Deadlifts, rounded backs, weak hips

If your goals are to either get bigger or stronger, you’re probably familiar with the deadlift. Heralded as the one true measure of strength, perhaps nothing is harder in the gym than trying to break a seemingly immovable amount of weight from it’s comfortable resting place firmly on the ground. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the deadlift, thanks in part to the blogs of many dedicated strength coaches, but with this increased attention has come a flood of youtube videos showing butchered technique and spines just short of snapping in half.

It’s unfortunate that many people can’t perform a deadlift properly but this may be caused by the fact that just as many trainers don’t know how to coach it. There are many sites with accurate descriptions and useful coaching cues on how to perform the deadlift, and this comprehensive (and lengthy) post by Mike Robertson is a good place to start for an overview of deadlift technique. I’ll have a much narrower focus today. Rather than rewrite what has been done well elsewhere, I want to take a look specifically at rounding the back, a common technical error among many new trainees, and one that is often used by elite lifters to squeeze as many pounds on the bar as they can.

Bending backs, one barbell at a time

There are two regions of the spine that we are concerned with rounding (moving into flexion) during the deadlift: the lower (lumbar) and the upper (thoracic) vertebrae. Most would be quick to agree that rounding of the lower back, the lumbar spine, is contraindicated, and is usually avoided at all costs. Most professional certification programs coach the deadlift with a neutral lumbar spine, or even slightly arched (hyperextended).

Despite striving for a neutral or arched spine during the deadlift, research from Stuart McGill has found that when individual lumbar vertebrae of powerlifters are observed (with a very fancy camera), a certain degree of lumbar flexion occurs (1). Perhaps most important, the experienced lifters used in this particular study were able to control the degree of flexion such that the terminal ends of the flexion range of motion were never achieved. This suggests that lumbar flexion can and does occur in the deadlift, but experienced lifters have a degree a kinaesthetic awareness that allows them to avoid end-range of motion in order to prevent injury. One lifter in the study, in an attempt to reposition himself for the imaging equipment, lost control of a vertebral level, exceeded the flexion range of motion at that segment, and experienced pain and discomfort. While only one study, this suggests that, despite efforts to maintain at least a neutral lumbar spine, experienced lifters do flex their lumbar vertebrae, and when a certain range of motion is exceeded, injury and pain occur. Makes a pretty strong case to avoid excessive lumbar flexion, and highlights the importance of coaching appropriate lumbar position and control when lifting.

The upper back (thoracic spine) is a different story, with some advocating complete avoidance of the flexed position, and others insisting on it’s advantages. The usual argument, at least in the gym, is that many high-level lifters, often on maximal attempts, round (flex) their thoracic spines when performing the deadlift. A few minutes on youtube can turn up quite a few heavy deadlift attempts performed successfully, and without injury, with increased thoracic flexion, although there are also successful lifters who don’t flex their thoracic spines. Take the example of Konstantin Konstantinov’s massive deadlift below, a conventional deadlifter that uses thoracic flexion in his technique. Be warned, there is music in this video so check your speakers if you’re browsing from work.


For the general strength trainee, many would argue (correctly) that the risk/benefit ratio of a rounded thoracic spine probably isn’t worth it. Sure it may add a few pounds onto the lift, but if your goal isn’t to be the world’s strongest deadlifter, why take the risk? But why do so many record deadlifts happen with rounded spines? There are three potential explanations or even advantages (#2, #3) for this technique in the deadlift:

  1. Form breakdown: This is the most popular explanation. When weights get heavy, sometimes exercise technique becomes more ‘liberal’, doing whatever you can to get the bar off the ground and locked out.
  2. Shorter range of motion: A flexed thoracic spine decreases the height of the shoulders, ultimately making the hands closer to the floor, which decreases the distance the bar has to move.
  3. Improved mechanics: This may be a bit of an oxymoron, as most would consider a flexed thoracic spine poor mechanics. However thoracic flexion keeps the bar closer to lumbar vertebrae (2), reducing the required torque production from the spinal extensors to maintain proper lumbar position. In addition, for a similar bar height, a deadlift with increased thoracic flexion will keep the bar closer to the hip, providing a similar effect as that seen in the lumbar spine (potentially reducing the force required from the hip extensors).

I’m sure if you’re like me and can’t get enough of the deadlift, you’ve seen the excuse of form breakdown and the benefits of the shorter range of motion discussed before. But saying that what is considered improper form could result in improved mechanical advantages at the hip and lumbar vertebrae probably doesn’t come up that much.

Is thoracic flexion a consequence of a weak upper back?

Now the fact that rounding of the upper back allows you to keep the bar closer to the hip, reducing the force required by the hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings) to move the weight suggests that while a weak upper back could cause rounding over, it may be that thoracic flexion is a deliberate strategy to compensate for weak hip extensors. Since the deadlift involves primarily hip and knee extension, and the body is a complicated system of levers, the farther the bar is away from the hip, the more force is required from the hip extensors to produce enough torque to move the bar. So instead of insufficient upper back strength, this rounding compensates for weakness of the hip extensors, and potentially the muscles of the lower back to stabilize the degree of lumbar flexion by improving the mechanical advantage of the system.

These hips don’t lie…

This idea didn’t come about from reading papers, but rather through some self ‘experimentation’ when I suffered a back injury. In January 2010 I tweaked my lower back deadlifting, providing some minor irritation in my lumber spine during lifting. While nothing that I felt warranted medical attention, it was enough to prevent me from deadlifting for a few weeks and significantly limit my strength when I returned. Worse yet, when rehabilitating my back to return to deadlifts, I noticed that at certain weights on the deadlift (well below my usual capacity), I was caving forward (flexing my thoracic spine), more than I would need to complete the lift, and definitely more than I would like to.

Like any right-minded person in the gym, since I was rounding my upper back, I assumed that I must have a weakness there that needed to be addressed. I increased my volume of rows, shrugs, and even performed weighted thoracic extensions (carefully) to no avail. Months passed and I still had the same problem, and was getting more frustrated in the process despite my improved upper back strength.

It wasn’t until I switched to a gym with a glute-ham raise, and ultimately built my home gym with one as well, that it clicked that my rounded upper back was not due to deficient strength in that region but rather the symptom of a bigger problem. My first time on a glute-ham raise was a humbling one; for weeks I couldn’t do a single rep with my body-weight and instead had to rely on assisted variations. As time progressed, so did my strength, to the point where I could to sets of 15-20 with bodyweight and I began adding weight as well. All while this was happening, my deadlift started to improve as I started to add back 5-10lbs per week, ensuring I could progress without significant thoracic flexion.

This practical example fits well with what we’ve seen in the literature and the overall mechanics of the lift. In my case, it wasn’t a weak upper back that was limiting my deadlift rehabilitation, but rather impaired hip extensor and lower back strength. Flexing my thoracic spine was simply a strategy to improve the mechanical advantage at the hip and lower back, to compensate for deficient glute and hamstring strength and my lower back injury.

Take home point

Now more than ever, strength coaches are aware that human movements are the culmination of actions at multiple joints, all of which are dependent on each other. While this is usually discussed between the hip, knee and ankle, the example provided here demonstrates that there is significant interaction between the joints of the upper and lower limb, and what can happen at multiple levels of the vertebral column.

Could the simple passing of time explain the results I found? Sure. But based on the scientific literature, I’m willing to bet that my temporary rounded-back deadlifts were merely a symptom of insufficient hip extensor (glutes, hamstrings, adductor magnus) strength due to my temporary layoff from deadlifts following my injury.┬áIf I had a client today that came to me with this problem, sure I would evaluate their programming for upper back work (and likely add to it), but I would also take a long hard look at where their hip extensor development and function is.

Anyone have any opinions or experienced something similar?

References Show

Get an evidence-based inbox

Submit your email to get regular updates on how the latest developments in exercise science can help you maximize your physical potential.

Comments

  1. JT says

    Dan, along with glute-ham raises what do you think about other assistant work such as back extensions or even reverse-hyper extensions?

    On another note, for tall guys like me (over 6'4) with a long torso and long femurs I personally find a "hybrid" of the stiff-legged deadlift and Romanian deadlift a great exercise. I guess I am saying this because it seems like too many focus on the deadlift alone because they think (unless it's for a competition) they have to do it.

  2. says

    Good point JT. I love back extensions and reverse hypers, but up till this point in time, I feel that the bulk of my posterior chain work was hip dominant. The glute-ham raise provided a knee-dominant option while still providing activity at the hip and lower back (even if just isometric), so it was a nice change, and was quite a weakness for me initially.

    The only problem with reverse hypers is that most gyms up here don't have the machine at all, and there is still some controversy over the potential lumbar flexion that can occur when the pelvis is pulled down and forward at the bottom of the range of motion of the exercise. Many powerlifters swear by it and feel it provides a traction-like, or decompressing effect on their spines, while others feel (often clinicians/scientists) that this is a disc injury waiting to happen. I'd love to spend more time using one, as I think that they can be performed safely.

    I absolutely agree that people should experiment with other deadlift variations (romanians, stiff-legged, dimels), also add in different heights (off the rack, on mats, from a deficit) and with different bars (thick bar, trap bar). While I'm much shorter than 6'4", I have a long torso relative to a short pair of legs, so I feel your pain!

  3. JEFF KING says

    I read a lot about reverse hypers by Louie Simmons and westside-barbell.com . This is 1 of my favourite movements which has really helped save my back and build hamstrings. The traction they give you feels great after a heavy deadlift or squat or cleans work out. Since I also have a lot of back, hip, hamstring tightness anyway too.

    You're right saying that a lot of gyms don't have these machines which is too bad because MOST of the people in the over 40+ crowd that gyms cater to suffer from back issues and SHOULD be doing a reverse hyper
    IMO.
    Although it has been type cast as a "Powerlifting Movement" since Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell are associated with powerlifting.
    There is a variation with mini bands or without resistance laying feet up upside down on a back extension bench you could do without an actual reverse hyper machine. (More hamstrings feel with the bands I noticed.)
    Back Extensions with a bench or resistance bands and reverse hypers are a combo I like to do as assistance exercises for back or legs.

  4. says

    That's a good variation Jeff. I've also seen them done with a stability ball on top of a bench. The ball gives the extra height so the legs don't hit the ground (for most), but it's difficult to provide sufficient resistance. Nothing beats the real thing, but I guess that most gyms feel the demand isn't there so the cost/benefit ratio isn't favourable (in their minds).

  5. JEFF KING says

    I tried the ball version and it works. But I found you're thinking more about balancing than the actual exercise and what it should be doing and how it should be feeling.

    "most gyms feel the demand isn't there so the cost/benefit ratio isn't favourable (in their minds)."
    Yes and as I said
    "MOST of the people in the over 40+ crowd that gyms cater to suffer from back issues and SHOULD be doing a reverse hyper
    Although it has been type cast as a "Powerlifting Movement" "

  6. James Bolduc says

    Great article, very good read. What are your views on the eccentric portion of the deadlift?

  7. says

    I generally don't emphasize it, and if any, prefer to minimize it if possible in my own training. I don't have favourable leverages for the DL so calling my eccentric "controlled" might be generous.

    When working with others, controlled, but on the quick side for tempo.

  8. Derrick Blanton says

    Dan, this has been on my mind lately. First of all, brilliant analysis.

    This is tricky stuff! The barbell is a cold, hard, detective. It will find the energy leak and exploit it. I really think the energy leak can and does go either way with the T-spine vs. hip torque extensors.

    If you are weak in the hip extensors, this will come out with a strategy by the body to shorten the lever, as you found out. Hence, a rounded upper back.

    And yet, if you are weak in the T-spine, it will obviously express itself… at the T-spine! Again, a rounded upper back.

    In energy leak case #1, the T-spine surrenders the battle to assist the hips, and in energy leak case #2, the T-spine loses the battle directly with the bar.

    Here’s where things get strange:

    I have found by strengthening my T-extensors dynamically and statically, and also mentally cueing that I am lifting the load WITH MY UPPER BACK, (as though I am an armless puppet pulled like a marionette through the upper back with a string), that it strangely feels like I’m now lifting with an added agonistic force, and counter-intuitively, actually easier at the hips. That is to say, an actual dynamic “pulling from the upper back force” = extended T-spine = (paradoxically) improved hip torque expression.

    Sorry if that was a little tedious to understand, basically I feel like I’m lifting with more force, even with the extended, longer T-spine lever. So rounding no longer feels like any advantage whatsoever.

    Thoughts? DB

  9. Vlad Padina says

    Dan,

    Maybe it’s not about [RELATIVELY] weak hip extensors, but simply a technique to lift more weight on a constant basis.
    Could Benny or Andy or KK lift those weights with straight/arched upper backs?

    Also, considering the SAID principle, lifting with a somewhat rounded upper back should produce adaptations in the spine that will allow you to lift this way without injury, IF you start light.
    This will probably happen as it should only if you use such a technique from the start, not only when testing your max, when, if you didn’t practice keeping your T Spine only SOMEWHAT rounded, it might round dangerously.

  10. JOHN says

    Hi Dan,
    When i deadlift above 80% of my max my lower back rounding seems inevitable. It’s not extreme though but the rounding occurs.
    Is it also a sign of weak hips? Or weak lower back? Or both?

    I have a strong upper back but the legs are weaker. My squat max is 70% of my deadlift max.

    What do you suggest?
    Thanks

  11. says

    Without being able to see you lift it is hard to say specifically. If you have clips available feel free to email me and I’ll take a look. I would also look specifically at where the rounding occurs, is it specific to the L-Spine or in the T-spine?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *