lifts themselves every week. Keep your sets to singles or doubles and don’t sit down between sets—this will help you keep moving at a quick pace throughout your workout so you can compress more lifts into the limited time. Get very efficient in your warm-up and strip it down to only what you really need.
Train largely according to feel in terms of weight—basically lift as heavy as you can each time you train. You’ll find that you naturally can push pretty hard, increasing weight on average, for a few weeks, then will want to stay a bit lighter for a week before feeling good to push it again. Write down all your workouts and make sure you’re not cheating yourself on one exercise by doing the other more because you like it better or are better at it.