First, this article by Roger Parks is an absolute gift and distinguishes the “swing” movement from the hinge. I’ve certainly been guilty of merging the two, and will not continue on this path. There are aspects of each pattern that are exclusive.

The practice of ‘neutral spine’ is a particular challenge for many of our Autism Fitness athletes. Hinging seems to be an outlier gross motor skill. More than other foundational movement patterns (squatting, locomotion/gait, pushing, pulling, crawling, and carrying), developing a strong, safe pattern requires physical and cognitive aspects. It is not as inherent as a squat or crawl pattern.

Even with the most deficit skills, there will be some baseline where we can begin coaching the squat or bear walk. The athlete may need regression to the point of upper and lower body physical support in the squat and a quadruped crawl for the bear walk. The difference between these is we can set the athlete up in an uncompromised position. For the hinge, AKA “picking stuff up off the floor.” neutral/braced spine position is necessary throughout the entirety of the motion.

Granted it is highly unlikely we are going to incur injury from a hinge pattern when someone is picking spilled popcorn off the floor. Teaching proper hinge skills are not an emergency, but certainly an aspect of physical development that is important enough to include over time. Hinging/deadlifts, are one of the exercises that we don’t immediately program into our Autism Fitness curricula despite their importance.

In addition to the strength deficits that complicate the hinge pattern for many on the autism spectrum, this movement has a particularly confounding attribute in the way of understanding/internalizing the position. This is not exclusive to the ASD population either. Many of my coaching friends and colleagues can empathize with the time and effort needed for neurotypical, general population clients/athletes to “get” neutral spine. During the hinge the NS position is not as automatic as a squat.

Neutral spine requires bracing, the setting of the breath so that the spine is protected by the activation of deep internal stabilized muscles and inter-abdominal pressure. This is not just in the anterior/front of the body but what is often described as “3D” bracing (anterior, oblique, and posterior).

Further complicating this process for many on the spectrum is the abstract or representational thinking that is often used in coaching deadlifts or other hinge patterns. Verbal cues that often prove helpful for the neurotypical population include;

“Keep your spine long”

“Belly out and brace”

“Spine in one line” 

Again, for a population with moderate-to-severe deficits in representational thinking, these verbal cues do not suffice in providing the message.

While it is, with reference to Coach Parks’ article, a swing pattern, in our Autism Fitness programming and PAC Profile Assessment we use the Dynamax ball scoop throw to introduce this movement without creating a spinal safety issue. A scoop throw using a 2 or 4lb medicine ball, even with spinal flexion, is not likely to create discomfort.

Since continued repetition of a contraindicated movement pattern is decidedly contrary to our goals, we often step in to set the athlete up in position for the throw, over time shaping (though positional prompting and behavior-specific praise) the athlete’s form.

This can take a while. Months. A year or two. I had an athlete who needed three years of practice with the scoop throw before he began showing signs of independent mastery.

For the hinge and with respect to picking up heavier objects, training and implementation will largely depend on

  1. The athlete
  2. The available equipment

While a straight bar deadlift is not a requirement for developing strong hinge mechanics, we can look at something approaching a sandbag or kettlebell/bag deadlift, which more mirrors something we have to do in the real world. Thinking about the stuff we have to pick up off the floor and carry each day, they seldom conform to a specific size or shape, so it is desirable to have sufficient strength and stability to handle a variety of objects.

Here is a video featuring some of my athletes performing the Dynamax ball scoop throw at various phases of independence.

Scoop Throw Phases