There are certain concepts that are universal when it comes to optimal posture and mechanics for everyday activity and for lifting. These cues are applicable across most movements that we perform and if we can make these second nature we will be kilometres ahead in our performance without needing to remember a unique set of cues for each movement.
Maintaining a neutral spine is of utmost importance when it comes to lifting and daily life. It doesn’t mean we want to be glued into this position because the spine can extend, flex, and rotate but ideally, we want to make a neutral spine our default position particularly when under load whether that’s lifting weights or running.
Think of our brain as a tap and our spinal cord as a hose branching off into all our muscles. With a neutral spine water will flow freely to all our muscles. If there is a kink in the hose the flow of water will be restricted therefore the messages from the brain are not being sent to the muscles optimally resulting in less-than-ideal movement.
What is a neutral spine and what is puppet spine?
A marionette is a puppet held up by strings. If you’re standing or seated imagine as if there is a string attached to the crown of your head and you are being held up by it. Your spine should be elongated and your head tall.
If your torso is horizontal in some way, then I like to think of two strings: one attached to the crown of your head, and another attached to your tailbone and the two strings are being pulled apart taking the slack out.
The simplest and most effective way to establish what your neutral spine is to lay on floor on your back, hands by your side palms up and squeeze your butt cheeks with 75% of your maximal strength for a second. Your pelvis will now be realigned to YOUR neutral position. If it didn’t change, then your pelvis was most likely already neutral. There’s a good chance that your lower back was tight and doing the above helped realign your pelvis to its neutral position giving some length to your lumbar spine. This is a drill I learnt from Kelly Starrett.
Whether you’re squatting, deadlifting, push-ups or nearly every exercise think of puppet spine until it becomes ingrained into your motor pattern and your default position.
Another great tool is to use a broomstick held behind your back with the aim of maintaining 3 contact points:
1. Back of the head
2. Between the shoulder blades
Try establishing a ‘broomstick spine’ and perform a movement such as a squat or a hinge and maintain all contact points. For exercises where you can't hold the stick, having a partner hold a foam roller/stick along your spine is ideal.
If your shoulder blade loses contact either you’re looking up with your neck and/or your lower back is excessively arched.
If your head loses contact, you may be looking down too much or your upper back is too rounded (kyphotic).
If your tailbone loses contact, you may need to arch your lower back more.
A common mistake I see is people will have their upper back resemble the Sydney Harbour Bridge and cranking their neck back so they are technically maintaining all 3 contact points but there are some serious kinks in their hose. The problem is kyphosis, which is excessive rounding of the thoracic spine. The cues and exercise below will alleviate mild cases however for more substantial cases kyphosis deserves a whole post on its own.
Therefore, think puppet spine with the focus on elongation of the neck with a healthy dose of thoracic extension and the shoulder blades slightly retracted backwards and shrugged down in what can be coined the anti-shrug Your chest should be slightly proud and puffed out not due to you flaring out your ribcage but merely because you're able to do the aforementioned cues.
A simple drill to get your shoulders in the correct position is called the crucifix stretch. I learned this from Bret Contreras and Kelly Starrett and it’s something you can do every day to improve your posture.
1. Stand tall with arms out to the side in a T-pose
2. Externally rotate your shoulders back by turning your palms and elbow pits up to the sky
3. Keep a neutral/puppet spine and core gently braced to prevent your ribcage from flaring out
4. Lock in this shoulder position and then relax your arms by your sides
You can do this periodically throughout the day holding for 3-5 seconds in the contracted position for several repetitions before doing step 4.
How do you know if you’re doing it properly? Your shoulders should feel very stable and if you were firmly holding onto a pen with your arms by your side, the pen should be pointing straight ahead.
This position may feel weird at first but eventually once the right muscles get strengthened and the tight muscles get stretched this optimal position will become second nature.
This exercise alone may not alleviate the issue therefore in future I will make write a post diving into this further.
Overall the idea of broomstick or puppet spine has great carryover to your life and your lifts. Practice, use the broomstick periodically to create a set point and move well!