Head position and the deadlift

By Stuart McGill.

I have heard many opinions about how to position the head and neck during the deadlift. The science on this issue is quite sparse but the good news is you can find the best position for you and your clients.

As with every technique there is no universal answer, rather the truth lies in the realm of, “IT DEPENDS”. Here are a few thoughts to assist you in finding what is best for each person.

Form in the deadlift is adjusted to reduce pain or discomfort, and to enhance performance. Each person has a different injury history, body type and leverage ratios, and physiology making a single recommendation virtually impossible for any coaching cue. Some suggest it is always best to “pack the neck” while others suggest more movement.

Setting up the lifters wedge is where we begin the discussion. The lifting muscular hangs from a central supporting pillar beginning with the neck or cervical spine. This is why some coaches cue to “pack the neck” while keeping it neutral or slightly extended. The spine is a flexible rod which must be stiffened so that it is able to support tremendous compressive loads from the muscles pulling it downwards together with the weight of the bar. Packing provides the most stiffened and stable supporting pillar to enable the full power developed at the hips to extend, pulling the hips forward without allowing the spine to bend loosing energy. The eyes are fixed on a point ahead to coax the motor cortex to unleash the most dense neural drive or pulse train down the motor nerves to the muscles. The “righting reflex” assists in pulse train density. But then, as the hip drive pulls the torso upright the head and neck drops into flexion. Why is this? Is this movement helpful? Does it increase injury resilience and performance in everyone?

Setting up the lifters wedge, some pack the neck and squeeze the bar off the ground. Having a shorter, thicker and stiffer neck suits this anatomy and technique. Other lifters have a longer neck and obtain an advantage to initiate bar movement with a pulse. Here the lifter stiffens into the wedge with the neck set in a more neutral position. Then a very small extensor pulse is initiated with the head-neck that propagates through the body linkage to the bar through the arms and the floor through the legs. This only works if the body is stiffened so as not to dissipate the pulse.

The second third of the lift the hips drive forward with the other joints stiffened so as not to allow eccentric lengthening – this flaw is often seen in the middle and lower spine.

In the last third of the lift, some lifters flex the neck which lengthens the erector spinae muscles. In some lifters this changes the strength output by changing the position on the length – tension curve. The strategy also reduces the height of the shoulders thus reducing the vertical distance the bar must travel. However, some lifters do not allow this to happen and maintain the same posture in the head-neck throughout all three phases of the lift. They may have a better length tension gearing for force development, a stronger righting reflex, or a better potentiation of distal strengths such as grip strength on the bar assisting with the cue of “bending the bar” to stiffen the spine.

How to find the best for you. As with many coaching cues the way to find what is best for the individual is to run an experiment. Begin by bracketing the issue with extreme positions. In this case try lifting and finishing with the neck flexed. Then try with the neck neutral. Some people experience an immediate enhancement in comfort and performance. If you do not feel a difference add more load and repeat. Again, failing to find a preference simply shows that this is not a controversy that matters to you. But you just may find another boost to your performance.

Many similar discussions and tips are summarized in the book Gift of Injury by Stuart McGill and Brian Carroll. If you have back pain start by following the program in the book Back Mechanic first. (see www.backfitpro.com)