Neutral Spines in Training vs Strongman and Powerlifting

I've been in and seen quite a few conversations about the importance of a neutral spine since starting my strongman training.

Almost everywhere you look, listen, and read, everything is telling us to never ever forget how important it is to keep your spine neutral in everything that you do. Everything. Always. And if you decide to bend that back, or accidentally bend at the stomach, your discs erupt into flame and your skull crashed down through your torso right onto your pelvis.

Standard squat diagram from Starting Strength

As I got into powerlifting, I started seeing variations on this known fact that would make internet gurus totally lose their shit. Namely, the curved thoracic during deadlifts and arched backs in bench pressing.

Left: flat lumbar and curved thoracic. Right: neutral spine. 

Then I got into strongman and you start seeing even more egregious examples of lifting and moving with non-neutral spines. In fact, a curved spine is built into the technique.

Pretty much every step of loading a stone involves a non-traditional spinal position.

Then after a instructional in service at San Francisco CrossFit with the other coaches, I got to talking to Nate Helming about using these moves to teach body position for other athletes. His question was, could we start with these types of moves on novice athletes to get them more aware of their body positions quicker than with traditional moves.

Global arches as seen in stone loading and pose running.

All of this has had me thinking a lot about it.

The final conclusion I came to is pretty simple. When you see a novice lifter round his or her back, it's usually a sign of the athlete lacking strength or proprioception for the movement. When an advanced athlete rounds his or her back, it's usually after years of training in a classical way, having learned body control in a number of movements.

Also, advanced athletes know how to brace under load and have pushed themselves to physical limits. They know those limits, how to approach them and when to back off. Advanced athletes have probably experienced their share of tweaks, soreness, and perhaps even serious injuries, so they know the warnings signs and when to stop pushing.

Slightly twisted under load, but progressively trained to do so, and definitely braced.

I personally wouldn't feel comfortable teaching these movements in any serious capacity to new athletes. Perhaps it's because I'm not a seasoned strongman coach, but I would not be able to tell if a new athlete is rounding their back because it's part of the technique or because they can't feel the difference between a hip hinge and "melting" down to reach an object on the ground.

So when someone online tries to get on a pedestal about rounded thoracic spines and hunched positions, generally I know they don't know what they are talking about. But with an athlete who hasn't yet hit a bodyweight squat, I'm not going to be teaching it either.