Maximal deadlifts performed with a somewhat flexed thoracic may be one of the few lifts that receives more criticism than bench pressing with a huge arch. Both are highly controversial topics in terms of performance and safety, and receive equal amounts of attention from both elite and beginner lifters.
We see it all of the time on Instagram with athletes, these are the videos where comment sections turn into war zones. One of the main problems that comes with this topic is that there is no cut and dry answer. This is why most elite lifters shrug off negative comments because they understand that it’s almost inevitable in some forms of maximal pulling.
[Love deadlifting? Check out the 13 Undeniable Benefits of Deadlifts!]
This article will dive into the logistics of deadlifting with a rounded back, and why it’s so controversial. For expert advice, I reached out to some of the world’s best deadlifters and strength coaches for their input on the topic.
- Blaine Sumner: Holds multiple IPF equipped records
- Cailer Woolam: Current 198lb deadlift world record holder
- John Gaglione: Elite powerlifter & strength coach to world record holders
When pulling maximal loads, or 1-RM weight, some flexion is usually inevitable – is there a way as a coach you check form and assess when that flexion moves into a dangerous area?
Sumner: This is a perfect point. Something a lot don’t understand. Like it or not, we don’t lift 1-RM weights and push our bodies because it is safe. Some flexion at these intensities is bound to happen. The best way to improve it, is film yourself and be strict and critical of your training at sub-maximal weights. Don’t get in the habit of excessive flexion by being lazy, but understand it will happen.
As for how much is dangerous, it just depends on the individual. Some world class lifters will pull with a ton of flexion, and never have an injury. Some will pull with a perfectly flat back for years and the first time they have a little flexion, will herniate a disc. It is just so individual.
Woolam: It’s normal to have some upper back rounding during a max pull. Some of the best deadlifters even do this on purpose to give them an advantage. From a coach’s perspective, anything below the upper back rounding is a big no no. For one it’s likely to result in injury either immediately or over time. Also it’s not something that a novice lifter should be worried about.
Gaglione: How you start is how you should finish. For example, in a newer lifter who may have a weak core or upper back may start with a neutral spine, but may jerk the bar, and end in the somewhat fishing pole appearance. Their back goes into flexion very quickly, an that’s where I think the rounding can be dangerous. A lot of times you look at these elite lifters who pull with a somewhat rounded back, but if you look closely, that’s actually how they’re often starting.
Are there a few cues a lifter can keep in mind based off of your previous answer? Basically, can a lifter use self-assessment to know when they’re moving into a dangerously rounded pull?
Sumner: The best cue I can think of is to try and pack the shoulder blades before you initiate the pull. Trying to put your shoulder blade in the opposite butt pocket. Lots of upper back strengthening will help, as flexion almost always begins in the upper back during a pull. In terms of self-assessment, if you feel like your back is going to explode, you should probably stop!
Woolam: Just from my perspective, a little rounding of the upper back allows you to reach down further almost elongating your arms to some point. It also creates more leverage. You will start running into trouble when the rounding extends past your upper back. Besides a risk of injury, it will make you collapse forward making the lift less efficient.
Gaglione: When it comes to training the amount of acceptable flexion will be different than in competition. For me, I typically train athletes for technical maxes, as opposed to absolute maxes. What’s a weight you can perform with perfect execution and technique? I think that’s especially important for the deadlift because it’s so taxing on the spine, along with other factors. Let’s say you’re in a peaking cycle or competition, then it’s obviously going to tougher to maintain that perfectly neutral position.
Why do you think so many comments on social media are quick to claim “rounded back” on maximal pulls?
My example would be Stacy Burr’s recent 529 deadlift.
She pulled the lift well with some thoracic flexion, but nothing dangerous. I feel as though there’s a stigma that’s developed, and in reality if the lumbar is rigid and stable, then there isn’t a terrible amount of alarm.
Sumner: I think the majority of those comments come from new, uneducated powerlifters, or people who are not involved in the sport at all. Any well trained powerlifter could deadlift 225 with a perfectly flat back, but we are after maximal weights, not perfect form. Any sport at a high level is going to be played with compromised body positions. Football players cut on one leg while being chased and hit by 250 lb linebackers. In regards to comments on social media about that being “bad for your back”…. those who know, don’t care. Those who care, don’t know.
Woolam: It’s bound to happen at some point, especially during a max pull. I feel like that slight round optimizes your leverage, and for some it can be an imperative part of their deadlift. And you also have to remember that the rounding that you see may not even be as bad as it looks. ALL elite deadlifters have massive amounts of muscle in their upper backs. They are so muscular and thick that when they start to pull these muscles fully flex and males it look like the back is rounding more than it really is. So keep that in mind!
Gaglione: Burr was in a scenario where she was competing for forty grand. A lot of folks neglect to acknowledge that when it comes to a win like that, or a record, some flexion may happen because it’s an all or nothing type of scenario. If you’re in a competitive setting and your goal is to win and lift the most amount of weight possible, then that’s the kind of situation when you initiate the pull, then you should try to finish it.
Do you have any other talking points you’d want to add? You know heavy weight, so any input you have as a coach/athlete would be great.
Sumner: I tell all of my lifters the same thing, and this is especially harder for newer lifters to understand. When we powerlift, and go for a 1-RM, we are asking our body to move an extremely heavy object from point A to point B. Form is critical and it must be practiced properly. But when we ask our bodies to do this, we go into fight or flight mode and your body is going to do what it thinks it needs to do in order to move that weight from A to B. It might not always look pretty or perfect, but we are powerlifters, and weight is king.
Woolam: Upperback rounding is something ONLY an advanced deadlifter should even consider experimenting with. Also, your upper back needs to be very strong in order to make this work efficiently, or you will have no benefit from it.
Gaglione: In larger athletes it’s even tougher to analyze the neutral spine because their upper back may be so big from all of the mass they hold there. They make look overly flexed with a tiny amount of flexion, but it’s really just the amount of hypertrophy they may hold in their upper back. It’s easier to identify spinal positions with skinnier lifters who have less meat on them.
I also think the style of deadlift will influence any form of flexion. I don’t think sumo stance deadlifters will achieve nearly as much benefit as someone pulling conventional with any form of flexion. A lot of it depends on your stance and what’s your goal, is it a competition setting or is it a training setting? You also want to consider how flexion can impact recovery time.
Like arching in the bench press, maximal deadlifting with a slightly rounded back is a controversial and situational lift.
- Is it something new lifters should be doing? No.
- Is it something you should ignore in training? No.
- Should you practice neutral spine pulling so you have a higher rate of carry over in heavy pulls? Yes.
- Is there a time and place when competitive (elite) lifters can experience it/utilize it? Yes.
The biggest takeaway from the answers above is that every competitive lifter may experience some rounding from maximal pulls. What’s most important is that it doesn’t become a habit, especially in newer lifters. A knowledgeable coach will be your best bet in peaking and competitive settings at assessing your body’s limitations.
Feature images from @vanillagorilla92, @cailerc40, and @gaglionestrength Instagram pages.