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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. If 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?