I’ve written a lot over the years on the topic of posture in the deadlift and Lord knows that there is a heap of blog posts and Youtube video out there as well. Not surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of controversy on the subject. Discussion ranges from what is most optimal for moving the most weight to what is more likely to get you injured to what just looks better (we are all so vain).
My insight is from the perspecitve of someone who has spent years struggling to iron out his deadlift, enduring pain, injury and setbacks and taking plenty of notes from others in the process. I’ve had a decade’s worth of stagnation, including minor aches and pains to major events that kept me out of the gym for weeks on end. For what should have been my most formative years, my pull was much like a truck stuck in the mud and getting it out took a level of planning and attention that, frankly, few have to engage in.
One of the big lessons was discovering the role leverages play in your set up and your ability to handle stress from week to week. The conclusion from all of that was that different people are going to have to follow a different set of rules when it comes to making their deadlift program sustainable. This is obvious when we look at the top 100 list on Powerliftingwatch.org and consider how many different technical approaches have been used in order to pull world-record weight.
Some lifters have rather long femurs and short backs, meaning they hinge over like a crane and use almost exclusively hip power in order to lock out the weight. A short back is easier to support and extend in this type of lifter. On the other hand, stockier lifters such as myself will squat lower into the bar, requiring a lot more leg drive, an upright position and a much smaller margin for error. If you take the ape-index of either lifter down a little bit, suddenly you have a much more awkward and cumbersome movement that will take a bigger toll, require longer recovery time and will probably result in more overuse issues. An awkward setup almost seeks relief through a rounded back.
The two big things to consider with posture in the deadlift is technical efficiency and injury prevention. A rounded back can actually improve technical efficiency in some respects but will also obliterate it in others. When the spine rounds, the bar is allowed to stay closer to the center of mass and that means that more weight can be moved for the same effort of the glutes and hamstrings.
That’s all well and good if we’re considering the path of the bar from the floor to the knees but once the bar clears the knees the game changes. Where, mechanically, the lifter should be strongest and able to pull the bar back into the hips in a violent and decisive fashion, those who end up at the knee drooped over and hanging on their erectors will find that the glutes and hamstrings will have a harder time finishing the pull.
As far as injury concern, most lifters instinctively see very rounded backs in the deadlift as being a recipe for low back issues over the years. I distinctly remember being lectured about my horrendous pulling mechanics early on with a common warning of impending injury. I dismissed them. After all, why did I have to worry about deadlifting? I was consistently getting stronger. I felt good during every workout and all of my progress showed no signs of slowing down. I told myself the human body was a wonderful machine that can mold itself to handle just about any scenario. I was antifragile, resilient and adaptable. Right up until I wasn’t.
The first injury I had was much like the dozen that came after it. A pretty routine deadlift session was dramatically interrupted on a heavy attempt when my shoulders dumped halfway up, pulling my spine out of position and putting extra torque on my lower back. This culminated with a wet pop that took about 5 minutes to morph into extreme tightness and excruciating pain. Over 3-4 weeks I eased back in until I could pull normally again without pain. I got stronger, stronger, stronger and…. POP…. injured. Repeat a dozen or so times over 10 years.
Now, obviously my individual experience with the deadlift is not a proxy for everybody out in the world who is pulling right now. When figuring out best practices you have to take into account the aggregate and weigh what is likely to happen and how that risk weighs against the benefits that most lifters are likely to experience. One persons experience is just that. But, I had been looking for a remedy long enough to discover a network of people who have had a similar experience to myself. This experience wasn’t just defined by a history of back pain or injury with the deadlift, but had a theme of recurrence that did not let up until a specific action took place: additional focus on the muscles of the midsection so that the spine can be braced and maintain position throughout the entire pull.
Now, there are those who rely on sparse data to prop up an ideology up dismissiveness around technique and injury. The rationale goes that the rounding in the lower back doesn’t seem to correlate to injuries and that pain studies show that people’s pain experience is influenced by other factors aside from actual injury. This leads them to suggest that deadlift injuries are often over-hyped, the lifter is better off when they get back on the horse as fast as possible and that much of the obsession over technique and posture is little more than a distraction that makes them less likely to do so.
There certainly is a type of lifter who will fixate on every little thing and will ultimately sideline their progress or recovery by engaging this sort of hypochondria. I’m surely sympathetic of the mission to get more people active and, in the general population, that becomes difficult when they’re given more excuses and points of worry to fuel their inaction. However, I take exception when that mission gives priority to low level lifters and those who are inherently more durable and displaces those who have real chronic issues to be addressed. To anyone who has spent years looking for answers, getting the “nah, it’ll be fine” approach from a medical professional (who works in an industry that is historically ABYSMAL in their treatment of back issues) isn’t just unsatisfying, it’s insulting.
Those dedicated lifters with chronic issues are the ones under-represented in the studies. They are the ones who are likely to work through pain instead of being derailed by it. They are the ones who develop abuse habits with anti-inflammatories and pain killers to get through one more workout. They are the ones who will compete with torn tendons and herniated discs, who won’t miss their last deadlift attempt simply because their bicep went out on the one before it.
“Pain is influenced by psychosocial factors”. No shit, and it goes both ways.
There is no doubt that the weekly stress and mental fortitude of the seasoned competitor is different than the amateur. As it stands right now there is not an appropriate metric in these pain and injury studies to label career lifters separately. No one would consider making recommendations for NFL players based on injury data from rec-league weekend warriors, so until there is some way of filtering out subjects based on time spent training, consistency, effort, achievement, etc…. I reserve the right to be skeptical.
Even if you buy into the data revolving around injury rates, mechanical forces in the spine and the study of psychological factors as they relate to the experience of pain, you still have to concede that the number of people who deal with chronic recurring lower back injuries as a result of a subpar deadlift setup or weak supportive muscles (that do not sufficiently adapt with simply more deadlifting) is non-zero. That means that, at the very least, you have to consider the possibility that getting a stronger midsection and learning how to prevent movement in your spine during a lift will be necessary to continue deadlifting injury-free.
That doesn’t mean it is a MUST, it means it is a possibility.
When you add onto that the basic inefficiencies that come with the rounded spine that I mentioned earlier, it seems like a no-brainer that basic fundamental practice in the deadlift should involve some attention to positioning of the spine and neutral bracing of the midsection. Every sport that has ever existed has a basic list of fundamentals that good coaches prioritize with new athletes. Every one of those sports also has examples of those who break the rules, yet it still doesn’t change the necessity for the rules in the first place.
No matter how you slice it, a spine that gives under the weight of a barbell as the knees and hips violently extend to break it off the floor is not conducive to an optimal transfer of force; it’s shitty and it wastes energy. That only flies with a lifter who is working around a torso that cannot keep pace with the force produced by the muscles of the legs and hips AND who happens to have an amount of durability in and around the spine that can hang long term. That means not falling apart through the entire climb from novice to advanced with all of the inevitable maximal and super-maximal attempts that happen in between. Is that durability featured in a lot of people or a little? I can’t say, but it’s certainly not everyone.
There are a handful of very talented deadlifters who have achieved high status despite the obstacle that this setup creates. The two that come to mind are Steve Johnson and Evan Kardon. Steve Johnson has had over a 900 lb deadlift and Evan Kardon has pulled as much as 855; they both did so at a relatively light body weight and with a hallmark droop in their posture. What you will notice about these lifters is that their initial pull into the bar is extremely violent and the break off the ground is typically the strongest point of their lifts. You also will notice that any weight over 70% moves like molasses once it’s over the knees.
So how can somebody be so strong as to pull well over 800 lb with speed in such a disadvantaged position as when the bar is on the ground but not reproduce that conviction of movement in what should be the most mechanically advantaged position? The answer is body positioning; the thing that allows them to move so explosively off the ground with such heavy weights which also became their crutch.
Evan and Steve, both monstrous pullers, typically end up with knees that lock prematurely.
If you consider what the fastest cleanest lockouts look like, you’re going to think of a lifter who is braced the fuck in, meaning not a lot of movement occurrs in the spine and posture does not change very much as a bar leaves the floor. They’re going to be a bit more upright as the bar clears the knees and that advantaged position is going to set them up to slice through the lockout the way a hot knife slices through fat. Pullers like Johnson and Kardon, on the other hand, start with a soft torso and end up at the knee with the glutes and hammies stretched and the shoulders dumped forward over the bar. It’s hard for the glutes to decisively kick the hips forward when it’s attached to a sandbag that is loose and spongey.
Now this isn’t to discredit the strength these guys have; the power required to lift these loads at such a low body weight is immense. If anything it highlights how impressive their feat is given the obstacle in front of them. And it shows that even with glaring inefficiencies in technique, you get good at how you train. You can still potentially get very strong with non-optimal setups but the point remains there is a cap on performance that doesn’t need to be there. I can’t even critique their mechanics at this point in their career because these cues have to be implemented when you’re starting out, not when you’ve already done the hard work of amassing an 800 plus lb deadlift.
It’s worth noting that my emphasis here is on extreme rounds in the back or at the very least rounds that become more pronounced as the weight gets heavier or as the bar gets closer to lock out. I am not saying that there should never be around in the spine, in fact the upper back can round somewhat liberally in my opinion. So long as it starts and stays that way.
It is the lower back that should be fused as that is the area of the spine that deals with the highest amount of torque and is universally associated with injury. While you can’t travel very far before talking to somebody who has experienced some lower back issue at some point while deadlifting, those issues in the thoracic or cervical spine are almost unheard of.
You can obtain for yourself a pretty substantial mechanical advantage by letting your arms hang and allowing the shoulders to round forward somewhat. That’s equivalent to making your arms longer which gives you an advantage at both the start and the finish of the deadlift. But this advantage is only worthwhile if it doesn’t sacrifice stiffness through the midsection and upper back. If the cost of this is turning your torso into a wet sponge then there will be a substantial trade off and it may not be to your benefit.
If you are going to strive for a slightly rounded upper back it’s important that that becomes part of your setup ritual and then it is executed exactly the same every single time. Guys like Konstantinovs were known for having a pronounced upper back round were notorious for being mechanically efficient and consistent. Look back to any KK video you can find and you will not see any sign of give as he pulls deadlifts in the mid 900lb range without so much as a belt to support him.
After one of his biggest attempts, he became famous for screaming “This is my fucking belt!” and pointing to his stomach, which looked not unlike the front of a Mack truck. Where people might see the fact that he went beltless as an inexplicable decision to disadvantage himself, it was actually his biggest asset. All of those hundreds of thousands of reps that he pulled without a bet endowed him with one of the strongest midsections in the world, so much so that he could support a pronounced round in his upper back under 900-plus pounds and keep it rigid like wrought iron. No matter what angle you look at him from and how round his back appeared to be, you’ll also notice that his lower back was always completely flat. I believe that without all of those boxes being checked, he would not have been the puller that he was.
Long story short, the back is indeed resilient but not infinitely so and long term success means some work towards optimizing mechanics and preventing unnecessary setbacks. When those two things happen to coincide, it’s an easy decision. Spend some time learning how to bring your abs and obliques into the pull without just blindly pushing out against a belt (that’s a list of exercises for another article) and practice locking your lower back neutral and keeping it there, even if you start with your upper back slightly rounded. Once you feel the start of your pull in your stomach, you will be amazed at how much more purchase you will get on a resting barbell at the start of your deadlift.