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Tweak Your Head Positioning and Fix Your Deadlift

The deadlift is just picking the bar up, right? Wrong. Small adjustments to form can mean a world of difference when it comes to the strength and mobility of an athlete. Furthermore, the body’s skeletomuscular system is synced in such a way that a small local tweak can have resounding global effects. While we could go on and on forever about this ripple effect, I’m going to turn my attention to head positioning and how it affects everything down the anterior and posterior kinetic chains during hinge patterns… namely the deadlift.

THE DEBATE
There’s always some back and forth between strength and conditioning professionals about what to do with your head during the deadlift.. look forward, look up, look down. Truthfully, everyone is right… as long as we’re talking about that (let’s say) 3% of the American population that can adequately maintain good thoracic and lumbopelvic alignment at any head angle. These people make up the elite athlete class ranging from college athletes to Olympians. For these select few, it doesn’t matter much what they do with their head during tempoed strength-based lifts.

Note: I would personally argue that, even for this small population, it still does matter… but that’s for another time.

However for the rest of us, where your face is looking can have a positive or negative impact on your performance. I’m going to move this along under the assumption, we’re all good with spinal alignment during hinge patterns.

HEAD POSITIONING
Let’s look at cervical posture during the deadlift. Tilting your head up can cue your body to adjust itself. As we like to say at FSP,¬†the body follows the face. In this case, your chest is going to coordinate with your face. If your head is up, your chest is going to try to follow it. Now, your body is a hell of a unit. It’s going to fight to maintain balance around your center of gravity by compensating in other areas. Having your chest come up is going to force your body into counterbalancing with some excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which in turn, limits your hip mobility. (If this doesn’t happen to you, congrats. You’re either a 3%-er or you don’t own a pelvis). If you’re pulling from the floor, that’s a big deal. We affectionately call this¬†banana back in our facility. However, when the small adjustment is made by placing the head in a more neutral location, the pelvis will rotate posteriorly and hip mobility returns.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER
If we’re only pulling from the knee or higher, it’s not a big deal as far as hip mobility is concerned. You’ll still be able to keep the bar close to center of mass. That said, compensation patterns are just that: responses to inefficiencies elsewhere. You’re not going to want to build your brick house on a bad foundation. It’s good to catch this stuff early on. If you’re pulling from the floor, hip mobility is a big deal. If your hips get jammed up, the body will again compensate by reaching with the shoulders. Reaching with the shoulders, elevates the hips, and places a greater load on the lumbar spine… which can only hold out for so long. Remember that guy in the gym that looks like a pissed-off cat? That’s why this matters. Compensations are crutches and I’ve never met anyone limping with a crutch that didn’t want to get rid of it as soon as possible.

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WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Everyone is unique. Remember back when I said that the body will compensate to keep its center of gravity? Well, much of the time chin/ head location is compensation for some other inefficiency in the movement pattern. Honestly, there could be several culprits that force some people to compensate with more cervical extension than others. In the interest of not boring anyone to death, let’s tackle the big’uns: scapular and lumbopelvic control.
Scapular Control
Poor scapular strength will lead to spinal flexion during your deadlift, forcing you to look like a puppet being pulled up by its strings. The increased cervical flexion from lifting your chin helps your weak scaps out and puts some shaky training wheels on your lift. Lighten the load and/or strengthen your upper back in order to fix this problem.
Lumbopelvic Control
So we’ve ruled out the scaps as the enemy of your deadlift form… what’s next? Let’s move down the posterior chain. Chances are, you may just have a pretty impressive anterior/posterior muscle imbalance at the hips. Exceedingly strong abdominals and hip flexors will overpower underutilized hip extensors any day of the week. Your body needs the additional thoracic extension that lifting your chin provides in order to “weaken” the hold your abdominals have on your and help your hips out. It’s a crutch. Fix the local source and fix the global problem. In this case, focus on glute and lumbar strength for a little bit. your back will thank you in the long run.
None of this should be misconstrued as “hey guys, bury your chin in your chest!”
Excessive cervical flexion is a big overcorrection and a huge problem in its own right. What you’re looking for is a neutral neck with a tucked chin.
Regardless of the isolated flaw, the issue generally lies with an anterior/posterior muscle imbalance. Strengthen your back and strengthen your deadlift.

Coach Runner is the Owner and Director of Sports Performance at Full-Stride Performance. Prior to founding FSP, Runner was formerly the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins. Coach Runner was also the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Husson University Eagles, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Maine, and a former collegiate hockey player for Plymouth State University. He earned his Master of Science degree in Kinesiology & Exercise Science from the University of Maine and is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength & Conditioning Association in addition to numerous other certifications.

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