By: CJ Gotcher, SSC
From day one with a new lifter, I tell them to look at a spot on the ground 5-ish feet in front of them, and once we’ve found the correct gaze that gets the head neutral in the bottom of the squat, “eyes” and “spot” become the cue for the lifter to refocus and look at that point. This eye direction is part of the Starting Strength teaching progression, and it’s one element many people struggle to understand.
If we’re trying to go up, why would we look down?
First, in our teaching progression, we start by teaching people the movement without a barbell. Unfortunately, without a weight, there are a wide range of possible positions that will keep the lifter in balance, at depth, with their back in the right place, and we want to teach them the back angle they will best lift heavy weights with. The eye gaze is an elegant solution. By setting the lifter to a point where the imaginary bar is approximately over the midfoot and adjusting the head until it’s neutral at the bottom (5 feet is just a ballpark figure), we have given the lifter visual feedback they can use to find that correct back angle.
More importantly, though, we want to keep the hips and shoulders moving up together out of the hole.
When most new lifters look up, they lift the chest early and the body compensates by bringing the knees forward slightly to keep the weight over the middle of the foot. This is a natural reaction because the cervical spine (the neck) is connected to the thoracic spine (the upper back). However, when the knees go forward, even a little bit, the quads (which are already working their asses off) have to produce more force. Bar speed tanks. The lift feels like death.
It seems simple, then. If looking up brings the chest up too early, just don’t look up. This begs the question: why do some strong squatters look up, usually to horizon but sometimes even higher, when they squat?
Oftentimes, these lifters are front squatting or high bar squatting with limb lengths that favors a more-vertical back angle. In such a case, I would expect the lifter’s eyes to be up at horizon and the exact position will matter less since their head is nearly neutral at horizon anyway. It’s also common to see lifters who are just phenomenally strong, and despite their chest raising slightly, and bar speed visually slowing down, they power through.
Even so, there are some skilled lifters doing low bar squats who can execute excellent hip drive with their eyes up. If someone has an otherwise excellent squat and looks up into the rafters, do we have to fix it? Maybe.
I almost hesitate to mention this because it’s not as big a deal as it sounds, but I think there is a slightly increased risk of injury from looking up, especially in jerking the head up as you drive out of the hole. The spine is meant to extend. We do it all the time without injury, and some have argued that because the barbell is below the neck, the cervical spine isn’t under load and the head position shouldn’t matter. Maybe normally, that would be true, but under a load, things below the spine have an impact upstream.
Specifically, when the weight gets heavy, the traps contract to tighten the supporting frame of the upper back. However, the upper traps connect at the base of the back of the skull. When you reach your neck to look back, there isn’t much pressure on the cervical vertebrae or the muscles surrounding it. If you crunch your neck to do so (think thrusting the chin forward instead of up, which is what we tend to do under the bar), you probably feel discomfort as you reach your end-range-of-motion. Combine that with the downward pull of the contracted traps (especially if you’re ‘whipping’ the neck back in the lift) and you risk going beyond that range and causing injury.
I (sadly) have personal experience giving myself mild neck sprains with pullups and deadlifts during my first 2 years of ‘getting after it,’ and the mechanism was the same: craning the neck with contracted traps.
All that being said, I still hesitate to mention it. First, it’s a minor issue. I’ve never heard of a ruptured cervical disk from squatting. Mostly we’re looking at sprains and strains and, yes, they will definitely put a damper on your dance card for a few days, but you can train through them.
Second, debating this point back and forth, a great question keeps coming up: what does a ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’ head position look like? We know when we’re looking at something that’s just ugly, and most coaches can agree on what neutral looks like (mostly), but when does it become excessive? It’s one of those fuzzy areas- “I know it when I see it”- and that’s just not convincing.
In the end, can I tell you confidently that your neck position will hurt you or that it’ll derail your training? Not confidently. Still, as a coach, I will teach all of my beginner lifters to look down when they squat and emphasize hip drive because among beginners, the reflex is almost universal. If I’m working with an experienced/strong lifter who’s been looking up for years and has excellent hip drive, I’ll work at getting them to lower their gaze, but it’ll be lower on the priority list of issues to correct.
Finally, a disclaimer: if you experience particularly severe neck pain, tingling or numbness in the arms or extremities associated with neck pain, or painful neck stiffness beyond 2 or 3 days after exercise, I recommend you see a doctor.