Reflexive Lifting

How To Make Your Neural Reflexes Work With You And Not Against You!

One of my favorite quotes is by Combatives expert Tony Blauer who states,

“An expert is someone who has memorized someone else’s material.”

Sadly, the health and fitness world is a prime example of this. Walk into any college weight room or gym across the country that still allows people to pick up heavy things, and you will see lots of athletes doing the “right” thing, the wrong way.

This is one of the most important lessons that I always try to get across to my athletes and certification attendees; any exercise can be a great exercise, and any exercise can be a terrible exercise – it depends both on what you are doing, and how you are doing it!

For a number of years, we have been teaching concepts and ideas that run counter to the popular culture, and one of these small, but important, concepts involves head and neck position during weight training: especially during the squat and deadlift.

Our typical approach to all athletic activities is to deconstruct them from a neurologic perspective because your nervous system runs the show. Doing so has led us to some very powerful conclusions about proper neck position from both a safety and performance perspective.

To begin, when you look at the multiple pieces of the neurologic puzzle involved in squatting and deadlifting, one thing that cannot be denied is the fact that reflexes play a huge part.  Let’s take a quick look at two different important reflexes, as well as how these apply to enhancing your lifts.

 

The Eyes Have It

In almost all sports, including lifting heavy weights, the eyes play a vital role. While a heavy deadlift doesn’t require much in the way of great vision, it does require great eye position! Let me explain.

The muscles that surround the eyes, called the extraocular muscles, are all innervated by small nerve endings.  These small nerve endings provide propioceptive (body awareness) input to various neuromotor sensors in the spinal cord and the brain. The primary reason for this is that the eyes and the inner ear work together to create balance and stability in virtually all of our movements.

How does this apply to your lifts? It’s quite simple, really. The small nerve endings in the extraocular muscles actually create full body muscular responses to help guide movement. Practically speaking, what this means is that if your eyes are moved up, the small nerve endings in the extraocular muscles facilitate the extensor muscles of the body, creating a simultaneous inhibition of the flexor muscles. Conversely, the eyes down position will create flexor facilitation and extensor inhibition. Put simply, the eyes lead the body.

Please take note at this point that we are talking about eye movements SEPARATE from head movements. You can create these facilitation and inhibition reflexes by moving only your eyes while maintaining a completely neutral spine. Unfortunately, this is not what most lifters do.

When you look at this reflexive pattern closely, you will see that the classic neck hyperextension taught and practiced by many people over the years is a legitimate attempt to take advantage of this reflex. Unfortunately, following the “more must be better” philosophy common to the fitness world, few lifters actually make the differentiation between the eyes and the neck. While looking up to the ceiling does create the desired “eyes up” position and subsequent extensor facilitation, the accompanying neck hyperextension can bring another reflex into play: the arthrokinetic reflex.

The arthrokinetic (arthro = joint, kinetic = motion) reflex is a simple reflex that can have both positive and negative impacts on the body.  The arthrokinetic reflex was initially described by a group of physical therapists who found that mobilizing joints in the spine while strength testing subjects actually created an increase in muscular strength.  We explain this simply to our athletes by saying “mobile joints create stronger muscles”

Conversely, the arthrokinetic reflex also has a protective aspect to it that can negatively impact strength training if you fail to understand it. From a survival standpoint, this reflex is designed to inhibit muscular activity when joints are at risk due to compression. If you take a joint or series of joints (like the neck), compress and then load them, if enough nerve endings are disturbed, a reflexive shutdown effect will occur throughout the body, limiting the available horsepower. This is your body’s attempt to keep you safe from yourself. Just as above, there is a simple way that we describe this aspect to our athletes; “jammed joints create weak muscles.

Keeping this in mind, look at the typical neck postures that most people use when performing a traditional back squat or dead lift. In about 85% of lifters that I have ever observed, you see significant cervical hyperextension in combination with the eyes up position held throughout the lift. If the neck hyperextension is strong enough to invoke the arthrokinetic reflex, the lifter is playing tug of war with himself!

Logically speaking, we want our athletes to use their hard-wired reflexes correctly to enhance their lifts, and prevent negative reflexes from inhibiting their lifts. Based on the above information, there are three distinct things that we teach:

 

Eye Position

Make eye position your first priority. Understand that eyes up = extensor facilitation and that eyes down = flexor facilitation. Depending upon your personal challenges in your lifts, use the correct eye position to facilitate the movement you most need to make. It is important to play with these concepts in a variety of lifts to feel the effects.

Neutral Neck Position

For most athletes, we advocate learning their lifts in a neutral neck position. This is the simplest and safest way, as long as it is combined with eye position, for most athletes to learn. However, there is a third option that some elite lifters can use as long as they understand what they are trying to do.

Neck Extension (not hyperextension) Combined with Axial Extension

Axial extension is a term that, in the spine, means to take the crown of the head and the coccyx or tailbone and move them apart along the long axis of the spine. Think of this as trying to stand as tall as you can without thrusting your chest out or hyperextending your neck. A number of research studies looking at models of the ligamentous and muscular actions of the spine indicate that axial extension stabilizes the spine more than virtually any other activity by increasing activity in the transversospinales muscles. As a result, axial extension is considered by some to be the most stable and safe position for the spine. Obviously, whenever you're going under heavy load during a deadlift or a squat that is exactly what you want.

With practice, it is possible to take advantage of a slight cervical extension, while maintaining axial extension and a correct eye position. This is the best of all possible worlds but it requires work and often hands-on coaching to get it just right.

To begin this process, let’s look at a couple of experimental drills that you can perform to see the power of your reflexes!

Eye Position Deadlift Experiment

Try this drill to see how eye position can increase your pulling power.

  1. Begin in your normal deadlift stance, and grip the bar.
  2. While maintaining a neutral neck position, move your eyes only up to focus midway on the wall in front of you.
  3. As you initiate the pull and move up past your knee toward lockout, your head will track up toward neutral. While this is occurring smoothly shift your eyes up to the ceiling.
  4. Remember that this may feel very weird at first, so practice with very light loads in the beginning to smooth out the eye movements before you up the weight.

Eye Position Kettlebell Swing Experiment

In comparison to the above, here is an experiment that demonstrates the use of the eyes in a ballistic drill. You can use eye position both to facilitate the explosive part of the list, and to facilitate the braking action necessary.

  1. Begin in your normal swing position.
  2. While maintaining a neutral neck position, move your eyes only up to focus midway on the wall in front of you and initiate the swing.
  3. As the bell comes up and you hip snap, allow the eyes to maintain their focus on the midpoint of the wall in a neutral head position.
  4. As the bell starts down, maintain your neutral neck position, while keeping the eyes fixed on the same spot. As the bell drops further, this will naturally move you into an eyes “up” position at the bottom of the swing. This helps facilitate the extensor braking action.
  5. You can also experiment with allowing the eyes to follow the bell at the bottom of the swing if you want to increase the velocity or depth of this portion of the movement. However, from a safety perspective I don’t prefer this for most athletes, unless they already possess exceptional swing technique.

The take away lesson of this article and the drills is that your nervous system is the primary driver of your strength. Learning to take advantage of the beneficial reflexes hard-wired into your body, while minimizing unnecessary protective reflexes, will take the brakes off your strength and performance and help move you closer to your true genetic potential. Most importantly, you can do it safely and healthfully. Give it a try – your body will thank you for it!