Why It's Sometimes Totally Okay to Lift With a Rounded Back
Take a look at top-level deadlifters pulling their heaviest lifts. Many of them intentionally round their upper backs from the start of the lift. What does that mean for the rest of us?
There are perhaps a few athletes who are able to maintain an excellent flat back position right to their max deadlift. If this is you, congratulations. For the rest of us mere mortals, we must accustom ourselves to the fact that when the weights get heavy, our bodies try to find the path of least resistance.
One way of getting around this would be to never work to max. Though where is the fun in that? I agree to a degree. I believe that the majority of your deadlift work should be based on the percentages - roughly 55%-80% of your max. This can be split between speed work and heavy work.
I also believe that on the occasions you do choose to lift heavier, for example in a competition, you should never work to your true max. This is where excessive spinal flexion occurs and injuries happen. Leave a little in the tank. (Ever noticed that when a top deadlifter like Andy Bolton (pictured to the right) pull a world record, it still looks pretty easy?)
On these occasions, some flexion will happen. You can choose to ignore this (not advisable), fight against this and attempt to move your back into extension, or embrace it - both literally and metaphorically.
Why Do Many Top-Level Deadlifters Choose to Embrace it?
Do you think they do this because they don’t know any better? Definitely not. It is purposeful. This not only means it is a choice, but that it is for a reason.
Perhaps they are looking to optimize levers by keeping shoulders as directly over the bar as possible, keeping the bar close to their center of gravity. Perhaps it’s simply because they have worked out this is the way their body works best in terms of picking up the heaviest weights off the floor - even heavier than if they maintain a completely neutral back. The key is to minimize risk and maximize weight - an optimal trade-off.
How Is This Possible?
- Most top deadlifters keep the rounding to the upper (thoracic) back, with the lower back relatively flat, thus staying away from full-range lumbar flexion.
- They begin in this slightly rounded position, and stay in this position until lockout.
- They train to lift like this, and lift strong like this. It’s not an unintentional deviation. They know that when it comes to lifting the most weight off the ground, their back is going to go into some degree of flexion as this is the way they can lift the most. So they train it - and learn to control it.
We can also apply this to the world of strongman training, even more so. The classic example is Atlas stones. If you choose to lift stones, you need to be fully aware that stones have to be lifted with a rounded back. In fact, it is this awareness that will help to protect your back. Fighting against this position is pointless, and dangerous. Instead, you need to embrace it, and brace against your back position.
Again, we can learn from those who do this at a world-class level. Look at the guys who do it efficiently and you will see that the key is to keep the spine stable, and the stone close to your center of mass. The top level guys curl around and over the stone, and maintain this position. This is absolutely critical, and mirrors the deadlift discussion earlier. The level of rounding, or flexion, is important - but not as important as the ability to maintain this position for the majority of the lift.
In order to accumulate strength to maintain this position, it needs to be trained. It is important to train for this incrementally, just as you would with anything else. In fact, it’s even more important to build up strength where the position is less than optimal. Just because you are aware that the position occurs within your sport does not mean it is optimal. But it does mean you can train for it. This is true of any sport. Training to be strong in this rounded position makes sense seeing that you know you are going to be lifting, and lifting extremely heavy, in that position.
It is worth noting that back flexion when lifting is also a fact of real life. When lifting objects other than barbells, you may be in a less than optimal position, through no fault of your own. Of course, in the event you can lift using neutral back position and a perfect set-up, then do so.
When Learning to Lift With a Rounded Back:
- Understand what you are doing - If you choose to round your back, understand it is a choice, understand why you are doing it, and that it does increase risk of injury, particularly if these principles are not adhered to. Do not use it as an excuse for poor lifting.
- Build up progressively and slowly - This is how to get strong in these positions and use them to your advantage to lift heavier weights.
- Keep it to thoracic flexion where possible - This will help to keep the benefit-to-risk ratio in your favor.
- Avoid excessive lumbar flexion - There is a different between allowing your back deviating a small amount from a neutral back, than to carelessly allow for massive rounding of the lower back.
- Maintain back position through the lift - Choose how you are going to lift before you get started. Then, stick to it and work hard to maintain this position.
- Do your ab work - You are going to need to brace hard against these positions in order to maintain them.
- Work out what is best for you - Experiment within the margins of sensibility and find out how you and your body work best.
It can be advantageous to round your back out of choice, as long as it is done using a controlled degree of flexion and you maintain this throughout the lift. Build up your rounded back strength in a considered manner, in the knowledge that it plays a part in your sport and life, so when it happens you are prepared and ready for it. Think of it as the heavy duty weapon in your arsenal. A strong option that you only bring out when you need to, but when you do, you know how to handle it.
Photo 1 provided by Andy Bolton.
Photo 2 courtesy of Becca Borawski.
Photo 3 courtesy of Shutterstock.