I had the opportunity to take a seminar with Charlie Weingroff back in February when he blew into Calgary and I was very impressed with his knowledge, application, and easy manner of conveying complex anatomical, biomechanical, and injury rehab processes without being condescending, arrogant, dumbing it down, or making it sound too easy or hard. In short, he hit the nail on the head.
One key component he brought up repeatedly, as well as a concept he brings up on his own blog HERE is the concept of “packing the neck” during heavy heavy lifts. A prime example of this would be a deadlift max attempt, which at the time was a personal best and is now more of a regular 1 rep lift in my own workouts. Watch the neck and shoulder position as I try to maintain neutral and slightly retracted head posture through the movement.
While I’ll be the first to admit pulling 405 is not even close to an earth shattering number, I’m happy with it and the occasional female likes to give me a wink and a gun salute.
Some of the major reasons to pack a neck during a heavy lift is to create balance between the powerful extension forces applied to the neck from the trapezius and levator with an increased activation of the deep neck flexors and the powerful sternocleidomastoid. If you happen to have a chance of busting that little ditty out in scrabble, it could potentially be worth 3,241 points, essentially nuking the entire game and making your opponent weep openly in the corner.
Another major benefit is the increase stability in the cervical spine, which means it is more likely to NOT have the scapula start to shrug up and create stability for an over-extended neck, which will help prevent compromising the thoracic spine, lumbar spine, and shoulder girdle outside of neutral. The lack of stability in a neck is what typically results in cervical rotational and flexion intolerant issues. This lack of stability in one area tends to cause a massive spatial shift in the other segments of the body in a search for the necessary stability to produce the movement. The area that tends to take the brunt is the L3-S1 complex.
Another benefit to packing the neck is an increase in ability to generate stability in other sections. By not having to “donate stability” from areas like the thoracic spine, scapula, or lumbar spine, you can allow those sections to maintain and even improve their stability, which results in a greater transfer of power through the body, into the ground, and through the god-awfully heavy weights you’re trying to move.
Here’s a simple experiment. Perform a set of pushups however you want to do them. Bang out 5 just for example. Now, do another 5 pushups while pressing your tongue into the roof of your mouth. That’s the only thing you’re changing. First, by pressing your tongue up you get more activation out of the neck flexors, which results in an improved stability in coupling with the extensors that are keeping your head from falling forward, which results in more stability, and increases the power transfer through your shoulders and more power in your pushups.
Now an interesting phenomenon occurs when you take a beginner performing a movement and then compare it to someone looking to set new world records. The technique tends to change dramatically, and on occasion looks more like a train wreck that a skilled execution. Take the weight lifting events of the current olympic games. There’s more valgus collapse going on than buckets of suck being displayed at Celine Dione concerts, but that’s not stopping them from hoisting ungodly numbers.
And that’s just the women.
That was a 128 lb woman cleaning and jerking 300 lbs over her head!! The neck position in the start was fully extended, and finished with a tight flexion of her chin coming to her collarbone to get to lockout.
Let’s look at another freaky example. Here’s Xiaojun Lu, Chinese lifter in the 77kg category, from the Olympics where he broke the world record for the snatch and also for the clean and jerk.
He not only employed the fully extended neck position, but also the rarely seen full open mouth position on the initial pull. He only managed to pull 445 lbs at a body weight of 170, no big deal.
So aside from feeling completely inadequate from my own lifting prowess in comparison to these genetic freaks of nature, I had to ask myself why they prefer to use that neck position so predominantly, and why there are other trainers and coaches that teach a packed neck position. The basic difference would be the relative weight of the exercise, as well as the explosive speed development being utilized. In a max deadlift attempt, the bar speed is not going to be very fast, whereas for a clean or a snatch, the bar is typically moving at a rate that would be considered similar to a 70% max deadlift attempt.
The other defining criteria is the need for a rapid thoracic extension and scapular elevation, which is easier to accomplish under loading when the traps are shortened, as in the unpacked position. On top of this, it helps to generate tension through the entire posterior fascial line which helps to provide a protective mechanism through the spine, allowing it to lift those weights without folding in half.
My big coaching point between the two would be to use a packed neck during the training of beginners looking to perform the basic deadlift, and a more open position for those looking to perform a speed based movement like a clean and press or jerk, as long as they have the requisite thoracic extension, hip flexion, and scapular stability to pull it off without creating a hinge in their cervical spine, and as long as the open position is functional through all the joints instead of just a single joint.
Before I wrap up the day, I just wanted to remind you of the contest I announced on Wednesday for some pretty cool give-aways, so you should check it out HERE.