Home Blog Strength Training Programs and Squat Technique: To Arch or Not to Arch?

Strength Training Programs and Squat Technique: To Arch or Not to Arch?

Written on January 14, 2011 at 7:17 am, by Eric Cressey

Q: I’m confused about when I should arch.  I was re-reading some of your older articles, and noticed that in the Neanderthal No More series, you and Mike Robertson advocate posteriorly tilting the pelvis while performing some core exercises, yet when it comes to performing squat and deadlift technique, you encourage people to maintain the arch.

My back tightens up a lot when I arch strongly, but if I just bend over to touch my toes in flexion, it doesn’t bother me at all.

1.  Could it be possible that I am arching too much during everyday movements and strength exercises?

2.  What really constitutes a neutral spine?  Is it different for each person?

3.  When is it (if ever) appropriate to have a flat spine?

A: The main thing to consider – at least in my experience – is whether there is compressive loading on the spine. In compression, you want an arch – or at the very least, the natural curve of your lumbar spine.  The discs simply don’t handle compression well when the spine is in flexion (or flat).  We do more of the posterior pelvic tilt stuff when you are on your back (glute brides, as the glutes posteriorly tilt the pelvis) or on your stomach (if you arch, you’re slipping into hyperextension, which defeats the purpose of trying to resist gravity as it pushes you down to the floor).

Bending over is a LOT different than squatting and deadlifting (and comparable strength exercises).  When you add load, the game changes.  Cappozzo et al. found that squatting to parallel with 1.6 times body weight (what might be “average” for the typical weekend warrior) led to compressive loads of ten times body weight at L3-L4. That’s 7000N for a guy who weighs about about 150.  Meanwhile, in a study of 57 Olympic lifters, Cholewicki et al. found that L4-L5 compressive loads were greater than 17,000N. It’s no wonder that retired weightlifters have reduced intervertebral disc heights under MRI! They get strong, but at a “structural price.”

According to Dr. Stuart McGill in his outstanding book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, the spine doesn’t buckle until 12,000-15,000N of pressure is applied in compression (or 1,800-2,800N in shear) – so it goes without saying that we’re always playing with fire, to a degree – regardless of the strength training exercise in question, as there’s always going to be compressive loads on the spine.  That’s a laboratory model, though; otherwise, the Olympic lifters above wouldn’t be able to handle much more than 12,000N without buckling.  In the real world, we have active restraints – muscles and tendons – to protect our spine.

If those active restraints are going to do their job, we need to put them at a mechanical advantage – and flexion is not that advantage.  The aforementioned Cappozzo et al. study demonstrated that as lumbar flexion increased under load, compressive load also increased. In other words, if you aren’t mobile enough to squat deep without hitting lumbar flexion (because the hips or ankles are stiffer than the spine), you either need need to squat a little higher or not squat at all. That said, I don’t think that you have to force a dramatic arch when you squat (or any strength exercise, for that matter); I think you need to brace your core tightly and create stability within the range of motion that you already have – and, indeed, “neutral spine” is different for everyone.  For instance, females have an average of 5-7 degrees of anterior pelvic tilt, whereas males are more like 3-5 degrees – meaning that females will naturally be a bit more lordotic.

Having sufficient lumbar flexion to touch your toes with “uniform” movement through your lumbar spine is certainly important, and for most, it’ll be completely pain free (regardless of range of motion), but that doesn’t mean that a flat or flexed lumbar spine is a good position in which to exercise with compressive load.

So, to recap:

1.  Neutral spine is different for everyone.  What’s the same for everyone is the need to have stability within the range of motion that you’ve got.

2. Flexion is fine (and a normal functional task) when it isn’t accompanied by compressive loading.  And, there is a different between subtle lumbar flexion and end-range lumbar flexion.

3. Arching (lumbar extension) doesn’t need to be excessive in order to be effective in improving tolerance to compressive loads.  In most cases, that “arch” cue simply keeps a person in neutral spine as they go into hip flexion in the bottom of a squat or deadlift (or comparable strength exercise).  “Arch” doesn’t mean “hyperextend;” it means to maintain the normal lordotic curve of your lumbar spine.

Looking to learn more?  Check out Functional Stability Training, a comprehensive resource for assessment, programming, and coaching.


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45 Responses to “Strength Training Programs and Squat Technique: To Arch or Not to Arch?”

  1. McB Says:

    Thanks so much for this succinct analysis. Lower back issues have been my “arch” enemy, but proper technique, mobility stuff (a la Show & Go), foam rolling, all help!

  2. Nikki Layton Says:

    Thanks for the great tips. It is always good to see more info about this!

  3. Ben Supik Says:

    Great post! The few times I see someone in a commercial gym using the squat rack for actual squats, it is usually with cringe-worthy lumbar flexion.

    Do you think lack a strength in lower leg could also contribute to inability to squat low while maintaining lumbar flexion?

    What exercises do you most prefer to increase mobility in hips and ankles to allow for lower lumbar flexed squats?

  4. STU Says:

    Fantastic Eric Thanks.

    I don’t fully understand what you mean with number 3 and the “arch” cue, what are the points to note for one that has that excessive curve and keeping that neutral spine in the whole duration of the squat or deadlift?
    How does this work with the basic crunch, why does one feel pain in the back when they perform the crunch but not when they do a plank?

  5. Brian Bott Says:

    Dr. Weingroff addresses this very well as well for those that may still be struggling with the concept. Some…especially females arch TOO MUCH when squatting/deadlifting/rack pulling. It’s about maintaining that pendulum so long as the pendulum is where it belongs. Great topic.

  6. Peter Says:

    Great article – I appreciate the clear and concise manner in which you explained everything. Understanding this, thus explaining to others has been a weak point for me but now I get it! Who knows maybe it is the mere fact that after reading enough about something it finally sinks in to my thick head, or maybe it is the fact that you are great at what you do and have a excellent grasp on what you know and more importantly, you do a great job of articulating it to others – it’s Friday, let’s go with the second reason.

  7. Jimmy Lamour Says:

    Back problems is a big concern for most of my clients. It might be from lack of glute activation and a lot of flexion. Great explanation on when to make sure you keep the arch.

  8. Rees Says:

    Would you also say putting “emphasis” on arching to initiate lifts is good?

    For instance, emphasizing hyperextension before the initial pull of a deadlift, or the initial movement when sitting back into a squat.

    Kind of putting the body in a better position to engage the hips?

  9. Kellie Says:

    Great post! I have a natural anterior pelvic tilt, so I am always arched. I learned to build up strength in my erector spinae and all my back problems went away.

    Thanks again for always posting great information.

  10. Michael Hannon Says:

    Great answer to a good question.

  11. Rhys I Says:

    Great post Eric,

    Just wondering if you have any comments on the relative safety of the big arch people achieve during bench pressing. Had someone ask me the other day and had to say i didn’t know other than it was to shorten the ROM. How does it affect the spine getting such an extreme arch during horizontal compression?
    Would love some more blogs like this!


  12. Brad Wellsley Says:


    When you speak of posterior pelvic tilt, are you referring to posteriorly tiltING to resist going into noticeable anterior tilt or actually trying to go into posterior pelvic tilt? I’m guessing you don’t have your athletes do anything where you are actually having them go into posterior tilt, but I just wanted to clarify.

    Also, regarding point number 2 in your recap, would you add repetition to the caveat about avoiding flexion with compression via external loading? It seems that you are advocating the need to demonstrate the capacity for full-range, pain-free lumbar flexion (outside of cases where there may be some permanent physical limitation), but you would NOT support flexion performed repetitively, even if unloaded….is this an accurate assessment?

  13. Dylan Jones Says:

    Another kick arse article Eric

    Really like this piece of information \\\’as lumbar flexion increased under load, compressive load also increased\\\’ Interesting stuff

  14. Grant Says:

    Thanks EC great post

  15. ben Says:

    Great post Eric.
    Would it be easier (instead of focusing or arch or don’t arch) when giving the cue to squat to say:
    Activate your glutes, hinge from the hips and pretend you’re aiming at a chair behind you? Just a thought…

  16. Timothy Ward Says:

    Do you ever find people that go into posterior tilt when squatting deep simply because they don’t know how to maintain an arch? Assuming they have excellent ankle and hip mobility, how would you go about cueing this?

  17. Robert Taylor Says:

    Should we look to other leg training exercises to avoid the axial loading and lumbar spine stress? As this stress accumulates, does our “playing with fire” chances increase? Is leg pressing benificial for the long run?

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brad, we’re talking about posterior tilting to neutral – although we will have athletes go into posterior tilt when glute activation drills in supine. It happens in everyday life.

    And, you’re on the money with your second paragraph; you need flexion, but that doesn’t mean that you need it repeatedly as part of an exercise program (or everyday life). Otherwise, all the roofers/floorers in the world would have perfectly healthy backs!

  19. Eric Cressey Says:


    I like the old cue of actually lightly tapping on their abdominals (McGill uses “raking” the obliques) to get good core control.

  20. Eric Cressey Says:

    The activate the glutes cue won’t work, Ben, as you’re sitting back into hip flexion – and the glutes are hip extensors.

  21. Eric Cressey Says:


    Leg pressing will cause more problems in the long run because it’s non-functional, doesn’t teach an athlete to hinge at the hips, and forces lumbar flexion in the bottom position.

    Assuming a health population, there’s nothing wrong with compressive stress as long as it’s put on top of a correctly positioned spine. So, bad technique is contraindicated, not the exercise.

  22. Eric Cressey Says:


    I don’t see a problem with an arch unless someone has a history of extension based back pain. It helps to put the thoracic spine in a good position to allow the scapulae to sit down and back to help stabilize the shoulder girdle during the movement.

    Obviously, anything to excess could be a problem, so approach it in moderation and you’re fine.

    Good write-up from Craig Rasmussen at T-Nation on this: http://www.t-nation.com/article/bodybuilding/common_exercise_misconceptions_part_2

  23. Eric Cressey Says:

    I think it’s a useful cue for some folks. I tend to prefer “sit back” in most cases a bit more.

  24. Eric Cressey Says:


    Usually those with an “excessive” arch will actually present with symptoms – whether it’s a nagging tightness or an actual pathology (stress fracture, etc). You’ll see this more with athletes than with desk jockeys.

    With a plank, the spine doesn’t move; it’s stable. With a crunch or sit-up, there is flexion (and in the case of a sit-up, extension past neutral).

  25. Eric Cressey Says:

    Yes, a lack of lower body strength could in part cause this. If you can’t extend your hips, you’ll just use lumbar movement to make up for the strength. It’s one reason why a lot of squats wind up looking like good mornings!

    Lots of great mobility drills in our Assess and Correct DVD set.

  26. Rhys I Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Eric. I’m all for the arch during benching but have had some clients question it in the past so wanted to have it clear in my head when responding. Will read that link tonight too.

    Great discussion all round, Rhys

  27. Eric Cressey Says:


    Just keep it within “normal” limits. If you stand up, you have a subtle arch in your lower back as normal posture; why lose it on the bench?

  28. Marie Ande Says:

    Thanks for a great post and your answers to everyones questions. Very helpful!

  29. Dianna Says:

    Great post! I have mostly post rehab and injury based clientele which I am always doing postural correction with so assess and correct has been very useful and its always good to read q and a on the arch dilemma. Thanks again!

  30. Julie Keen Says:

    A good visual cue to help find neutral is when the pubic bone and ASISs are in the same frontal plane. In an anterior tilt, the ASISs will be out in front of the pubic bone, and in a posterior pelvic tilt, the pubic bone is out in front of the ASISs.
    Awesome article as usual.

  31. sam Says:

    great topic. eric i have a client who is also a yoga instructor so his flexability is pretty extreme. i have noticed an excessive arch during his entire squat and have been focusing on helping him recognise and maintain neutral spine. he has been having trouble with groin pain and was told by a massage therapist that it was osteitis pubis and my question is this: is it possible that his excessive lumber arch while squatting is causing his adductors to assist in hip extension and over stressing the groin?

  32. Vlad Says:

    The “arch means neutral, not hyper extension” cue is sooo important. Ive f’ed up my back when I began lifting because I arched like crazy; my spine was super-hyper-extended (ahem). Needless to say, it hurt. Bad.

  33. Dr. David Gryfe Says:

    sam, consider the actions of the adductor magnus which has two divisions: an adductor and a hamstring with separate innervations. Fascial expansions at the origin would account for strain at the symphysis pubis.

  34. David Hall Says:

    Great Info, thanks for posting, also, I just finished Phase 1 of ‘Show and Go’ Program Its great and thankyou for responding so quickly to my emails.

    David Hall

  35. Carlos Mendez Leo Says:

    Fantastic article.

    I did as the article said without knowing it was correct.

    Here in Peru (South America), I quit Golds Gym because they didn’t let me squat full motion, and used as an excuse that y had an arch at the lumbar region of the spine.

    So know I train in my backyard with with basic equipment (one barbell + one dumbell + weights + olympic squat rack [recently acquired)) and do things right (Basic lifts + Olympic lifts) and have a lot of fun. There’s no ladies in tight pants which I mostly don’t know who they are walking around though.

    Again, thanks for the information and cheers from Peru.

  36. Brian Says:

    Now I know what ERIC stands for, Everything Is Really Clear, just like the article!

  37. Physio Mike Says:

    Absolutely stay away from loaded squat with an anterior pelvis! Warm up dynamically, stretch out those tight hip flexors, and be careful not to use Psoas to pull into an excessive arch.
    Try to get the arch by squeezing the Glutes and external hip rotators. Happy squatting

  38. Douglas L White Says:

    Excellent article. They’re always good, but this one was really well done. Thanks for the references/thorough analysis of loading, etc.

  39. Kristen Says:

    Does too much arch cause the wink? I tend to have lordosis, and when I focused on tightening my core and not “winking”, I felt the contraction in my legs and glutes, rather than my lower back. And does keeping the chest up (while keeping the chin down) help with proper spinal alignment?

  40. Eric Cressey Says:


    It definitely can, as it shifts your center of mass anteriorly.

  41. Mark Says:

    For someone with a significant arch in their low back (and I realise they have a lot to address anyway) if/when they stiff leg deadlift, should they look to maintain this pronounced arch or try to perform the SLD with a less exaggerated curve?

  42. Eric Cressey Says:


    They may actually need to flex to neutral and then maintain it throughout the movement.

  43. Lou Says:

    What do you think about the compressive load of the box squat? I have been doing them instead of the regular squat since I was diagnosed with cam impingement and I feel the 150 kg I am currently lifting puts a lot of stress on my spine.

  44. Eric Cressey Says:


    I haven’t seen anything demonstrating that the compression is any higher with box squatting than it is with regular squatting, assuming good technique.

  45. Lou Says:

    Sure, done perfectly the load should be the same. But, a perfect technique is not possible and I feel there is always a small bump when you “sit” on the bench even if you do not notice it. In any case, bigger than with the regular squat where you do not have the same rock/hard place relationship.

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