We all know some lifters who have the perfect deadlift form with a straight back that seems effortless. Keeping our back straight means that we are using our core musculature, which is important when lifting maximal loads.
So how do you keep your back straight while deadlifting? You need to practice engaging your core properly and having an efficient setup that maintains the integrity of your spine throughout the lift. You can accomplish this by breathing and bracing deep into your belly to lock down your lumbar spine. Then once you start pulling, you want to ensure you’re using your full body as one unit.
For many of us, keeping our back straight sounds intuitive, but it can be hard to execute when lifting maximal loads. In this article, I will elaborate on what you should do to keep your back straight when deadlifting, and if you can’t, corrections on how to fix it.
What Does Keeping Our Back Straight Mean?
Our spine has certain curvatures when we are in a neutral position. When people speak about keeping their back straight, they are usually talking about their lower back (lumbar spine). In a neutral position, our lumbar spine is what’s called lordotic (slightly curved inward towards the stomach).
When people set up the deadlift, this slight curve is actually considered the ‘neutral position’, which needs to be maintained throughout the entire lift.
Again, the back is not going to appear perfectly straight like a ruler, but it would be straight if you drew a line from the back of the head to the lower back.
Why Should We Keep Our Back Straight While Deadlifting?
Maintaining a neutral back position helps buttress forces on our spine, in particular, shear forces.
Shear forces are unaligned forces pushing one part of the body in one direction, and another part of the body in the opposite direction. When we can’t maintain a neutral back, shear forces will increase at the level of the joint that is rounding.
It’s been said that injuries to the low back, such as disc herniations, are caused by loading the spine posteriorly (when the spine is rounding). So as much as possible, we want to maintain the natural extension of the low back, which will protect the spine from shear force and potential injury.
If you want to learn the best back angle for deadlifts then you can read our latest article discussing how your body proportions can impact your back angle.
Breathing & Bracing Properly To Keep Our Back Straight While Deadlifting
It all starts with having a proper brace.
Bracing starts with the breath. You can read more about how to breathe properly in the deadlift, but essentially we want to breathe deep into our belly in a 360-degree fashion to create stiffness at the lumbar spine.
When performed correctly, this brace creates intra-abdominal pressure and we want to keep this pressure throughout the lift by holding our breath and contracting our core musculature. This ‘breathing and bracing’ technique is how we can maintain a neutral spine and keep a flat back while deadlifting.
To practice this technique, start by wrapping your hands around your stomach. Take a deep breath in and feel your stomach expand. Your chest should not rise as you’re breathing. The key is to breathe into your stomach. Then once you have your air, hold it in, and contract your stomach muscles by pushing out. You should feel the entire core musculature from your lower back to the front of your stomach brace hard against your hands. You should push your abs just like you would if you’re releasing your bowels.
Other ways you can practice “breathing and bracing” in a neutral spine is by doing core exercises such as bird dogs or side planks. You can also practice the same technique just moving stuff around the house. Be conscious of your positioning and practice consistently with purpose.
Once you’ve mastered this breathing drill, you can start practicing while deadlifting.
It’s important to note that having a straight back doesn’t mean you are impenetrable to injury, but it could help in some cases. The important part here is to brace properly for both safety and performance.
What Causes Our Back To Round While Deadlifting?
If you can’t keep your back straight while deadlifting it usually means that you have a poor set-up. If you’ve mastered the breathing and bracing technique above, and you’re still rounding, look to the following reasons for improving your set-up:
- Ensure the bar is ‘on you’ the entire time. If the bar comes off of you at any point within the range of motion, but in particular, off the floor, your back will have a hard time staying neutral.
- Create whole body tension before lift-off. Whole body tension means maintaining rigidity throughout your whole body when you lift, almost like making sure the gears of your bicycle are connected to the wheels. If they aren’t, then no matter how fast the wheels move, the bike will not move. To keep constant tension your body, avoid jerking the bar up with your hands when you start the lift, and instead, think about pushing your feet into the ground, and engaging your glutes/hamstrings before lift-off.
- Understand what a ‘neutral spine’ feels like. Some people may lack the body awareness to know when their back is straight. These people think they have a neutral spine but in reality, they don’t. A common error we see is people end up extending their lumbar spine too far, and end up in hyperextension. They’re so concerned about not rounding that they extend their back in the opposite direction too much, simply because they don’t know what ‘neutral’ feels like.
- Work on your hip mobility. If your hips are tight, it will cause the lumbar spine to take up the extra mobility needed and that could cause unwanted movement in the lower back under load. You’ll know if you have this problem because your hips will feel tight in every day life, not only while lifting.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors at play, so be conscious of your setup, and take your time to ensure you are deadlifting properly. Take videos or get someone to take a look at your form to get more feedback. The body is one whole kinetic chain and you have to look beyond the back.
Exercises That Help Keep Your Back Straight
Even when we have a perfect set-up as described above, our back can round when it cannot handle the necessary forces required to lift maximal weight.
As such, you’ll want to perform exercises that help you develop your core musculature adequately, specifically your spinal erectors, which will prevent the low back from rounding.
My personal favorite exercise is the pause deadlift.
It’s a small variation of the regular deadlift that still allows you to practice the deadlift technique while emphasizing a neutral back position. Use a challenging weight that you can maintain a neutral spine. Practice pausing just off the floor for a couple of seconds before finishing the rep. You can make this more specific by pausing where you tend to lose your back positioning.
Here are some other exercises I enjoy doing after a deadlift workout. You may not have some of the equipment available, but several modifications exist. Feel free to select 1-2 from the list below and aim to get stronger at the over time.
Banded Good Mornings
Weighted Back Extensions
Is It Okay If Our Back Rounds A Little?
Lets say you got a pretty good deadlift set up but your back is still rounding. Is this an issue?
First, identify where your back is rounding.
If your mid-back (thoracic spine) is rounding this is actually normal. In a neutral position, our thoracic spine is curved slightly outwards. This is the opposite of what I said earlier with the low-back (lumbar spine), which is curved slightly inward.
Second, identify whether your back position is changing throughout the lift.
If your mid-back is slightly rounded as it should be in a neutral position, then what you’re looking for is keeping this position maintained throughout the deadlift. What you don’t want to see is more rounding through the mid-back than the natural curvature. The less your spine flexes during the lift, the more power you can derive and the better you can maintain your position to complete the lift. Whether you prefer a rounded back or straight back, you can imagine having a spine that moves while you try to deadlift is not optimal.
Last, identify whether your lumbar spine (low-back) is rounding.
If your lumbar spine is rounding, then we can dive a little deeper. Is your low back rounding causing you any symptoms or distress? If so, it is likely something you want to change. If it’s minor and not causing any issues, and the rest of your deadlift is optimal, then it’s probably nothing to worry about immediately. However, it’s something you may want to try to optimize for in the future.
Often times we see other people deadlift and we want to mimic what they do. Although this could be beneficial, know that we all have anatomical variances and what might work for someone else might not work for you. You are not going to die if your back is rounded. The more important part is to have technique that works for your anatomy and to follow proper programming.
A side note is don’t be afraid of using your spine in other ways as well. Your back can flex and bend and do all sorts of things too. It’s only when lifting maximal loads do we need to be concerned with protecting our back. The last thing you want is to create fear from certain movements.
Adaptations take time, so don’t get frustrated if you can’t keep your back straight right away.
Start with a light load, and keep practicing your breathing and bracing. Take your time on your setup, and don’t rush. You will inevitably handle loads that will challenge your ability to maintain a straight back. The key is to recognize the problem and come up with a plan to deal with it over time.
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About The Authors
Clifton’s most notable achievement is winning the 2017 IPF Classic World Championships in the Junior 66kg class whilst setting an Open World Record Deadlift. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Chiropractic.
Avi has a Master’s of Science in Kinesiology with a research focus on coaching master athletes. He has been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting through 7 World Championships and is the owner of PowerliftingTechnique.com.