Article written by Seth Larsen
It’s time to address every YouTube form expert’s favorite topic: the deadlift. We’ve all seen it. As soon as anybody posts a video in which their spine is not in an absolutely perfect line, the trolls come out of the woodwork. “You’re going to hurt your back lifting like that!” “It’s really not safe to let your back round. Stop lifting with your ego and drop the weight!” “Don’t you know you’re supposed to keep your back straight when you deadlift?” These are just a few examples of inane babble from couch potatoes who wish they could lift like grown-ups. They, like many of you reading this, have read a book or two about lifting and have appointed themselves masters of the deadlift. I’m here to tell you how wrong all of you are. There is NO single way to deadlift.
Let’s start with the basics. We all learned to deadlift in roughly the same way, and I’m sure we can agree on a few things about it. Pull yourself into the bar on set-up, keep your back tight, and resist flexion of the lumbar spine during the lift. I have no problems with any of these cues. However, the misapplication of them has created a monster. Not just one monster, mind you. Many trolls have been born of these ideas. I will grant that for a beginner, focusing on these things is of paramount importance. They are fundamentals that will keep you healthy as you develop the proper technique that will suit you the best.
The previous sentence is the key to all of our success as lifters. Please don’t waste anyone’s time arguing that a 5’5” 225lb guy should have the same deadlift technique as somebody who is 6’5” and weighs roughly the same amount. Yes, we should be telling that lanky bastard to eat more, but we need to be aware of the fact his deadlift will and SHOULD look vastly different from his Hobbit of a training partner. Their lever lengths, the ratio of those levers to each other, and thus the direction and amount of force produced by each of their individual muscles will be different. Based on these mechanical differences in leverage coupled with differences in mobility, the angle of force transfer through the lifter’s muscles and bones, through the barbell, and up off of the ground must vary. What does all this biomechanical mumbo-jumbo mean? A slight round in the taller lifter’s back isn’t going to cause his spine to shoot out his butthole!
This is where the trolls start to freak out. They talk about shear forces on the lumbar spine in flexion, degrees of kyphosis, and anatomy of the intervertebral discs. They spout off quotes from popular beginner lifter books written by drunks who couldn’t hold Ed Coan’s jock strap (truthfully, I’m not sure I’d be worthy of said jock strap myself, but that’s neither here nor there), let alone tell real strength athletes how to lift. If you read my last article (insert thoracic curve article link), I even talk about hyperflexion and the danger it poses over the long term. Unfortunately for the trolls, what I said before does not necessarily hold true during one individual lift. This once again brings us to the problem with misapplication of knowledge.
The only way to settle anything about this debate is to take us all back to the anatomy. I’m not going to get into the effects of cervical curvature on the deadlift at this time, so just try to keep your head neutral and save yourself some money at the chiropractor. The most important skeletal anatomy when discussing the “rounded back” deadlift is that of the thoracic and lumbar spine. Each portion of the spine has a distinct curve at rest: the thoracic is in kyphosis (flexion) and the lumbar is in lordosis (extension). The musculature of the trunk, shoulders, and hip girdle keep these curves in their proper places relative to the other bones. See that word relative? That’s a big one. This means that depending on the length of one’s torso, femurs, and tibias, that person’s spinal curvature will differ. The degree of difference may be small to the naked eye, but from a biomechanical standpoint, that change in angle has a major effect. Alterations in the lumbar lordosis and thoracic kyphosis result in significant changes in muscle force, muscle length, and internal spinal loads. It would seem to follow then, that each lifter would be best served to alter these angles to the optimal degree for their individual anatomy.
The technique waters have probably become a bit muddy at this point. I understand that, so I’ll make some overarching generalizations that we should all (probably) stick to the vast majority of the time. Should you deadlift with completely straight legs and a hyper-flexed thoracic and lumbar spine, making your back do all the work? No. Even doing stiff-legged deadlifts calls for a little more control than this. Should you squat down to the bar (as some coaches who will not be named teach), keep your lumbar and thoracic spine fully extended during your entire pull? No, unless you want to have the best looking 300lb deadlift at your local Globo Gym. Should you keep your lumbar spine hyperextended and round your upper back completely? NO. The magic technique is somewhere in the middle, and it will take time for you to develop. Personally, I pull well over 600lb with a noticeable round in my upper back and slight round in my lumbar spine. I’ve got long arms and a short torso, and that’s what works for ME.
I can hear the trolls and online form heroes in the distance, and they are approaching rapidly. “But the lumbar spine is weaker in flexion!” “You even said in that other article that a compressive load on the spine in flexion creates a greater risk of disk herniation!” Both of these things are partially true. The lumbar spine is far weaker in extreme flexion, where the lordosis has completely disappeared. A compressive load directly on the spine in extreme flexion poses a greater risk of disk herniation. However, this is not the end of the story. Multiple studies, published in journals far more reputable and peer-reviewed than any online forum and performed by researchers far more qualified than any of us, have shown that a slight to moderate flattening of the lumbar lordosis is actually protective to the fragile structures of the spine. Blasphemy, you say? Well, sorry folks. The biomechanics speak for themselves. The internal load on the disks, the shear force on the ligaments, and the compression of the vertebrae themselves are all reduced when the lumbar spine is taken out of full extension and given a slight “round.” This actually reduces the risk for injury, which I’d say is a good enough reason to set your ego aside when judging others’ lifts.
Now that I have given you all the green light to have a little more leeway with your pulls, I want to make one thing very clear: this only applies if you maintain the same spinal curvature throughout the lift! The protective effects of this reduction in lumbar lordosis completely disappear if the angles are shifting during the pull. The same goes for the thoracic spine. Rounding it can be ok, and works for many people (go watch Konstantinovs lift, and tell me that thoracic flexion doesn’t work), but trying to dynamically change from flexion to extension of the spine under load can be very dangerous. If you’re curious as to what can happen with these types of dynamic changes, go look up an X-ray of spondylolisthesis. It’s a bad time. This is where “keeping your upper back tight” comes in as a cue. I know some really strong guys that get away with using their thoracic spine like a whip when they deadlift, but purely from a health-preservation standpoint I recommend against it. Of course, there is always going to be spinal movement as we come off the floor or get closer to lockout, but this should be minimal. Whether you are going to deadlift with a completely neutral, hyperextended, hyper-flexed, or more of a balanced spine, one thing remains the same: you must keep the curve relatively constant to reduce the risk of serious injury. Your personal choice of form is up to you, your coach, and your mechanical advantages. Hell, even though I wrote this more from the standpoint of a conventional puller, if you want to go sumo, be my guest! Just keep your back tight and your curve consistent and you will pull stronger, longer. Now, how about we all just shut the hell up about everbody else’s form and go deadlift? Got it? Good.
Seth Larsen has a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology and Neuroscience and is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine candidate for 2015 at Midwestern University. He is a former NASM-CPT and student athletic trainer. He currently serves as a reserve officer in the US Navy Medical Corps while he finishes medical school with a specialization in primary care sports medicine. Seth is a former NCAA football player who now competes as a LW (105kg) strongman, Highland Games athlete, and Powerlifter.
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