The visual sense is arguably one of the most important of the 5 primary senses that the body has. We are constantly receiving visual input from our environment. From a young age, we have been taught to look forward and keep our head high for improved posture. And some of us may have been taught to always keep your head up during execution of exercises. These two statements aren’t 100% true. It is very important that you understand how your head and neck can affect your posture and how they can be problematic if not properly positioned.
Let’s begin our discussion today with some basic anatomy. There are 5 major spinal columns: cervical (neck), thoracic (thorax), lumbar (low back), sacrum (back of hip), and coccyx (tailbone). The spinal cord is arranged in such a way, partially attributed to its natural curves, to allow us to properly recruit muscles and engage in logical movements without pain or risk of injury. The back should always remain neutral during execution of upper body and/or lower body exercises. With that said, it is possible to remain neutral while flexing at the hip, shown here. This is very difficult for most people to do because of range of motion issues (namely the hamstring and low back) as well as muscular weaknesses (the gluteal muscles).
To reiterate, the cervical spine (neck) is an extension of the spinal column, which we always want to remain neutral. Let’s look at two very common exercises and see how neck alignment can influence the execution of the exercise and maybe promote problematic movement patterns.
The first exercise I want to discuss is the squat. Whether you are performing air squats, weighted squats, front squats, overhead, etc. the foundation of the movement remains the same. It is important for you to maintain good posture so that you don’t put undue stress on the spinal column nor the low back. This photo shows proper posture, with the head slightly tilted up about 15-45⁰ and the eyes gazing up. This helps to keep your shoulders retracted and your chest big (both vitally important in weight baring exercises). This position allows you to evenly dissipate the force of the weight throughout your upper and lower body. Once your head drops you lose posture and this is where problems occur. It is very easily demonstrated in this diagram regarding seated psoture. When you lower your head, your chest begins to cave in and your back rounds. This is highly problematic when you have resistance either above your shoulders or even at your side. This is why it is important to keep your chin as well as your eyes directly upwards.
The second group of exercises I want to talk about are those involving hip flexion (bent row variations, trunk extension, Romanian deadlifts, etc). As mentioned above, the cervical spine is an extension of the spinal column. At this point in the article, it should be understood that maintaining a neutral spine is optimal. For this reason, it is recommended to allow your head and neck to follow the path of your torso. If we are looking to keep a neutral spine, then why would we extend our neck to look up? This photo depicts the problem. Obviously, it puts undue stress on your neck and more than likely promotes further extension of the thoracic spine to compensate.
I hope that this post shed some light on an important topic that isn’t often discussed nor considered. I chose these two exercise groups because they can be applied to multiple variations but the concept must be understood. When executing a squat, keep the chin up to maintain proper posture. In bend exercises, let your gaze follow your torso to remain neutral in all spinal columns.