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The Perilous Error You Might Be Making During Your Leg Workout

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Squats and deadlifts are exercise essentials regardless of whether you’re into bootcamp classes, do Crossfit, or simply enjoy regular weight training at the gym. But when it comes to lifting heavy while performing these movements, safety is incredibly important — and there’s one crucial error trainers frequently observe with weightlifting beginners that makes them cringe. The upside? Rectifying it is simpler than you might anticipate. (BTW, here’s what really occurs when women lift heavy weights.)

The Issue

Have you ever witnessed someone perform a squat or deadlift and observed them push their hips forward at the conclusion of the movement? Sometimes, it’s to the extent that they actually lean backward. Yeah, that’s not a good idea.

“Thrusting excessively forward at the end of a deadlift or squat is a very common compensation,” states Nicole Ramos, D.P.T., a doctor of physical therapy and certified personal trainer. But why is it so detrimental?

“What’s actually occurring is hyperextension of the lumbar spine,” adds Ramos. That’s the section of your spine that comprises your lower back. By hyperextending your spine, you’re pushing it outside of its normal range of motion by compelling it to form a “c” shape that faces backward. You might typically think of hyperextension of the low back as when you stick out your butt, but it can also transpire when you contract those glutes so tightly and press your hips so far forward that you’re nearly leaning back at the top of an exercise.

“Usually it arises from attempting to propel your hips forward to complete the lift,” explains Ramos. Most individuals are taught to fully stand up and contract their glutes at the end of a squat or deadlift. But sometimes, this causes individuals to lean back. In other words, they cannot contract their butt without hyperextending their back. “Hyperextending the lumbar spine exerts a significant shearing force on the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints (which link your spine to your pelvis),” adds Ramos. In other words, it applies a great deal of pressure on your lower back to bend in a manner it’s not supposed to — and it’s an area that’s quite susceptible to injury to begin with.

Experts concur that doing this in a deadlift is not ideal, but it’s particularly hazardous to perform it in a barbell squat. “An excessively forceful hip thrust at the top of the squat can (but does not always) cause the bar to slightly rise off the ‘shelf’ of your upper back,” elucidates Greg Pignataro, C.S.C.S., and founder of G23. “When gravity pulls it back down that half inch, it adds extra compressive force to your spine, which can cause injury.” Ouch. While it’s certainly not guaranteed that you’ll injure yourself if you lift in this manner, the question is, why take the risk?

Maintaining Proper Posture While Lifting

So, how can you determine if you’re making this error in the first place, and what can you do about it? Here’s what fitness experts recommend.

Seek assistance.

If you exercise at a gym with trainers, request one of them to assess your technique. Alternatively, consider scheduling a personal training session to ensure that your form is truly solid. “Having an extra set of eyes is always beneficial when performing heavy lifts,” affirms Ramos. If hiring a trainer is not feasible, you can still evaluate yourself. “If you’re working independently, recording a video of yourself is the optimal method to analyze your performance and rectify any subpar movement patterns.”

Familiarize yourself with the sensation of engaging your glutes fully.

“Often, compensatory movements such as hyperextension of the lower back are a matter of motor control,” explains Ramos. In other words, your body is simply not accustomed to moving in that manner yet.

For an effective (and safe) glute engagement, Ramos’s recommended exercise is a hip thrust on a bench. Use lighter resistance (or no resistance at all) and prioritize achieving a posterior pelvic tilt as you extend your hips (reaching the top of the repetition), recommends Ramos. This means that your hips are tucked in—almost as if you’re tucking your tailbone between your legs.

“I also find it helpful to cue posterior pelvic tilts during a plank,” she states. “It’s nearly impossible to hyperextend your lower back in a posterior pelvic tilt.” And that’s the crucial aspect. If you’re in a posterior pelvic tilt, your lower back will be flat, devoid of any arch, preventing hyperextension. Once you can consistently maintain a posterior pelvic tilt during these exercises, return to your squat or deadlift and attempt to incorporate this new approach by focusing on the posterior pelvic tilt to achieve glute engagement and a neutral spine.

Practice contracting your gluteal muscles.

Yes, indeed. If the posterior pelvic tilt technique doesn’t yield satisfactory results, give this a try. “Instead of ‘thrusting’ your hips forward and ‘tucking’ the tailbone, you should practice activating your glutes through an isometric contraction,” advises Timothy Lyman, a certified personal trainer and the director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. “Think about ‘squeezing’ or ‘clenching’ your buttocks together, while keeping your hips stationary. By isometrically contracting the glutes at the top of a squat or deadlift, you will effectively target your glutes, engage your core, and maintain level hips and a secure, neutral position for your spine.”

Master the technique of bracing your core.

If you keep your core stable and immobile during either lift, thrusting your hips forward will become impossible. Here’s how to do it:

  • At the beginning of each repetition, take a deep breath, expanding your belly with a diaphragmatic breath.
  • Then, while holding your breath, retract your navel toward your spine, tensing your abdominal muscles.
  • Do not exhale until you have completed the repetition.
  • Before commencing the next repetition, take another diaphragmatic breath.
    • This is the most effective way to prevent harm when lifting substantial weights because it prevents you from collapsing forward and placing excessive strain on your lower back,” asserts Pignataro.

    Keep it manageable.

    Until you have organized your lifts, there is one guideline to abide by: “Without a doubt, decrease the weight you are utilizing and focus on technique first!” suggests Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., ACE certified health coach, and ISSN sports nutritionist. Not only does correct technique diminish the risk of harm, but it may also prevent your training from stagnating and allow you to lift even heavier. Speaking of which, you may want to catch up on how progressive overload can expedite your workout results.

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