Squat heavy and squat often. That’s a sure-fire approach to achieving the legs and glutes you’re after, but it can also fast track injury if you fail to squat with proper form and technique.
While we often discuss the correct biomechanics for the hip hinge, along with foot position and how your knees should track your toes, very seldom is the important subject of head position addressed.
There are three options you’re likely to hear in the gym. These include:
- Looking upwards: Keeping your eyes fixed at the join between the facing wall and ceiling.
- Straight ahead: Looking at the reflection of your eyes in the mirror facing you.
- Looking down: Looking at the intersection between the floor and the facing wall.
But which is best?
Down and out
According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research using the front barbell squat, a downward head position produced an 8% greater forward bend at the hips and a 2% greater forward flexion of the spine.
The researchers found that this contributed to a greater stress load on the lower back and vertebral disks. Bending the lower back forward, which tends to happen when your head is cast forward, can also lead to spinal disc injuries.
Up, up and away
On the other hand, an upward-looking head position led to a loss of balance in the study. In other tests, the head-up position was also found to extend the thoracic spine and increased compressive forces along the entire spine.
The eyes-to-the-sky position can also compromise the posterior chain muscles that add stability to the normal structure of the spine. What’s worse is that the hyperextension of the neck synonymous with this head position can impinge nerves and arteries that exit the vertebrae, which can cause damage, or cause numbness, tingling, or pain, or even blackouts due to a lack of blood to the brain.
Neutral is best
The best head position, according to the study and many other industry experts, is maintaining a level head position.
In their study conclusion, the researchers recommended that weight lifters should watch themselves in the mirror while performing squats.
This forward-looking head position ensures that your neck and spine remain in alignment throughout the lift. This is termed a neutral head position and greatly reduces the stress on the cervical spine during the squat, as well as other compound lifts like deadlifts, lunges and step-ups.
The neutral head position also allows the chest to stay upright and the trapezius muscles to remain under the bar, which enhances whole-body biomechanics.
Achieving a neutral head position
To achieve and maintain a neutral head position:
- Stand in an upright position with your gaze cast forward.
- Drive your chin directly backwards towards your spine. This will create a slight downward gaze with your eyes, but your neck and spine should remain in alignment.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.