Many trainers and coaches from the strength world to physical therapy to chiropractic to general personal training have very dogmatic thoughts about the Jefferson curl. I, for one, used to judge this exercise so hard. The movement elitist in my back-injury rehabbed self was like, “WHY WOULD YOU EVER VOLUNTARILY ENTER SPINAL FLEXION?! And possibly LOAD IT?!” Now they’re a part of my squat and deadlift day warm ups. But not without careful reconsideration. A consideration I am hoping you’ll be willing to explore today.
Let’s begin with the fact that any given exercise can be performed with poor form. That poor form doesn’t always lead to injury. And yes, that some exercises may lend themselves to a higher risk factor. I am open to the argument that the Jefferson curl is one of those exercises. Under a load that is too high for a trainee and with improper form, or prerequisite mobility and control, one could become injured. And said injury would likely be in the low back or hamstrings – somewhere in the posterior chain as that is the area being worked.
I am pro Jefferson curls if they make sense, and can be performed in the absence of pain.
The goal form of the movement is as follows (and is NOT perfectly performed by me):
With feet under hips, one vertebrae at a time (from cervical through thoracic and into lumbar), actively “roll” down as far as possible, keeping the legs straight. Reach end range (likely set by the hamstrings). Reverse the movement, vertebrae by vertebrae.
You can see why a prerequisite of this movement would be unloaded spinal segmentation, say in a quadruped position. Even standing with no weight, the upper body provides load to the spine as we enter flexion. So quadruped provides a truly unloaded position. In my video, you can see that I lose lumbar flexion at the bottom. The spine should FULLY be in triple flexion of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine at the bottom of the movement. I lengthen my body at the bottom and lose that rounded, rolled, potato bug like spinal positioning. When you watch someone who can REALLY segment the spine, you’ll see what I am missing here.
From a muscles standpoint think about the return – spinal and hip extension. Hello posterior chain. Specifically hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors and multifidus. These muscles are lengthening eccentrically as you lower down, and contracting concentrically as you stand back up into a neutral spine position.
Traditionally to help with the rounded position of the spine, you can load the Jefferson curl in the pit of the elbows like a Zercher squat. This promotes keeping the weight close to the body and nearly wrapping your mid section around it.
To be clear, the spine should be mobile – and ideally we can control it in a segmented manner. I know that’s something I’m personally working towards more and more. Jefferson curls are just one tool in the tool box to help that happen. Loaded or not.
I would keep these at the beginning of a lift as a warm up or as a skill that is being built and takes concentration and coordination to do so. Like any exercise, they’re safe when performed properly with the right load, after progressing through the correct prerequisites.
Have you done them? Intrigued by them? Still judging?
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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.
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