Is it dangerous to look up while lifting?

In the past decade (or two) there as been a growing debate of whether or not someone should have their chin up or down while lifting. This is mostly related to the topic of lifting weights off the ground (deadlifts, snatches, cleans, etc.) and squatting movements.

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There are a vast array of arguments made against lifting your chin, most of which when you take a moment to really think about have some big flaws. Let’s just consider some of the more common ones made (particularly recently):

1. Just because someone who is really strong does it, doesn’t mean the “average” person should.

  • At face value this seems like a reasonable point to make. It is good advice as a general statement, but when we put it to this topic specifically it falls apart quickly.

  • Just because someone does something who is strong, doesn’t mean the average person shouldn’t do it either. People at high levels do all sorts of good and bad things, making an argument that uses this is quite weak as it isn’t based on anything of substance.

2. It isn’t “good movement.”

  • Do you mind telling me how you define good movement? I understand from a perspective of lifting the most weight, throwing the fastest pitch, getting the maximum amount of velocity in a stride, we can structure something that is generally optimal for those things. However, when we discuss general lifting (which most people who make this argument are gearing it towards) then we have less of a defined “good movement” and instead have a vague gray zone instead of a black and white dichotomy (what do I know, I just read scientific evidence on topics before speaking about them).

3. Just because someone lifts big weights doesn’t mean its through the most efficient way

  • Oh man this one is a big topic. Efficient technique is not as clear as we believe. People have so many unique characteristics that can develop over time and it for many it is less about “form” and more about preparation to handle positions.

  • This lady took silver at the London Olympics. This is generally consider crap form for running, yet she did amazing with it. Is it possible that she could run faster with technique changes? Perhaps, but she could also run worse. This is a common thing with baseball pitching as well where we see a huge variation in styles. Changing their mechanics to “more efficient” ways may not help at all, and may back fire.

4. We don’t know what individuals who look up while lifting will look like or feel like in their later years.

  • Hmmm well recorded weightlifting in the current style of Olympics has been around since 1896, so I’d assume people who competed back then would be considered later years and they definitely were looking up.

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  • I cannot verify this is actually from 1896, but this image shows classic weightlifting singlets, so it for sure is very odd at least (old enough this person would be “elderly” now).

  • In fact, they did tons of things back then that we currently perceive to be dangerous (perceive, not necessarily are actually dangerous)

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  • The first thing we should discuss is that making a statement like this insinuates looking up is causative of neck injuries – which is not supported by any evidence and if anything would be challenged by our plethora of evidence against resting posture being causative of injury.

  • If we were worried about any joints being injured from lifting activities, looking up hurting the neck is a pretty unlikely one to be concerned about.

Image - Raske A, Norlin R. Injury incidence and prevalence among elite weight and power lifters. Am J Sports Med. 2002;30(2):248-256.

  • Looking at the data around injuries of powerlifters and weightlifters, the neck has an incredibly low injury rating.

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  • As well, the relative stress on the neck compared to something like whiplash – which does not demonstrate leaving individuals with long term injuries or leave the people at risk of spinal degeneration – is much lower.

  • Radanov BP, Sturzenegger M, Distefano G. Long-term outcome after whiplash injury. A 2-year follow up considering features of injury mechanism and somatic, radiologic, and psychosocial findings. Medicine. 1995;74(5):281-297.

5. Taking a joint close to its end range (especially under load) is a bad idea.

  • Interesting idea, so should we then also stop locking out on the bench press (elbows at full extension), standing up lunges (knees going to full extension), or stepping back into a deep lunge while maintaining torso angle (taking hip to end range extension). These are things people would not likely argue against as we know these do not hold any actual risk of injury.

  • Taking a joint to its end range is no more inherently dangerous than mid range. Choosing to overload any joint at any range is a risk, if it cannot handle the load then injury risk is higher. However, the cervical spine isn’t under much load just because you extend it (nor is load a bad thing – its how we get stronger).

6. “Not all “look ups” are coming from the same place – and some will certainly create more pathology than others.”

  • I hesitated from direct quoting up until this point but this needs to be directly addressed. This is a great example of when someone with a bit of knowledge decides to speak on topics that the individual doesn’t know as well as he/she believes and stretches beyond their scope. To the author, please tell us how exactly are “look ups” different and why that matters to this specific topic. As well, please elaborate to us what pathologies are created by looking up (especially in the context of looking up during lifting).

7. The levator scapulae is a downward rotator of the scapula and gets shortened during cervical extension.

  • Well this argument is primarily based towards the biomechanics of lifting, which as I mentioned prior would relate mostly to lifting the most possible and not pain/pathology. However, there is still some problems with this statement relating to weightlifting.

  • Upward rotation (opposite of downward rotation) is generally something we want when we bring the arm above the head – such as the receiving position of a snatch. The levator scapulae performs downward rotation, which could possibly pose a small challenge to this. However, the majority of people who are in cervical extension are doing so when the bar is below their head line. It is pretty rare to find someone performing a snatch and looking up to the bar. In the sport of weightlifting, individuals are generally taught to find a fixed point and focus on that during the lift, so their eye line wouldn’t change. Contrastingly, the torso is initially in a bent over position to start the lift – which puts the neck in cervical extension (beyond neutral). As the lift proceeds this relation changes progressively and the neck returns to its more neutral state.

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  • In the situation we are discussing something more like a lower level individual’s receiving position who cannot get into what we would deem optimal – such as being very bent over in the overhead snatch – then this would relate to being in cervical extension with the bar above the head. Unfortunately this is still a fairly weak argument as we know from the literature examining scapular dyskinesis that the relative amount of upward rotation doesn’t cause whether the person will have pain or pathology.

  • I’d still argue that being in cervical extension plays such a little role that if that’s the reason you think you cannot achieve a good position for the overhead squat, you’ve likely ignored some really big things.

8. By going into cervical extension you shorten your sternocleidomastoid – “which is one of the biggest muscular contributors to headaches”

  • No

  • I’d like to leave it at that, but I should expand upon it. In simplest terms, this is unsubstantiated. Firstly, going into cervical extension for a short period of time is no more challenging to the length of a muscle than bending your elbow for a short period of time – which are these people advising against those types of motions? Secondly, there are tons of types of headaches and only a few are considered to have a muscular link. In those cases, the sternocleidomastoid is not specifically able to pointed to as the reason for that.

  • Martin PR, Mathews AM. Tension headaches: psychophysiological investigation and treatment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 1978; 22(5): 389-399.

Now if you’re someone who thinks that individuals shouldn’t look up when they lift, please (seriously), send me evidence of why. I’m always open to changing my stance if given the appropriate evidence to do so. I once believed this same information and taught all people to “pack their neck” but have shifted away. Currently my stance is based on the evidence I have seen on the topic and believe that for any person pursuing weightlifting (the sport), he/she should look up, whereas for any other person, do whatever is comfortable and helps you learn the lift better. Some people can learn to hinge better by having their chin tucked, that is a valuable tool to learn in then. However, arbitrarily making people pack their chin is like saying everyone has to pull deadlifts with a straight bar from the floor (it doesn’t make sense).

I’ll likely get a lot of mixed reviews from this, which is not my goal. My goal is to help spur thought to both sides of the argument and help individuals have a more critical approach to their decision making – especially those people who have a large following. A lot of people may think this discussion is stupid and not worth our time (much like my burpee article), but the thing people who make this statement don’t realize is that we have a lot of evidence to show making statements like this can cause serious effects to people and have a highly fear mongering effect. It may not be intended to do so, but that doesn’t change that it does. If you are a coach/clinician or any person who speaks out, it is your due diligence to not spread misinformation and do a good service to the people who follow you (at least in my belief system – but I am a Canadian do-gooder).

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