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September 12, 2021 10 min read
Ask most lifters how to deadlift safely and they’ll have tons of form advice. But they’ll be really serious about one thing: do not bend your back.The importance of a neutral posture during a deadlift is vital because it prevents back injury.
You want the weight to first be picked up in your upper body and then transfer through the shoulders and upper back before hitting lower. When you bend your back, the force is allowed to cut straight to your lower back.
Many powerlifters who are well-practiced find that they can lift more during a rounded back deadlift. In some cases, back rounding adds over a hundred pounds to their one-rep max.
So who is correct? Can you deadlift with a rounded back, and should you? Read on to find out everything you need to know about round back deadlifts and how they can be performed safely to lift more weight in your deadlift.
Let’s start with the easiest answer first. You absolutely can do your deadlifts with a rounded back without risking serious injury. Powerlifters do it all the time. Konstantins Konstantinovs, the current world record holder of the unequipped deadlift in the 308 weight class, heavily favored a rounded upper back during his deadlifts at the height of his career.
In one interview, he stated that rounding his back allowed him to lift more weight than he would with his proportions during a conventional deadlift with a straight back.But the rest of what Konstantinovs said in that interview is also instructional for lifters contemplating the back position in their deadlift technique. He stated that while he does round his back, it’s only his upper back that bends and it stays bent throughout the entire deadlift.
When most people discuss posture during a deadlift, they’re talking about back position as you hinge at the hips and also about your back position after lockout. It remains very true that your spine should not be noodling into different positions during your lift.
So the takeaway is that if you’re going to try and increase your single-rep maximum deadlift by rounding your back, you need to completely reform your deadlift technique so that you can maintain a rounded upper back position the entire time.
A more important question now that we know you can round your back during a deadlift is whether or not you should. Olympic powerlifting champions, strongmen, and deadlifters with years of experience do it, so you should too. Right?
Not quite. These pros are aiming to lift maximal weights. They spend unbelievable amounts of time and energy learning the perfect form to do so without injuring themselves and that shouldn’t be ignored.
People who are dedicated lifters but stick to fairly conventional strength training sessions a few times a week are unlikely to need to round their back to tackle really heavy deadlifts. It could increase your max, but it might not if you aren’t prepared for it.
The critical thing to keep in mind is that your experience level and lifting goals are probably not the same as the ones for people who dedicate the better part of their lives to the sport. It’s not out of the question, but be realistic about your experience level.
Then again, you might be anticipating a serious competitive powerlifting career in the future. In that case, you definitely should train to learn how to deadlift with a rounded back so you can lift as much weight as possible.
If you’ve been lifting for long enough, you’ll start to notice that your back rounds naturally when you lift heavy weight. Hopefully, this isn’t happening whenever you try to deadlift - if it is, you’re probably looking at a form issue.
But if you know you’re maintaining a flat back and a neutral spine throughout your deadlift and you still find that your upper back is rounding at the end of the move, it’s probably related to the amount of weight you’re lifting.
As you get closer to your 1 rep max, your back starts to bend. That’s okay since your spinal ligaments and vertebrae are made to bend to compensate for lifting heavy loads. Beginning lifters are particularly vulnerable to this because they don’t have the glute strength or hamstring flexibility to power the lift.
But people who have been practicing the deadlift for ages still do the same thing.
The cause is human anatomy.
When you’re lifting just about as much as you can, the body compensates by shortening the range of motion of the barbell, decreasing the angle of hip flexion, pulling the bar closer in, and using the erector spinae as a primary source of power rather than as stabilizers.
In the worst-case scenario, this can cause lower back rounding and potentially a heinous injury. But if you’ve worked your way up to heavier weight properly, then it should only be happening as you move toward lockout trying to lift 90% or more of your 1RM.
What if the conventional deadlift is causing back pain or exacerbating pain that’s already there?Well, it’s not unusual to feel soreness after deadlifts just like it isn’t weird after any kind of serious workout. But if you’re feeling rougher pain during or after deadlifting, you should stop and consult a physical therapist or doctor and consider lifting with light weights to see if the pain persists.
Some research shows that deadlifts can improve function and reduce low back pain, but they also reveal that deadlifts are no more beneficial than stretching therapeutic exercises that aim to strengthen motor control.
For people whose main concern is low back pain, the deadlift can be subbed out with simpler moves. But if you’re trying to build out your posterior chain and are concerned about making slight low back pain worse, the deadlift could be a viable option.
Never round your lower back when you’re deadlifting. The upper back can get some added torque and help support the weight you’re lifting, but the lower back will only risk injury. When we say you can round your back, we mean you can bend your upper back in one fixed position from the beginning to the end of the deadlift. Your lower back has to stay straight to protect it against painful injuries like herniation.
If you can keep your chest up, then this position will feel completely natural. The top of your body can bend slightly and the lower back stay straight to keep your chest pointing out in front of you. Pretend you’re trying to show off the logo on your new t-shirt.
If you fit the criteria and want to start doing round back deadlifts, you need to prepare yourself. Even if you have the perfect form, the muscles and muscle groups that support your back during the lift might not be prepared if you’re fairly new to weightlifting or have been practicing conventional deadlifts with a straight back exclusively.
First off, we should point out exactly which parts of your body are involved in a rounded back deadlift. Here’s a short run-through of what muscles stabilize your spine when it’s in a fixed position (even for rounded back deadlifts):
Your spinal erectors, also referred to as the erector spinae, are muscles that run up your back across the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical sections of your spine. They help maintain a straight posture and allow you to turn from side to side. Damage or injury to the spinal erectors can cause spasms and pain.
Along with a muscle called the multifidus, your erector spinae contract on both sides of the spine to allow for spinal flexion, the scientific name for bending forward.
As in the conventional deadlift, the glutes play a huge supporting role for the spine and also help support the weight on the barbell. It’s common knowledge for most lifters that the deadlift hits the lower body muscles the hardest even though it is a compound left that activates muscles in the entire body.
During a deadlift, the hip hinge turns your body into a lever to lift the weight. Your glutes are a crucial source of power for that lever.
Your hamstrings work with your glutes and quads to straighten the knee and stabilize the hip, so they’re also an important part of the deadlift. Many lifters believe that the glutes and hamstrings are the main factors for calculating deadlift strength. The hamstrings are doing a significant amount of the lifting work before the barbell gets up to your knees in the first half of the move.
Although rounding your upper back limits the range of motion of the barbell and thus takes some of the strain off your hammies, you still need strong hamstrings to get that bar off the floor.If you want to improve the active strength needed to deadlift, target these muscles in other parts of your workout routine. The Sumo deadlift is a nice variation that also aims to reduce the barbell’s range of motion for additional leverage.
A muscle called the thoracolumbar fascia (TFL) supports your spine with additional torque when your back rounds. The TFL is located on the outside of each hip. Surrounding muscles such as the low traps, obliques, glutes, and lats can contribute additional strength to the TFL to keep your upper spine from bending further than you intend it to in a rounded back deadlift.
This is a great exercise that many powerlifters use in tandem with Romanian deadlifts to prepare them for the conventional deadlift.
The movement is similar but the weight is moved higher up onto your shoulders so you can build strength in your glutes, hamstrings, core, and back without having to worry about getting the weight off the ground.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and a good amount of weight on a barbell that you’re holding across both shoulders. Brace your abs and upper back muscles and breathe in, then breathe out and hinge forward at the hips. Your upper body should move forward while your hips move backward. Stop when your torso is parallel with the floor and then rise back into the starting position.
Target your posterior chain with this deadlift variation that will get you prime you for the real thing. Your hamstrings will get some special attention, increasing their flexibility and enabling you to deadlift even more.
Start kind of like you just finished a conventional deadlift. You should be standing with your back straight and the bar held in your hands with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips to bring the barbell toward the floor.
Stop when it’s just below your knees - you’ve just gone through the section of a conventional deadlift where your hamstrings see the most activation. Push through your hips to bring the barbell back into the starting position.
This barbell row variation is performed with a straight back and the barbell is returned to the floor after each rep so you can’t use momentum to make it easier on your muscles. It’s great practice for the first half of a deadlift, so you can use it in tandem with the other two exercises on this list to get a similar effect of entire deadlift reps.
Start with a fairly light weight to learn the form. It should also be less than you would use in a traditional barbell row because you have to lift it off the ground for each rep. Stand over the bar with your hips hinged and your torso parallel with the floor.
Use an overhand grip to take hold of the bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and lift the weight up to your abdomen and then lower it back to the ground. Make sure your back doesn’t bend at all throughout this exercise, even if you’re preparing for rounded back deadlifts.
If you extend your knees too early, your quadriceps do less while your hamstrings and erector spinae are forced to do more work. This impacts your upper back posture which could cause injury whether you have your upper back bent or not.
That’s fine if you’re trying to build strength in your glutes and hamstrings, but not if you’re trying to maximize your deadlift rep weight. The stiff-leg deadlift is a great exercise in its own right because it puts your back muscles to work. But remember that it’s meant to be performed with light weight, not with heavy plates.
It’s more of a stretch than a powerlifting exercise. You can put it in your routine to practice for rounded back deadlifts. You can even practice your rounded back deadlift form with stiff leg deadlifts if you want, or you can use them as a fast warm-up.
Regular deadlifts and variations like the Romanian deadlift will build strength better, but this is a great option for people who want to improve their form so that they can do deadlifts with a rounded back more safely.
Deadlifting is typically done with a neutral spine that’s kept straight throughout the lift. Most trainers will tell you that you need to keep it in this position to prevent the spine from overloading and leading to injuries like herniation or muscle strains.
But powerlifters commonly deadlift with a rounded back. It allows you to lift more weight and gives you more leverage. The important thing to remember is that you have to keep that same rounded back position throughout the entire deadlift.
You should never let your back bend at lockout. That’s what the original training advice is trying to communicate. But you can start from the very beginning with your shoulders pulled back and your upper back slightly bent so that you can handle heavier loads and build more strength.
Absolutely avoid bending your lower back, which won’t hold additional weight as effectively as your upper back will. You should still aim for a steady transfer of energy from your shoulders down through your back, core, and legs as you deadlift weight.
If you’re new to this deadlifting approach and the amount of weight you typically deadlift merits using the curved back method, you have to make sure to practice the new form before you try it out with lots of weight on the bar. While many powerlifters bend their upper backs when they deadlift, they also practice the movement tirelessly to make sure they can do it without injuring themselves.
Use some of the exercises in this guide to build deadlift strength and then make an attempt at a rounded back deadlift. Make sure you have a professional along to spot you and make sure you’re trying this new form tip the right way.