Dead straight

I received a question the other day which got me to thinking, and thanks to the wonders of the internet age, I am rapidly becoming one of those people who can't keep his thoughts entirely as an internal monologue so I thought that I would share.

Q: "Why did people back in the day deadlift and at the top were told to lean backward hyperextending? Was this ever thought to be right? Doing this without any weight seems uncomfortable, never mind as a heavy lift."

Warning - this may not contain itself to just lifting

Good question. The honest answer is, in part, "I don't know" but since that is seasoned with a healthy dose of "I've got a pretty good idea" I could not just leave it at the first response.

The "I don't know" comes mostly from not being sure who was doing the telling. Over my 20 odd years of knocking around weight rooms, I do remember seeing a lot of macho clowns throwing themselves backwards over their weight belt and gurning impressively. On a couple of occasions I have received the bro-science advice from one of the juice monkeys but, in fairness, I have never heard it from a proper coach. However, since bull is pervasive and tenacious, and this is a technique which is relatively commonly seen, I thought I might dig a little deeper.

To the library! Well, my library anyway. Much to first my parents and then my wife's chagrin, I have collected quite a few books over the years. [Side note: E-readers are awesome for combatting this, you can still accumulate them but what you lose in tactile experience is more than made up for in saved shelf-space and ear-ache.] Rooting through my collection it was refreshing to rediscover the book which built cleans and snatches into a conditioning programme and was published over a decade before Greg Glassman invented this idea (incidentally, this book doesn't claim to have invented the concept either). There were also a couple of strength and fitness books from the early and mid 1990s which, despite recommending some interesting stuff, stayed clear of the deadlift altogether. Those that did were quite clear about vertical being the finish position. Not leaning backwards, vertical. Hmm, I know, let's hit the bible for those who like to apply four layers of creosote and stand around in budgie smugglers - the Gubernator's Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. If the beefcake crowd are into it, surely it will be in here?

As it turns out, not so much.

The instruction is to throw your chest and shoulders back at the top (a-ha!) as though coming to attention. Oh. I don't know many RSMs who would tolerate hyperextension. Let's face it, chest up, shoulders back is to prevent you slouching, you 'orrible little man. It does not give you permission to lean backwards, even if your face is being flecked by his spittle. However, I think this might be one of the first moments where I can see wiggle room for what we see today to develop.

Backing away from the bodybuilders for a while, I suspect that there is also a crossover from competitive lifting. The lifter's knees and hips have to be fully extended for the effort to count. At the upper ranges of the lifter's capability we begin to see the bar pausing on the quads and the lifter leaning back, still with knees flexed, desperately trying to lever the bar up the thigh to a straight back position before coming to vertical in order to get three lights. Using the lifts in the recent broadcast of World's Strongest Man as an example, those deadlifts that didn't count? Well, the bar inched up, the chest was fully back but check the final position of the knees.

I do wonder, when we are talking about bodybuilders (and let's be honest, for better or worse, their techniques cast a very long shadow over lifting iron for every reason... but that's a whole different conversation) whether there has developed a thought where, because the hyperextension can be felt in the lower back, it is giving some increased development to the spinal erectors and is therefore a useful addition to the programme. You know, a sort of productive inefficiency. They would be wrong but it might be another explanation.

Here's the thing. We are all by now familiar with the idea that lifting with a flexed back (ie rounded) is a compromised position and exposes one to an increased risk of injury. Whether you have endured a work manual handling talk or had some advice from your doctor/neighbour/chiropractor/friend/postman we broadly speaking get this, don't we? Thought so.

Thanks to modern, mostly western, lifestyle, we are almost universally tight in the hips and we struggle to move them effectively or indeed identify their movement and function. Take for example, the difference in range of movement between a hip lift and a Cook hip lift. The latter, by keeping the lumbar spine neutral and distracted, permits movement from the glutes alone. Whereas the more commonplace movement, without significant instruction, witnesses a much greater range of movement but courtesy of lumbar extension rather than hips.

Take these issues of physiological amnesia, stand upright, place a weighted bar on the thighs and now ask for hip hyperextension. It is exceptionally unlikely that will be qhat you get. You are likely witnessing the lumbar spine hyperextending.

Why the issue? Well, why do we talk about keeping everything tight and in position when we are lifting? (Pictures would be really useful here!) The fluid and fibrous intervertebral discs (and the facet joints) allow for movement of the spine. The muscles of the back, in normal, individuals do a superb job of protecting the structure of the spine. However, while bent over we introduce an additional shear force, and the closer the spine gets to the horizontal, the larger this force gets. By allowing the spine to bend in this position we effectively (according to Stuart McGill) turn off the muscles leaving the ligaments to protect the back and exposing the discs to a greater risk of the full force of the shear. In this position, the nucleus (the inner part) of the disc pushes out towards the back, while the annulus (the outer) heads in the opposite direction, towards the direction of force.

Hyperextending the back, whether by design or compensation, create compressive and shear forces that cause a similar migration pattern in your disc, albeit in different directions to those in flexion. The lumbar extension injuries are significantly less than those caused by flexion but if you are a lifter with a tendency to over extend, whether intentional or not, you are putting yourself firmly in the likely to be effected population.

So, in answer to the original question, I doubt this was ever thought to be a good thing!


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