Posted May 9, 2019

To Arch or Not To Arch? It’s a Complex Question

I work in a commercial facility that caters to a lot of powerlifters and olympic lifters. We have competition quality Eleiko equipment for both, so it stands to reason that if you want to compete, you’ll train at the gym that uses the equipment you’ll have to compete with.

One element that always raises an eyebrow from my non-powerlifting clients is when they see someone set up on a bench press with a very exaggerated spinal arch. Something like this.

These are obviously extreme examples, but it’s something to see anyway.

Now why would someone use this kind of an arch? Primarily to lift more weight for competition. The rules for most federations involve lowering the weight to touch the torso, keep the glutes in contact with the bench, and depending on the federation the feet may have to be flat on the floor. Anything that allows more weight to be lifted in this state is alright within the rules.

Is it hard on the back? Probably. Anything done to end range and with a fairly high amount of pressure is likely not sustainable, and there’s some evidence of spinous process bruising with hard end range extension like this, plus risk of disc delamination, lateral nerve compression, and maybe even facet joint fractures.

Then again, these are risks and not guarantees. All competitive athletics carry risks, and when you’re trying to push the limits of what your body can achieve, there’s some acceptance of these risks to accomplish your goals.

Not to as great of a degree as bench press, but deadlifting also requires some semblance of lumbar extension on set up, as does the squat when lowering into the hole, especially if the individual is lifting in gear like a squat suit. This position shortens levers acting against the hips and low back and makes it easier to lift bigger weights, but always at a cost.

There’s other sports and activities that put a big emphasis on spine extension. Dancers and gymasts pretty much live in a hard extension for most of their lives, and trainers were indoctrinated to train all of our office workers out of the upper cross syndrome and lower cross syndrome that comes with sitting in an office chair with triple extension patterns of the lower body and “back and down” for every shoulder movement imaginable. Of course, these global recommendations lacked any kind of individual context, and wound up swinging the pendulum way past the target.

Is it a good idea to coach a hard extension if the individual isn’t competing? I’d argue no, but then again the weight they can lift may be limited as a result. Plus the reason a dancer or gymnast may need that extension is for a lot of the movements they need to do, plus to present themselves to the audience or judges. The office worker could benefit from focus on extension, but to what extent?

It seems that the biggest schools of thought that push hard spine extension seem to focus on performance outcomes as outlined above. That being said, there’s a growing volume of work that promotes less extension and even slightly flexed postures for most exercise, and even in some powerlifting circles like Juggernaut Training.

A lot of schools of thought, ranging from Postural Restoration Institute to Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization and even into Pilates and various types of yoga discuss extension and flexion positions as “scissor and canister.” Essentially, if you’re in a scissor (hard extension) position, you’re diaphragm and pelvic floor can’t create pressure by pushing against each other, and the anterior abdominal wall has to buffer the majority of the intra abdominal pressure that’s needed to lift something. This is a major reason why inguinal and umbilical hernias in lifters is so problematic.

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Check your alignment In activities like powerlifting, coaching a hard spinal extension arch can be very beneficial for putting more weight on the bar, as well as for sports that require more hip extension like sprinting, etc. However, in many situations a hard extension position could be putting more pressure on your low back and pelvic floor than necessary. This scissor position puts your diaphragm and pelvic floor into non-parallel conditions, and when intra abdominal pressure increases like bracing to lift something, will cause a push forward into the abdominal wall and make the pelvic floor work a lot harder to keep from failing, especially if it’s in a weakened state like after injury or a pregnancy. In a canister position, the diaphragm and pelvic floor line up in a way that they can push against each other while also getting contributions from all the other core muscles to generate infra abdominal pressure. This is a very helpful position to teach bracing and stabilization strategies, as well as basic lifting mechanics for compound movements like a squat or deadlift. Essentially, the canister position allows for a sharing of the load between all core muscles, so to speak. They both easily lead into the Streetfighter position, which should be everyone’s ultimate goal anyway.

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A canister position lines up the diaphragm and pelvic floor more effectively, but also shortens the abdominal muscles (specifically rectus, obliques and transverse), which puts them into a stronger position to generate force and resist deforming during increased intra abdominal pressure development. No word yet on benefits of the street fighter position though.

In terms of generating power, there’s no doubt that the phasic and largely fast twitch glute muscles SHOULD be used as hip extensors over the tonic and slower twitch lumbar erector muscles, but in many situations people will substitute spine extension in favour of end range hip extension, driving them into that scissor position. Teaching a canister bracing position can be massively beneficial to getting actual hip extension, which can come in handy for things like a deadlift or squat lockout, a punch or row drill, or any kind of run or sprint drill. Plus it makes stretching out your notoriously tight hip flexors a breeze.

So how do you get into a position where you could essentially say you’re in a canister set up versus a scissor position? The easiest way is to flex the ab muscles as tense as you would squeeze a hand in a firm handshake. On, but not crushingly so. Next, do the same with your glutes. If you can get your glutes to tense and the abs to hold, you’re essentially in canister. Now try to maintain that level of activation in various positions and under different loads, and you’re golden Pony Boy.

So when would it be good to get out of canister and drive into more of a scissor position? If you’re looking to maximize levers and lift more weight, like a competitive weight lifter, that would be a great time to push the positional stabilization. I’d offer that when you drive to one extreme, you should unload in the other, so mixing in some spine flexion bracing isometrics or holds would be a good idea.

For the average exerciser or general population client, getting a small arch on bench press would be ideal so they can position the shoulder blades appropriately on the bench and encourage some thoracic extension. Similarly on the deadlift and squat, but usually moving juuuuust past what their neutral positioning may be into extension. It’s tough to control hard extension positions at the best of the time, and I’m guessing Barry from accounting with the bad knee may not be well suited to max that range just yet.

So to re-cap: Should you hard arch? Well, if you’re a competitive lifter and you can tolerate the position, give it a go. Just unwind with some opposing positions and tension development drills. If you’re not competitive and the positions are useful for other stuff, train into it but also through a variety of other directions and patterns. Move the spine as much as comfortable, find ideal loading positions for your anatomy and amount of loading being moved, and train hard while having fun.