Sparing the Spine in Barbell Training

Sparing the Spine in Barbell Training

Michael Hartle


In sparing the spine during barbell training, you must be conscious of the ever-increasing load that is being placed on the spine. Making sure to properly utilize the correct amount of tension, having the right amount of mobility and stability, and using sound technique will decrease the chance of injury and enhance the performance of the athlete using the barbell for either sport or to augment another sport (Fig. 26.1).

Many athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and coaches are familiar with barbell training. Unfortunately, due to a general lack of proper training, knowledge, or experience—or a combination of all three—you can walk into any gym or performance facility and see many athletes using lifting techniques that can cause damage to the spine. Whether this damage is microtrauma, which over time can lead to an overuse injury, or an acute injury that occurs at a specific moment, spinal injuries caused by improper lifting technique and form can wreak havoc on a person’s training plan and quality of life in the long run.

One of my favorite quotations that I share while teaching strength is this: “If you put fitness/strength before health, you will lose both. Put health first again, and you can earn both back.’ Health can be compromised in the pursuit of fitness/strength, if training is done improperly. However, by adhering to a systematic, spine-sparing fitness/strength program, you will be able to reap the benefits of your hard work and maintain a healthy, active lifestyle (Fig. 26.2).

Let’s begin by discussing some anatomy and movement basics when it comes to the spine. Besides being the bony protector of the spinal cord, the spine is also designed to move in all three planes: sagittal, frontal (coronal), and transverse (rotational or horizontal). When doing bodyweight training or simply picking something light off the floor, otherwise unloaded, a person should be relatively safe bending with the spine in the three different planes without risk of injury, notwithstanding any prior history of injury or dysfunction. The precautionary measures a healthy individual needs to take to bend over and pick up a toothbrush from the floor are minimal to nonexistent, but as we add load this scenario changes and being proactive in protecting our spine becomes critical.

Figure 26.1 High Bar Back Squat – Middle

Figure 26.2 A: Supine Hamstring Stretch; B: 90-90 Hip Stretch

As we move up the loading chain, that is, progress from bodyweight exercises toward barbell training, we need to consider the ramifications of increasing load on the spine during movements like the back/front squat, deadlift, bench press, and good morning. Unlike bodyweight or other fixed-weight implements, such as kettlebells or dumbbells, barbell training has the ability to create an infinite number of weight combinations, only being limited by the barbell’s tensile strength and the number of plates on hand. Therefore, a careful thought process needs to occur to be proactive in sparing the spine and all its components from injury
while at the same time being able to derive the training benefits from the movement (Fig. 26.3).

Figure 26.3 Good Morning Technique

Four important areas that need to be discussed to spare the spine from injury during barbell training are:

1. Mobility

2. Stability

3. Technique

4. Tension


To be successful in sparing the spine while training with barbells, the athlete must have the requisite mobility in the spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips/pelvis, knees, and ankles. Any lack of range of motion in these areas will cause other structures to compensate, thereby creating a domino effect that invariably will lead to spinal dysfunction.

For example, in the front squat, if the athlete lacks the adequate thoracic mobility to be able to properly hold the weightlifting rack position, this will usually cause the athlete to hyperextend the cervical or lumbar spine, or even both, during the initial descent of the lift or the initiation of the ascent. This will also cause the deep cervical neck flexors to lengthen under load, resulting in a loss of stabilization in the cervical spine. Increasing the lumbar lordotic curve will also cause rib flair and an anterior pelvic tilt, lengthening the distance from the bottom of the ribs to the top of the iliac crest anteriorly. This will concurrently lead to a decrease in the stability of the lumbar spine,
potentially causing lumbar hinging, or “butt winking,” to occur under load (more on this when we discuss common mistakes).

Mobility issues that impact barbell training are not confined to the spine, either. Much has been discussed in recent years regarding lack of or decreased hip mobility. The most common cause of this is sitting for 8 to 12 hours per day. This not only causes hip mobility issues but also affects the rest of the lower extremity because of lack of movement. Loading these areas with barbell training when not enough attention has been given to their proper mobility or return to proper mobility is a recipe for eventual injury.

Figure 26.4 Front Squat Technique

A proper mobility program is paramount for the athlete utilizing barbells either as a sport, that is, powerlifting or weightlifting, or to enhance performance in his or her sport. This mobility program needs to include both static and dynamic mobility movements. Mobility, namely the dynamic variety, done before a barbell training session will help prepare the athlete for the training tasks ahead. When performed a few hours after the barbell training session, the static mobility variety will aid in the athlete’s recovery from the work done earlier (Fig. 26.4).


In addition to generating the appropriate tension to protect the spine while under the barbell load and having the adequate joint mobility to go through the full range of motion of a particular lift, the athlete must also have the requisite stability of the various joints involved. Not having the proper stability will force other areas of the body to compensate during the lift, potentially leading to future spinal dysfunction and injury.

Everything from the rotator cuff to the small spinal intersegmental muscles to the hip rotators are extremely important and need to be functioning properly to allow the prime movers of the lift to do their job. If these stabilizers are dysfunctional, movement patterns will be disrupted. If an athlete is under heavy barbell load, then these disrupted patterns will result in gross movement dysfunction. This leads to abnormal motor patterns that over time will lead to spinal damage.

The athlete would be smart to include a prehabilitative stability program as part of his or her overall training program. In this sort of program, soft-core exercises like rolling, crawling, and certain dynamic neuromuscular stabilization (DNS) patterns are just as important as hard-core exercises like dead bugs, planks, and renegade rows. Kettlebell get-ups and arm bars are useful for the rotator cuff. Balance exercises, such as single leg standing with eyes open/closed and single leg deadlifts, are not only appropriate for the intrinsic musculature of the foot and the mechanoreceptors present but also for the enormous proprioceptive feedback to the hip stabilizers (Fig. 26.5).

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Apr 17, 2020 | Posted by in PHYSICAL MEDICINE & REHABILITATION | Comments Off on Sparing the Spine in Barbell Training

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