by Kevin Cann
Many of us have gone to the gym and seen that dude deadlift in the same position as a cat stretches its back.
After his set he gets up and walks away. He did not throw out his back or die. I am not saying that this is an ideal or even ok position to be pulling from.
Down the line there will probably be some back pain in his future.
Ideally we do not want a rounded back at all in a deadlift as this will limit force transfer and how much we can lift.
Rounding the upper back is a technique that is utilized by some of the world’s strongest lifters, but they are amazingly stable through the lumbar spine. A braced neutral spine is our most optimal alignment for pulling and we need to start here. Once we are strong enough in this position we can start utilizing a rounded upper back to shorten lever arms.
Once you hit a 3x bodyweight deadlift we can talk.
Rounding the back is not inherently dangerous as long as we maintain the EXACT same spinal position throughout. We run into problems when we begin in a flexed position and end in an extended position. This puts a TON of shear force on the spine.
Max effort pulling places a ton of compressive and shear force on the spine. However, these forces become less when intra-abdominal pressure is increased (1). The ability to maintain the exact same shape throughout the lift shows a high level of intra-abdominal pressure, minimizing the compressive and shear forces of the spine.
Dr. Stuart McGill in his two textbooks explained that the trunk extensors are extremely adequate at counteracting high levels of shear force.
Granhed and colleagues determined that power lifters tolerate almost 5,000lbs of compressive force on the spine during a deadlift. They also determined that the spine’s ability to tolerate loads was correlated with their bone mineral density (2).
Guess what happens when you lift weights?
Your bone mineral density increases quite substantially, giving your spine a greater ability to tolerate compressive and shear forces. This is why it is important to begin in a neutral braced spinal alignment. It gives us a safe environment to build bone density and our tolerance to handle heavier weights. Once we achieve a 3x bodyweight deadlift we have more than likely increased our bone mineral density enough to tolerate the increased shear of a rounded upper back deadlift.
If we begin rounded due to poor mobility or motor control and end in the EXACT same spinal alignment our trunk extensors and spinal stabilizing muscles will help decrease the risk of injury. If we translate from a flexed position into extension or hyperextension, well then we can run into some problems.
In Shirley Sahrmann’s Diagnostic and Treatment of Movement Impairments she discusses how all injuries are the result of the loss of stability, or in other words hypermobility. The spinal column is comprised of 186 joints. Injuries are seen in the areas of hypermobility.
For example, our thoracic spine may not have adequate mobility so we experience pain in the lumbar region.
Beginning in a rounded back deadlift position is increasing shear and compressive force on the spine right from the set up. This is one we will be limited in how much weight we will be able to pull from this position. Plus we transfer force from our legs through the spine and into the bar. The rounded position limits our force transfer.
We then begin to lift the weight and get pulled into further flexion if we do not maintain our spinal alignment. In order to stand up tall we will need to extend the spine. Now our spinal joints are in motion while under high amounts of compressive and shear force. We have also lost tension in our spinal stabilizers and torso extensors. This means that not only are the forces higher on the spine, but our ability to counteract them are lower as well. This is a recipe for disaster.
We need to round our back to pick up oddly shaped objects.
Ideally we want to be doing this rounding from our upper back and not our lumbar. However, our lumbar spine has the ability to flex roughly 40-60 degrees. Remember also that neutral spine is a range and not one locked in number. As long as we maintain our spinal alignment within our own range of motion our risk of injury should still be low.
With all of this said I am not saying that we should round our back to deadlift. There are more compressive and shear forces placed upon the spine in a rounded back start. This will limit the amount of weight we will be able to lift. Also, the ability to maintain a static spinal alignment becomes more difficult under fatigue increasing our risk for injury.
If you round your back in the deadlift there are either mobility restrictions or motor control faults occurring. When training we want to get strong in the positions we can control. If we do not have the ability to get into a good position to deadlift we can raise the bar up on blocks, or try a sumo variation while we work on the mobility or motor control restrictions and LOAD these exercises.
I hope this article clears up some of the misnomers that a rounded back deadlift will not cause you to die. As long as we maintain the exact same spinal alignment we have the ability to tolerate high amounts of force. With that said, we want to be in a more optimal alignment. This is a neutral braced spinal alignment. If you cannot maintain this position for pulls from the floor raise them up onto blocks or try a sumo variation. Get strong in these positions while you develop the mobility and movement competency to break world records from the floor.