The place to find holistic information about your health

Packed Stacked Neck: Why Not to Look Up While Weight Lifting

Have you wondered whether you should tuck your chin while you lift so it’s in a so-called packed-neck position? Or should you look up while you drive into your deadlifts and squats?

How many times have you looked around at the gym and saw a guy doing dumbbell rows while jutting his chin, or doing donkey kicks while looking up? These drive the neck and low back into extension and compression, weightlifting on the facet joints (i.e. the back of the spine) instead of using the muscles.

I can’t emphasize this enough:

Unless you’re an Olympic-level lifter or pulling double body weight, you should not look up when you do these kinds of lifts and neither should your clients. Why?

The bottom line: It’s about goals. Also, the longevity and health of your neck.

In Weight Lifting, a Stacked Neck is a Healthy Neck

The concept of “stacked” comes from the diaphragm being parallel over the pelvic floor to create the best intra-abdominal pressurization while lifting, then creating one long line from ears to shoulders to hips. It’s a natural position that’s better for your neck in the long run. In fact, this is how we learned to position our neck as babies.

In the Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) world, the position is called “uprighting.” In certain weight lifting circles it’s called “packed.” In Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), the inability to do this would classify the client as a B PEC, and a “reset” would be prescribed. For simplicity, we call it “stacked.”

What’s the real story?

When we cue our clients and patients, we start with the trifecta of “breath, braced, stacked.” Let’s start with the breath. The inhale is down into the lower abdomen, wide into the waistline along with lateral expansion in the ribs and into the low back. Most people breathe into about their belly button, which is stabilizing the spine to about L2 on the back side. The hardest areas to breathe into are these three areas: low, wide, and into the low back. If you miss getting the breath this low, you will extend and compress the lower lumbar spine while lifting, leading to low back pain, tight hip flexors, and facet syndrome or Sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

Postural function is interdependent with respiratory function.—Karel Lewit

You should imagine you have gills around your kidneys traveling down to your low back. You would see these gills expand when you breathe in correctly.

We haven’t even pulled the weight yet.

How can you actually use this with your clients? Cue to “brace,” “push outward,” or “keep that expansion” as they pull the weight and exhale towards the end of the lift (i.e. top of the deadlift), drive the hips in a kettle bell swing, or when the body starts to fatigue and needs a little extra “umph.”

Don’t Act Like a Baby When You Lift Weights

But there’s a catch. When you drive your neck into extension and load your body with weight, you’re literally mimicking how babies who are not developing well or those with neurological impairment move. So why drive your body or your client’s body into a pattern that mimics poor development on a neurological level and poor stabilization on a biomechanical level?

Hyperextending the neck isn’t safe, especially for amateur lifters, but even for trainers. You wouldn’t hyperextend your lower back, right? So why do it to the cervical area of the spine? You’re extending one area while the body is under a heavy load, and that can lead to long-term problems.

stacked neck weightlifting

All day long, we jut our chins out by sitting all day as we become one with our computers and are overcome with fatigue—and your clients with desk jobs do just that, sometimes upwards of eight to 10 hours a day. When it comes to marathon sitting, New Yorkers are an extra special breed. When I ask my clients how many hours they sit a day, they barely blink an eye and respond that around 14 hours is the norm!

So why continue to jut the chin during workouts? Why add more stress to the neck when your clients just want to get healthier and stronger, not compete in the Olympics?

The Long-Term Effects of Looking Up While Lifting

Over decades, the constant extension of the neck during heavy weight lifting could lead to stenosis, anterolisthesis, and disc herniations. “Why disc herniations?” you ask. “Don’t those usually happen in a flexion load?” So why does it happen when we extend and compress our neck all day?

Here’s the deal: Staying stuck in extension while lifting and moving through life can minimize imbibition of the discs. Imbibition is the way a normal disc gets nutrition through movement and our daily motions of flexing and extending our neck. This creates a pumping action, driving nutrition intake into the discs—something often lost in damaged, herniated, or degenerated discs.

However, in healthy discs, imbibition occurs naturally. That’s one reason why there is an increase of disc height in the morning and a decrease in disc height at night. A disc with poor imbibition leads to fewer nutrients and hydration and is more likely to become injured and painful. Over time, a neck stuck in extension and compressions will have reduced hydration in the posterior part of the disc, which can lead to tearing of the annual fibers once a flexion load is placed on the neck and ultimately to disc herniations and extrusions. Imagine spending your retirement years dealing with stiffness and pain in the neck and possible numbness, tingling, and weakness in your midback, arms and hands because of poor form while weightlifting when you were younger.

breathing and bracing like a baby

Where to Look When You’re Lifting Weights

Instead, it’s wise to pack your shoulder blades down AND wide, not just down. (Stay tuned for more on this in next week’s post.) Place and stack your neck with the ears over the shoulders over the hips. If you can see the wall in front of you before you pull the weight at the bottom of your deadlift, your neck is extended and compressing.

Here’s the deal: Fix your eyes at a point that’s about three feet ahead of you, on the floor. At the top of your deadlift, we cue, “eyes on the horizon.” Sometimes people will look down at the floor, jut their chin forward, or look down the tip of their nose. If that cue doesn’t get them to move how we want them to move, then we cue, “Long neck, soft chin” or “Get tall through the top of your head.”

If you extend and compress the neck while lifting weights, underloading the levator scapulae will upward rotate the scapula, and the sternocleidomastoid will extend the head, which can lead to headaches. You want good scapular downward rotation when you lift, or you can cause a shoulder and neck injury.

Lifting Cues for a Healthy Neck

We use these three cues to get stacked at the bottom of the deadlift: “Long neck, soft chin,” but if the shoulder blades are still not creating a connection to the ribs, we have a more refined cue. We coach the client to breathe their ribs (that are between their shoulder blades, so ribs from T3-T6) toward their shoulder blades.  If this doesn’t to it, we have the client click the bar to find tension before pulling. One of these three cues usually does the trick.

Two great Essential Progressions to get stacked and find a packed neck are breathing and bracing like a baby at six months old while holding a kettle bell overhead. See the photo above for form.

Next, the client owns this while on hands and knees and in transition from beast to bear. Check out this video:


If the client has rib flare in their lower ribs and has trouble getting their diaphragm to be parallel to their pelvic floor, then we have them breathe down and wide but extend their exhale to be twice as long as their inhale. This helps use the obliques to get the diaphragm more domed and more parallel to their pelvic floor. We use this a lot on our runners, cyclists, ironmen, and chronic cardio clients who do a lot of exertional chest breathing.

For more goodness on lifting mechanics, join Essential Movement Method Private FB group and check out one of our future Essential Movement certifications.

Best in health,

Dr. Emily Kiberd