Roundbackers Unite!

Most of us know the Deadlift as an exercise that works the lower back, along with its effects on the glutes, hamstrings, traps/mid-back, and just about everything else.

Nearly everyone stresses the importance of keeping the lower back extended or at least neutral while deadlifting, or doing any other movement for that matter – that is, keeping your back arched or, better, flat. Stuart McGill, one of the foremost experts on the spine, considers that neutral spine position to be both the strongest (from the standpoint of minimizing damage) and thus the healthiest.

Accordingly the deadlift is taught with a flat lumbar spine. The rationale is to protect and stabilize the spine – which is the role of both the spinal erectors, the numerous abdominal muscles, and most everything else in the trunk. This is good advice, in general. However, there’s reason to question the notion that you must never let your back round under any circumstances.

A whole lot of very strong deadlifters have lifted with form that would make any armchair Internet coach cry, from Bob Peoples to Vince Anello to current favorite Konstantin Konstantinovs. It appears that theory tells us one thing – that the lumbar spine is weakest and most prone to injury in a flexed position – while the empirical evidence from strong-ass deadlifters is showing us something else.

The reason for all this roundbacking, empirically speaking, is simple: when you’re pulling weights that some multiple of your body weight, it becomes a matter of optimal leverages. In all cases, you want to maximize your ability to apply force and minimize the distance the bar will travel. When deadlifting, that means keeping the bar close to your shins and keeping your shoulders and scapulae directly over the bar at the start, and keeping the bar close to your center of gravity as you pull.

When you pull a heavy deadlift, it’s much more efficient to keep your hips high and effectively stiff-leg the weight. With the hips high, you’re basically getting the knees out of the way; as a result, the bar stays closer to your center of gravity and the bar path is reduced as a result. It’s much easier to brute-force the weight up that way, as compared to the more technical style normally taught.

This is different than in a clean, where you’re trying to get the bar into a specific position for the second pull, the explosive phase of the lift. You need the bar somewhat out in front of you, to get around the knees and into the proper position; in fact, analysis shows that both the clean and snatch-grip pulls follow an s-shaped movement. In a deadlift, that particular goal is absent; less bar travel is a more efficient and much stronger pull. You get a shorter, straighter line this way.

In this light, back rounding isn’t happening so that your back will lift the weight (which really is a no-no). Instead, it’s to keep your hips in the optimal position while getting you closer to the bar and shortening the distance it will travel. The hips are ideally doing most of the work, not the lower back.

What you’ll tend to notice with the low-hip or clean style that’s commonly taught is that, as the weights get stronger, your hips will “shoot up” when you begin the pull, which wastes movement and can kill a heavy lift. If you’re coming into it convinced that high-hip and round-back pulling is bad, you’d probably notice this happening and try to lower the weight to work on your form. That’s one option I guess, but I wouldn’t expect that to carry you very far if your goal is to improve your maximum deadlift strength.

I’m going to suggest a different approach here. I don’t think the hip-shooting is a cue to reduce the weights; I think it’s a cue that your hips are in the wrong place to begin with. High hips aren’t a form defect; when hips shoot up before the pull, it means that 1) your body’s trying to achieve the best pulling position and 2) you have a poor setup because your hips aren’t already where they need to be. This is a case of your body defaulting to its strongest position, in other words.

If you look at the deadlift as a “hip hinge” movement (thanks to IGx for that one), instead of a squat or a clean, this makes more sense. The deadlift isn’t a squat with the bar in your hands. It’s not a clean. It’s a deadlift. These are all different exercises with different needs, so I’m going to suggest embracing the style instead of considering it a fatal flaw that must be fixed.

The only issue that can be raise here is safety; after all, isn’t this potentially dangerous? It can be, yes, but there’s a lot of issues we have to look at first. Namely, if the biggest guys are rounding their backs, to at least some degree, and we aren’t seeing them destroy their backs, then clearly there’s something else going on here. Remember, observations are what drive the model; the model doesn’t dictate reality. This isn’t proof by itself, but it is a good starting point.

Konstantin Konstantinovs, Svend Karlsen, Jouko Ahola, Ano Turtiainen, Vince Anello, Bob Gaynor, Bill Kazmaier, and of course Bob Peoples are all examples of this mindset in play, whether they’re doing it on purpose (like Peoples was) or whether they just pull without worrying about their form like a frantic hen.

Yes, form-warriors, I know that Konstantinovs’ lumbar rounding isn’t very pronounced in most of his videos, which is because he’s smart and doesn’t take the dreaded Side-Angle Deadlift Video. He still rounds, and he admits he pulls that way on purpose.

In any case, Konstantinovs is not the only one. Lifters have been pulling round-backed since at least Bob Peoples, and Peoples was advocating the style back in the 1940s; he also pulled over 700s lbs weighing under 200 at the time. Strongmen have little choice but to pull round-backed on events like the Atlas stones, and you can see in Karlsen and Ahola’s videos that they deadlift that way too.

Cat-backing: Round-backing’s Ugly Sister

I will concede that this style is not for newbies, and beginners should be taught the “correct” deadlift style. Newbies that pull with a round back most likely just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a lack of knowledge, lack of body awareness, or both. Not knowing any better is not an excuse for cat-backing the weights.

This is equivalent of the guy that’s completely sedentary outside his job, then bends over one day to pick up a 10 lb box and hurts his back. Of course he’s injury-prone with a flexed spine; he’s done absolutely nothing to prepare himself for the strain. If you got this same untrained, sedentary person to squat with maximal weights, you can almost guarantee he’d hurt himself doing that, too.

With that in mind you have to distinguish between cat-backing and round-backing. Cat-backing is when you start to pull and it looks like somebody scared a cat. The back is arched due to weak muscles and simply not knowing how to keep tight. What you’ll see is guys that either start right out with a rounded back, or their back will round as they start the pull. Neither is good; it’s a compensatory movement. This should be highly discouraged, because it will inevitably mess you up.

There’s a difference in cat-backing and in pulling round-backed intentionally and knowingly when you’ve developed the strength to handle it. Strength is not only an adaptation of the muscles and nervous system, remember. Connective tissues have to adapt as well. Just as an experienced powerlifter can handle 1RM squat weights without injury, it’s just as possible that experienced strength athletes will adapt both anatomically and technically to a round-backed style of pulling.

With that in mind, my argument here can be summed up as such: teach the “correct” style, but don’t freak out when a guy starts to get some rounding as his deadlift climbs over 400 lbs. You can either keep resetting to 135 and hoping that somehow light weights will carry over to max lifts (they won’t), or you can deal with the cards your dealt and adjust to the style.

The big concern is that rounding will wind up hurting you sooner or later – even if you don’t feel it now, you’re racking up microtrauma and one day you’ll get hurt. Appeal to consequences aside, this is despite no actual data to back up that claim.

Indeed Stuart McGill himself recently examined the spinal loads generated by several competitive strongmen across multiple events (PMID: 19528856). Strongman events aren’t the same thing as a barbell exercise, no. In fact, they’re arguably worse if you’re from the school of thought that sees the body as a fragile thing that must never move outside its preferred positions. Strongman events are odd lifts that put the body into weird positions.

In this study, McGill and co. look at several of these events, including the stone lift (or Atlas stones). The interesting parts:

The [stone lift] case study shows how the spine is fully flexed and remains flexed for the majority of the lift. The spine is “hooked” over the stone and remains hooked as the stone is rolled up to the thighs. The extension of the hip and spine is used to place the stone on the platform. The world-class strongman once again used total torso stiffening to lock the spine, whereas the club strongman moved the spine and had distinct phases in muscle activation, compromising both performance and protective stiffness.

Although it had been hypothesized that the SL would create the highest compressive load on the lumbar spine, this was not the case. The stone’s center of mass was positioned close to the low back by the strongman, who curled over the stone with a torso “hooking” technique. This required extreme spine flexion, which was maintained until the final hip and torso extension thrust to place the stone on the platform.

In his discussion, McGill reaches effectively the same conclusions as I have:

The SL is an interesting study for the tradeoff between performance and injury risk control. While the spine is fully flexed to hook over the stone, this assists in getting the stone as close as possible to the low back and hip. These are the joints subjected to the most torque and, therefore, are the limiters of performance (notwithstanding grip on the stone). However, full spine flexion is the posture in which the spine has the lowest tolerance or the highest risk of end-plate fracture. However, the spine in the world-class lifter remained in this locked position until the final extension phase needed to place the stone. In this way, spine power was low during the lifting phase (i.e., no spine motion). Low spine power reduces injury risk, and high spine power (both high load and high spine velocity) greatly increases injury risk.

Technique differences were observed between the world-class competitor and the others that led to superior stiffness and hip and back moment generation to enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury.

In other words, lifters that train with a rounded back adapt to it. By developing the isometric strength of the trunk muscles, postural stability of the lumbar spine can be maintained even in flexion. The hips and other related muscles are actually handling the loads, while the spine itself remains stable. As long as the spine power is low, then the risk of injury is low.

It’s a matter of timing, as experience lifters will engage and brace the core before movement begins at the hip, which itself has a protective effect on the spine.

McGill notes that this is a trade-off between safety and performance, which from the standpoint of a professional concerned with safety is completely understandable. For a strength athlete, this means that round-backing isn’t the unforgivable sin it’s so often made out to be. When you’re competing in any of these strength sports, you have to accept that you’re taking on the risk of injury. It just comes with the territory. If you don’t like it, then you’d do best to find a new hobby.

I read this is McGill’s way of saying “don’t do this, newbies, but if you’ve got the wherewithal of a high-level strength athlete, just be careful”. That’s a far cry from the form-warriors that want to appeal to made-up consequences, complete with injury statistics that don’t exist, would have you believe.

How to Round-back and Piss Off the Internet

You know I can’t leave you hanging with just the theory argument, so let’s talk practical gym-applications. First, we can start with Bob Peoples and how he described the form:

On October 4 I finally made a new world record deadlift record of 700 pounds. At this time I was lifting on normally filled lungs. However, I then started lifting on empty lungs and with a round back – that is I would breathe out to normal, round my back, raise the hips, look down and begin the lift. I feel this is much safer than following the customary advice of the experts. By breathing out you lessen the internal pressure and by lifting with a round back you lessen the leverage – all of which adds many pounds to your lift. I have used the reverse grip and also the overhand hook grip but I have now changed to the palms up or curl grip (with hook) and will experiment with it for a while to see if it helps.

Bob Peoples and Terry Todd

Bob Peoples and Terry Todd, surely ruining their spines

That’s the basic sequence of events to follow: exhale and round the thoracic spine, grab the bar, inhale into your gut and brace the spine, then pull.

There is one thing we can all agree on: to make this work, you need devastatingly strong lower-back and abdominal muscles. Bill Starr has long suggested doing Good Mornings, Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, and high-rep back hyperextensions to build the strength of the spinal erectors. This is not unlike the suggestions from Westside, as Louie Simmons has also recognized the value of having a very strong midsection, suggesting a healthy diet of glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, and assorted ab-strengthening work.

If you want to be a round-backer, you need to work the lower back and the abs. When is say work the abs, I don’t mean 100 crunches and then those leg raises where you hang from the sleeves on the bar. Use loaded exercises.

You also need to time your core bracing so that your lumbar spine is fixed into position before the movement begins. McGill notes that this timing is critical to the process, and I can see why. I’d be willing to bet large amounts of money that anyone getting injured from round-backing is either not doing this, such as the clueless noobs that don’t know any better, or simply has trunk muscles too weak to handle the weights.

So take your deep breath, brace the core, and pull.

Happy roundbacking.