Packing in the neck

Dan John Never Let Go

One of the best books I've ever read.

Several weeks ago, I received no fewer than 4 phone calls as a result of Dan John’s Dragon Door seminar (http://danjohn.net/) with the same line of questioning.  The topic was the positioning of the neck during hip hinge lifts such as the DL and KB Swing.  The questions arose since these individuals that I have coached were seeing a completely different approach to optimal cervical position during these lifts.  I teach what I call the neck “packed”, which is strong cervical retrusion with capital flexion.  It basically looks like you are making an unattractive double chin and feeling a lot of pressure in the cervical spine.

Indeed Coach John teaches, as many other elite Olympic Lifting coaches and RKCs do as well, protruding the neck as if to “look out to the horizon.”  I rewatched his Kettlebell and Olympic Lifting videos, and the message is very consistent to basically be the exact opposite of what I’m suggesting.

Now I could show a bunch of picture of elite guys in all the lifts demonstrating both of these techniques/positions in the lifts.  For every one showing one, there will be another picture showing the other.  Rather than get into, well “this guy” does it, so it must be okay, a never ending foray, I am fairly confident that I can explain why it’s valuable to keep the neck in the “packed” position.  What I struggle with is when this information is provided, there is not a point counter-point for looking out at the horizon.  What I can not accept is “We don’t see a problem.”  “We don’t see a problem” is getting to seem more and more as a translation to “Wow, you’re totally right, but I don’t want to change what I’m doing.”

I’m going to try to tell you why my way is good with anecdotal results and soft science.  Usually the retort is just anecdotal results.  I’d like to hear why I’m wrong, or why what I’m saying doesn’t matter.

We don't see a problem? Either you're not looking in the right place, or you just haven't seen a problem.........yet.

Thomas Phillips, a Senior RKC, myself, and Steve Pucciarelli @ Fit For Like in Marlboro, NJ have worked on this neck technique for at least a year, and in fact, this is not just a safety issue.  It’s a safety issue and performance issue.  Spinal stabilization as I will describe in a few ways below not only allows for a healthy buttress of the core, but that in turn allows for more hip mobility and in turn a more free expression of powerful hip extension.  It’s never a coincidence that the positions of integrity are also the positions that make a monster.  I believe Tom has expressed these same thoughts to the RKC crowd for some time.

Some things to consider (from a post on StrengthCoach.com).

1.  The neck must always demonstrate physiological range of motion: flexion, extension, rotation, side bending.  But when considering an aggressive hip hinge like the Swing or DL, there is 1 long spine.  We hear long spine, tall spine very often as a global cue in how to set the core.  When you consider the spine as 1 entity, 1 chain of links with regions that are easier to move than others, we should consider that whatever happens in one of those areas will be compensated or met with a similar position elsewhere.  Basically what I’m saying is whatever happens in the neck is going to happen in the lumbar spine.

And if you saw someone Swing or DL with a hyper-lordosis, you would probably correct it.  Well, hyper-lordosis in the neck is the same thing as I see it.  And what feels like neutral or natural for most people is probably hyper-lordosis.  Almost all of us are always in some level of anterior tilt in the pelvis and cervical spine.  This anterior tilt creates bony approximation, and that bony approximation tells the brain, “Hey, we’re good down here.  We have stability from bones being closer togther.  We don’t need any inner core.  You guys can take a break.”

Think of the natural curves of the spine.  They are the way they are to balance other and resists compression and accomodate shear.  The spine is a pogo stick so when forces travel up from the floor, there is a springed attenuation.

If you increase the curve up at the neck with extension, that natural compensation is 1) maintain the anti-compressive spring and 2) increase the curves at the lumbar spine and thoracic spine to balance out the weight shift.

So if you look out at the horizon, you are DEstabilizing the neck, and that will trickle down to the lumbar spine.  There may not visually appear to be a correction required, but this is the makings of a high-threshold strategy.

Look down. I'm tellin' ya.

2.  This 2nd point is a more lay approach.  Try this little experiment.  Stand firmly with a long spine and chin tucked hard.  Do this up against a wall and try to wiggle your head as high as you can.  You will be in the neck position I want.  And by the way, if you try stretching the hip flexor in 1/2 kneeling with this neck position, you’ll be more of a believer.

Now brace the lumbar spine as you see fit.  Have someone shove you while you try to hold your ground.  You will feel strong and stiff.

Now let your neck go relaxed.  Brace again, but keep the neck relaxed and just let it extend a little bit.  Trust your partner to shove you again with the same exact force.  Take a 3rd shove with your neck extended at the same angle where it would be looking at the horizon.  You will not take the shove as well as you did with the neck packed.

So if you are weaker with neck extended in standing, why would you want your neck extended in the gorilla position or in the hole of a hip-snap when you need stability and integrity the most?

Mahler has his head down. It's really just neutral.

3.  Allowing the neck out of centration in a dynamic stability effort inhibits the deep neck flexors.  The SCM and scalenes should be secondary stabilizers as their role and development phylogenetically are not to hold the neck still, but rather allow for fast twitch rotation or motion when necessary to detect of avoid danger.  Inhibiting the deep neck flexors is a HUGE mistake as then the reflexive core of diaphragm, multifidus, TA, pelvic floor will also be inhibited.  This is quite evidence-based.

This doesn’t mean these muscles don’t turn on.  It means they are inhibited and have a delayed pattern of activation.  This is Hodges, Kolar, Dalcourt, many others, and I think Gray and Kyle would say the same as well.  Without the primary tonic stabilizers timed well, the body goes to a high threshold and form closure through L5-S1.  This is what I described above from a different point of view.

Decentration of the neck can also foster scapular instability.  With the neck poorly stabilized, the T-spine approximates ever so slightly into flexion, and the scaps ride up a little big, and the lower trap is inhibited.  Yes, I believe this all comes from letting your neck slide back a little bit.  It does matter.  It does.

Do not ignore these. This is where the parachute starts.

4.  Try another experiment.  Lock neck back the way I want you to.   Take a few deep breaths without losing the neck.  Now try with the neck extended.  I don’t think many people will honestly say it feels the same.  The breath will be bigger and less tensioned with the neck packed.

When you keep the neck packed, with practice the hinge will be more natural, just like when you use the dowel with the MRE/LRF hand hold position.  We try to correct the hip hinge with this neck position, the neck position when you can breath more freely and classic, and then give it away when you add load?  Also if you keep the neck packed, the bell swings towards the private area as desired.  The gravity towards the “squat swing” is greatly diminished.

Single Leg Hip Hinge

THANK YOU!

You can try this position in pushups, planks, chops/lifts, ASLR.  You will find that the technique like ASLR improves greatly, or the pushup becomes much harder.  Many will suggest this neck position limits power production, and I agree……..in the beginning.  It will take practice to remodel the motor plan that is grounded in strength and speed.  Teaching this neck technique for a novice lifter will get them out of it much quicker.  The fact of the matter is that Tom and I have gotten PRs with our people in NJ after months of this position in the Squat and DL.

If you can breath easier amidst an awesome expression of stability and strength, there is a harness on a power source not accessible without the packed neck.  The more neuromuscular and biomechanical reasons are the same as above.

5.  Pulling the neck into retrustion or a tight glute squeeze is posterior pelvic tilting, not an end-range posterior pelvic tilt.  There is no reversal of the curve.  It’s actually bringing the pelvis and neck into neutral since I think most if not all of us hang in the -crossed pattern(s) to some degree.  This is where we get the common dull neck or low back soreness that even the most fit folks have.  It’s a very low level of bony approximation to “hang” on our postures.

When you consider packing the neck or squeezing the but, it goes back even to the stabilization protocols of Robin McKenzie in locking up the lower c-spine and fostering some upper cervical (capital) motion above C4.  This is the Joint by Joint in motion.  This integrity is tampered with even with a little extension.

What are the chances this guy does swings with his neck like this? What are the chances this guy does swings?

6.  If you go back to that little shoving experiment, you can say the reason you lose stability is from the loss of vestibular input from a loss of vision.  You are correct.  But this loss of vestibulo-ocular (or spino-ocular) reflex can be restored with eye movement.

Instead of the neck moving into flexion and extension, the eyes follow the hip hinge.  Oral-facial drivers are enormous generators of hidden strength.  The eyes drive downwards on the descent of a squat or Swing, and they look up to the ceiling on the ascent.

Again, it is very, very hard to break into the firm motor patterns of such moves as Swings and O-Lifts, but the eye movements are worth huge firepower and tie in to everything else that I am talking about in terms of spinal stability.

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50 Responses to “Packing in the neck”

  1. Nuno Gusmao says:

    Great comment. Thanks for sharing

  2. Simon says:

    Great post, thanks Charlie.

    Couple of questions. You mention that a tight glute squeeze can help correct what tends to be excessive anterior tilt at the top of the swing, but I find that my excessive lordosis is higher up in the lumbar spine, and that a tight glute squeeze brings my lower lumbar vertebrae almost into a position of flexion. What do you suggest in these cases? What about the few people who actually start in posterior pelvic tilt. I recall reading in Sahrmann that you have to be careful in squeezing the glutes with the flexion intolerant because it can reverse the curve, and this seems to be what I’m experiencing. Thanks.

  3. Simon says:

    Also, looking through the Page Janda book, there seems to be the type B lower crossed posture with hypolordosis. Another place to be wary of the glute squeeze?

  4. Charlie says:

    Simon – I don’t recall writing about a tight glute squeeze in the top of the Swing.
    And if a posterior pelvic tilt brings you to pain, it must be avoided at all costs.
    The hypolordotic lower-crossed should not be doing DLs or Swings anyway as they will likely have 1′s in ASLR.

  5. Simon says:

    Thanks. Amateur thoughts here obviously-appreciate you putting up with it.

  6. Bruce Kelly says:

    Charlie,
    Bottom line, I assume, is that you prefer the neckduring the swing in neutral as opposed to extended at the finish or top of the swing.

  7. Charlie says:

    Neutral at all times of a stability move.
    Following the spine in a mobility move.

  8. Chris Brown says:

    Charlie — in individuals with past Cervical issues/herniations, would your recommendations change? Put another way, is there ever a “wrong time” to teach this strategy…even if not with mobility moves like squat,DL,swing?

  9. Charlie says:

    Yes, if there is history or current pain, this must be assessed. Often this position is palliative to a posterior derangement, but I would not recommend trying to mess with something that you’re not sure about.

  10. Mark McGrath says:

    Hi Charlie,
    What you are suggesting was also the finding of FM Alexander who founded the Alexander Technique, which is popular with dancers, singers and theatre performers. His basic finding and instruction was that the head/neck should be ‘forward and up’
    The interpretation of this is very important, the up, is the up of the entire body in the field of gravity and the forward, is forward rotation of the head on the occipital condyles. This is primarily because the front of the head is heavier than the back, and this is the balanced position of the head, unless we are holding it habitually in another position using tension.
    Your points on the lumbar and cervical curves being a mirror to each other is also my experiential finding. When you ask someone to sit in a chair and keep an upward force at the level of the occiput, so that they cannot go into hyperlordosis, their dynamic range is halved. This also why they dont have the range in their triceps surae.
    Thanks,
    Mark

  11. Charlie says:

    Mark – Sounds like you and this Alexander fellow are smart cookies.

  12. great post Charlie! This is something I’ve really messed with and thought about with regards to sprinting (particularly the start). The head should be neutral, or maybe slightly down and then the as the body onfolds during the acceleration phase, it brings the head with it.

    Interstingly, in some footage of Ben Johnson during the 80′s, he had his head really craned/extended at the top of his start position..maybe he could have gone even faster had he used a more nuetral head position!!

  13. Charlie says:

    I am just talking about lifting, but yes, I would expect a sprinter’s start to improve with a neutral neck.
    But I can’t imagine they are going to focusing on it as the movement becomes fluid.

  14. Colin says:

    Charlie

    I did a kettlebell seminar with Steve Cotter a while ago and he taught the cue ‘follow the kettlebell with your eyes’ when doing the swing. I think this is a pretty good recommendation although you do loose sight of the bell briefly at the end point through the legs.

    Regards
    Colin

  15. Tristan says:

    Fascinating post as always I can not wait to try out “packing” my next next time I do swings. I never considered the importance of the cervical spine in regards to lumbar stability, but the way you explained and systematically broke it down all made sense.

  16. Charlie says:

    Tristan – Looking forward to hearing what you think. I know when I do it, it makes a huge difference.

  17. Jason says:

    Mark,
    What did you mean by the triceps surae comment. I’m not very familiar with the Alexander technique.

    Thanks
    Jason

  18. Charlie, some of this confuses me, particularly in #3. C-spine neutral, head in retrusion, fine. But what does “letting your neck slide back” mean? Extension?

    Then right before that you talk about the role of the SCM and scalenes “…to detect of avoid danger. Inhibiting the deep neck flexors.” I think the startle reflex is to retract the head, the opposite of the action of
    the SCMs, at least in bilateral contraction.

    By deliberately putting the head in retrusion the other physiological elements of the startle reaction should be stimulated, which is maybe good for weight lifting. This seems to relate to your comments about the diaphragm, pelvic floor, etc.

    The kinesiology of compound movement of the head and C-spine is a bit beyond my expertise, so I well further explanation of the topic. The basic advice of packing the neck sounds great though, and I’m already an anti-protusion zealot.
    Thanks,
    Steven

  19. Tristan says:

    Charlie,

    I could definitely could feel a difference in my swings There was much less “squat” and more “swing.” For somebody who has suffered through chronic lower back pain in the past every little thing that contributes to spinal stability and cementing the hip hinge is of great interest to me.

    Thanks,
    Tristan

  20. Charlie says:

    Steven – Let me see if I catch everything.

    1. Sliding the head back, yes, is in a general description extension. I appreciate the confusion as this letting the chin push forward.

    2. Please don’t get caught up in the startle reflex. That is a primitive posture at points in which sensory input is not able to be integrated. It is a necessary and positive reaction. But when you can sense danger, you can attempt to gain a visual on it to improve your reaction without a startle response. The faster man could turn his head to see the rhino coming at him, the faster he could get out of the way. He turned fast because he sensed, heard, smelled, felt, the rhino approaching.

    3. Please access the gravity to this message because it makes sense and it works. Please don’t only use it to support what you “think you already thought.” We must not look for support for what we think. We must let the support decide for us what to think.

  21. Charlie says:

    Tristan – I knew you were okay with me.

  22. Don Reagan says:

    Excellent thoughts and rationale!

    I have considered this topic a great deal since learning about sub-cranial/cervical posture in rehab and still being a lifter. I took one TMJ course in PT school, and cervical posture was intimately connected to sub-cranial/cervical posture. The more forward the head, the more the TMJ wants to rest in a static open position. I have noticed at the elite level in O lifting that some lifters will begin the first pull with there mouths wide open and head forward i.e. Natalie Woolfolk. I would like to know your thoughts on occlusion while lifting and its effect on performance?

    Below is an NSCA article that demonstrated increased RFD during the counter movement jump with the use of a mouthguard (I have the full text but I don’t know of any other way to provide the article in this format):

    JAW CLENCHING RESULTS IN CONCURRENT
    ACTIVATION POTENTIATION DURING THE
    COUNTERMOVEMENT JUMP
    WILLIAM P. EBBEN,1 EAMONN P. FLANAGAN,2 AND RANDALL L. JENSEN3

  23. Charlie says:

    I haven’t considered the TMJ specifically, but the DNS methodology that I really believe in would suggest that any decentrated joint will cause a compensation elsewhere in the body.

    The TMJ is interesting as it would not always correlate to an open mouth oralfacial driver.

    I will ask around. Good thought.

  24. Brian Bott says:

    Charlie,
    Do you think guys that are getting a grand to IPF depth are achieving this.. (avoiding hyperlordosis specifically) Or are mostly achieveing the “false” stability of the approximations. Is that bone on bone stability ever necessary in a limit lift such as that? Is it ALWAYS to be avoided?

  25. Charlie says:

    For any weight, I think this strategy can help you get down with yes, some “fake” stability. But they would be able to get down anyway. If the hips can get there, they can get there with any stability strategy.
    This isn’t a literal bone on bone situation, even though it can be. The approximation of the bony segments is the problem, and this is a “shut off” valve for reflexive core stability. Yes, this should always be avoided except when you are in flight or fight. And if that means an ME lift, then that’s fine. It’s okay to break the rules when you know all the rules to begin with.

    CW

  26. Reggie Townsend says:

    Charlie,

    In the following post and video link, Eric Cressey demonstrates a drill supposedly aimed at the DNF’s.

    http://ericcressey.com/strategies-for-correcting-bad-posture

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pkd26tLVop0&feature=player_embedded

    The context given is one in which correcting posture is a primary aim. Since the description suggests performing the drill for 5-6 reps, it would seem to fall under the umbrella of repetitive movement, as opposed to merely demonstrating the capacity to move through that ROM. Assuming mobility in the t-spine and c-spine regions was an issue, I can understand that this sort of movement “for reps” is acceptable, given that context.

    My question is if the drill, as shown in the video, should be excluded from daily practice and/or training prep once full mobility (if able to be achieved at all) is present. Alternatively would it be preferable at that point to leave in a modified version focusing only on neck packing from the quadruped position without performing that initial chin protrusion and neck flexion, or would packing the neck during deadlifts, swings, etc. circumvent any need for packing the neck in an isolated drill from quadruped?

    My understanding, albeit somewhat limited and crude, is that drills involving any flexion of the spine, whether it be as shown in the link above or in something like a “cat-camel” would only have a place for repetition (as opposed to merely being able to demonstrate the movement and range if called upon to do so) in situations where there is a noted mobility deficit (if even indicated then) and ceased once mobility is restored, to be reintroduced only in the event that you notice a backslide in capacity at some later point in time. Am I completely confused on this matter?

  27. Charlie says:

    Reggie – I think your question boils down to “Can you have enough of a good thing?”

    So that being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to hammer home a key piece to the puzzle you are looking for. I probably wouldn’t stick with the excellent quadruped choice, but if I felt it was in cards, I would add the diagonal patterns.

    Basically all stability moves hold this neutral neck position, so you are getting it during the whole training session. So my inclination is yes, to abandon it as an isolated corrective approach.

  28. Peter Fabian says:

    Great points by everyone
    I find that cervical retrusion that many do–is over driven by their capital flexion–there is some feedback needed–quadraped cervical retrusion that includes posterior movement of the upper T/S that is linked to the proper scapular position seems helpful in those that are weak in activating the lower neck–often there is a big mobility issue here in the lower neck not being able to move posterior–a translation like movement (generally stiff in side bending too)

  29. Woo-chae Yoon says:

    Great point.
    Whenever I praticed swing, DL, I had confused C-spine position.
    This article help to resolve my big problem.

  30. Brock says:

    Hi Charlie, I know I’m quite late to the party here, but I did enjoy the article. I do have a question, though. In Supertraining, if I remember correctly, Siff says that keeping the head up during the hip hinge movement keeps the low back tight, and dropping the head will reflexively make the low back relax. Is that just incorrect (or perhaps I’m remembering it incorrectly)?

  31. Charlie says:

    Brock – If that is what Siff has said, I disagree.
    I do agree that the low back will stiffen, but that stiffness is from lumbar approximation, not active core musculature butressing the cylinder.

    At some point Siff knew better than his predecessors.

  32. David Jensen says:

    I stopped looking out at the horizon, packed my neck, and I did feel more power in the explosion phase of the OL’s. The problem was I was missing lifts right and left. I’ll keep doing it though. My lifts have been stagnant for 2 years. I have nothing to lose.

  33. Charlie says:

    Not really sure what you mean right to left in terms of the swing.

  34. Rees says:

    Really enjoyed and appreciate this post.

  35. Great post Charlie! I work hard on this in physical therapy with my lifters and those of all ages and sports too! One other thing I like is to apply the little anatomy trains approach – Thomas Myers teaches how the suboccipitals create tension with any eye movement – even when our eyes are closed – I then expand on the linking of looking into the horizon closes down these muscles and then the erectors of the lumbar spine as you said. So I have everyone close their eyes, place there hands on their suboccipitals and look side to side and up and down, and they finallly believe me! haha

  36. Charlie says:

    Great work, Lauren. This topic is either 100% agree or diagree it seems.

  37. Marc says:

    Hi Charlie,

    This a great post. Do you pack in the neck when you do chin-ups and pull-ups? I see a lot of lifters going into extreme cervical extension when doing chin-ups or pull-ups.

    Thanks,

    Marc

  38. Christopher says:

    Brilliant.

    Thank YOU!

  39. Charlie says:

    Yeah, I would call out the neck extension on the pull-up. It’s a momentum-gaining thing, but it’s repetition I believe will weaken the core.

  40. Phil says:

    Charlie,

    In point #6 of this article you talk about the eyes looking down on the descent of a squat (or swing) and up to the ceiling on the ascent. Does this mean that you shouldn’t fix on a point when squatting, or does this mean that you should fix on a point around chest level (so you’re technically looking down on the initial set-up, but end up looking up when you drop down)?

  41. Charlie says:

    Eyes up will facilitate extension, which is part of why people extend the neck. It takes the eyes with it, and you gain the vestibular advantage, but at the expense of core stability via reactive muscle.

    So in the squat or swing, the neck stays still, the eyes go down as you drop down, and the eyes fix on something above the head on the way up.

  42. ryan says:

    Good post. Packing the neck makes 100% SENSE. Not only do I feel stronger and more strong, I also will say that I don’t have ANY follow up neck pain post workout. Agree, neck pack. :)

  43. Jordan Noffey says:

    Charlie, I was wondering if you could you could give the link to the evidence supporting the cervical spine posture and the inhibition of the core musculature?

  44. trayl says:

    just been watching some you tube clips of michael jhonson 400m world record .He has the most packed neck i have ever seen.I am pretty sure that is a natural posture nobody told him to to pack his neck like that.

  45. Charlie says:

    trayl – This is because strong and fast people do the right things naturally to be strong and fast.

    Jordan – I have no link. It is transitory literature at best. This says this which says this, and so on.
    If the c-spine extends, the rib cage advances anteriorly changing the punctum fixum of the diaphragm. This is the literature supported and it has all fancy words in the PRI nomenclature.

  46. trayl says:

    Quite right Charlie all the fellows behind him have their eyes to the heavens and no sign of a gold medal.Ever since reading this article a couple of monthes ago i have my clients with locked up CT junctions and pain with cervical extension to pack the neck up against a wall and belly breathe i believe it has cured many of them from chronic neck pain by improving T spine mobility.Great article

  47. Rick Kaselj says:

    You hit on the spot Charlie. This article is exactly what I need. Thanks for sharing.

    I always look forward in reading your blogs.

    Rick Kaselj

  48. Charlie,
    I believe that a natural tucked neck position during kettlebell swing, like one Steve Cotter is teaching and Mike Mahler demonstrates on a picture above corresponds to a traditional Russian style of Girevoy Sport, as opposed to RKC style invented by Pavel Tsatsouline. GS style allows for more efficient swings which could last longer time.

  49. Charlie says:

    I have no formal training in GS, but the Hardstyle swing is taught with a gaze of 6ft in front of you. For many people, this is the neutral position.

  50. Eric says:

    Interestingly enough (and also not suprisingly), my other favourite “doctor of PT” also thinks along the same line as what you presented here (around 7:40; the rest of the video is also worthwhile of course…).

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