There are two schools of thought when it comes to proper head positioning during barbell back squats – up or down.
One of the original ways is to look straight forward or slightly upwards. This technique was designed specifically for the high bar squat and is based on the belief that the body follows the eyes.
You go where you look and since we want to be going up during squats, we look upwards. The lifter is advised to keep the head close to neutral or slightly upwards to prevent cramping of the neck muscles.
Back in the day I started learning how to do things from different online sources and blog posts way before everybody had a blog or two or three.
I remember one blog post teaching that one must look at the ceiling during squats and pretend that the secret to life is written there. Needless to say, this is not needed and completely unnatural.
One of the mains reasons for the forward or slightly upwards approach is to avoid bending forward under the pressure of the heavy barbell on your back. It’s true that many people may turn the squat into a good morning more easily when they look down, but at the same time if you can squat properly you can maintain correct form while looking almost anywhere you want.
At one point the book Starting Strength was catapulted into fame and people started looking downwards when they squat. On theory, that’s supposed to help a peculiar phenomenon known as “hip drive” while also keeping the spine in “ultimate alignment”.
The truth, however, is that heavy squats can be done safely using any of the two techniques. During a squat it’s not that crucial where you look, but how you perform the movement. It’s very important to be aware of your lower back position too. You can’t lose the arch. Looking up or down does not guarantee proper lower back alignment which is one of the most essential technical elements of the squat.
When you have the skill to squat correctly, which by the way does not take decades to develop as some say, you will find out that you can look anywhere you want, except to the right or left – that’s just nonsensical.
You can effectively perform the “hip drive” technique even while looking upwards and/or forward. This is the way Ed Coan squats. His squat is extremely hip dominant and he uses plenty of “hip drive”. He does not look down but straight forward.
On the other hand, there are examples of other world class lifters who have adopted the looking down method. One of them is Mike Tuchscherer who squats using most of the cues found in Starting Strength. He looks down and still has a hip dominant low bar squat. Therefore, you can do things successfully either way.
My personal preferences is to look forward and slightly up while driving the neck into the bar during the ascend. This is the way most Olympic weightlifters squat, and I believe they are the true kings of the squat.
I prefer the high bar squat because it’s simple and more effective than the low bar when it comes to developing leg strength. You just go up and down while keeping the spine in proper anatomical position. You don’t over-complicate things for the sake of sounding like an expert.
What about the deadlift?
It’s pretty much the same thing. You can look forward, down or up. Either way is fine. What’s to avoid is excessive neck extension (the head moving backwards too much) which can cause some sprains. Nevertheless, all of this is just minor details.
As with the squat there are many lifters showing us that you can succeed using any of the methods.
The most popular example of an impressive deadlifter who looks down, at least during the initial phase, is Konstantin Konstantinovs.
According to some this gives more power at the starting portion of the lift.
However, there are many examples of world class deadlifters who look forward and up when they deadlift. A good example would be Andrey Belyaev.
When you have become proficient at squatting with good technique, you should be able to maintain correct and safe form almost regardless of head position. It’s as simple as that.
Down or up – it does not matter that much. Both styles work as long as you can do everything else correctly. Your head position does not mean much by itself. It’s the rest of the technique that counts the most.