There aren’t too many things on social media that can stir up quite the emotional uproar as a rounded back deadlift.
Internet experts around the world scream that they are going to break their backs. And yes, while we should make the primary goal to deadlift with a neutral back position, as we reach maximal weights, most of the time that is not going to be possible.
So is it okay to deadlift with a rounded back? It is okay to deadlift with a round back when (1) it is a maximal attempt and the rounding is within a generally accepted range, (2) It is the upper back, not lower back, and (3) a lifter’s leverages suggest that slight rounding may be more likely to occur.
Now before the internet experts rush to conclusions and condemn any mention of a rounded back deadlift being okay, let’s look into this topic deeper, starting with why maintaining neutrality should be our goal in the first place.
Why We Should Make Our Best Effort To Maintain a Neutral Back Position
Let me start by saying I am not a physical therapist or medical professional, so I plan to steer clear of the argument of whether deadlifting with a rounded back causes injury or not.
But rather, I want to look at this from an efficiency standpoint and how we as powerlifters can create the most optimal position for force production.
The deadlift is truly a total body movement. From the feet to the head, almost every major muscle group is being involved in some way to perform the movement. And, the more we create efficient positions for those muscles to function optimally, the stronger we will be.
Having a neutral lower back is one of those positions.
You’ve probably seen numerous lifters who miss their deadlift at lockout. This is not because of a “weak” lockout, but rather inefficient lumbar and pelvic positioning.
As we move our lumbar spine (lower back) into flexion and our pelvis posteriorly, this is shortening the hamstrings and glutes while lengthening the spinal erectors. This helps to create a stronger position off the floor, as we can achieve a higher starting position for the hips.
But once we get the barbell to just above the knees, the glutes and hamstrings have fully shortened, and the full bearing of the lift is now placed on the lower back. At that point, it is all on the spinal erectors to extend to the lockout, which is not a good position to be in.
Rather, if we maintain neutrality in the lumbar spine and pelvis, we can create a more even strength curve so that throughout the lift our glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors can all work cohesively to lock out the hips.
This will create a more efficient lift and allow a lifter to better express their strength potential on maximal lifts.
Rounding Your Back On Maximal Deadlift Attempts Is Going To Happen
Even with the most perfectly positioned lifters, when you’re closing in on your true 1 rep max, some form deviation will occur.
Our goal as powerlifters is to limit this deviation and maintain positions as best as possible, but at the same time have an understanding that some deviation will occur even in the best of lifters.
In reality, it is hard to term what exactly is neutral for each lifter, so instead, it’s better to think of this as a range. Dr. Stefi Cohen, a physiotherapist and world powerlifting record holder, presented a great graphic of this to give a better idea of what this range means.
Should our backs look totally hunched over, absolutely not.
This is because from an efficiency perspective it will not create the optimal position for force production. However, there is going to be a natural range where the back can round that is considered acceptable, and totally within its limits.
Let’s look at an analogy. For this, I’m going to compare our back position (straight vs. rounded), with how a barbell bends under load.
At lightweights such as 135lbs, the barbell barely bends as the strength of the bar can maintain its stiffness.
But, as we progress the load more and more, the increased demands on the leverages start to create more bend. Here we can see Krzysztof Wierzbicki deadlifting an unprecedented 880lbs on one of the stiffest barbells ever made:
While the barbell does bend, it’s within the acceptable range of the tensile strength it was built to handle.
I use this example as what our lower back is going through. As the loading increases, our range of acceptable neutrality increases, but it doesn’t mean our back breaks. It’s maintaining its neutrality as best as possible under extreme demands and supporting the weight to the best of its ability.
Another way to look at this is as long as we are actively stabilizing the spine and not passively stabilizing, we should be fine.
- Active stabilization means that the core musculature is what is holding the position of the lower back.
- Passive stabilization means we are resting on the end ranges of the joint, bone on bone, which would, in this case, be our lumbar vertebrae.
Our vertebrae allow for flexion and extension of the back while still actively being stabilized, as this is where this range of neutrality comes from.
Everyone is different which is why it is hard to give a concrete answer of what is neutral, but as long as someone is actively stabilizing, they are within that range.
One exercise that you need to avoid rounding the back is the Jefferson squat. Click to read my complete guide.
Rounding The Upper Back Is Different Than Rounding The Lower Back When Deadlifting
This is where a lot of people get rounding of the back confused, as rounding of the upper back versus the low back is very different.
The fact is many high-level lifters actively promote thoracic flexion (mid-back rounding) to create advantageous leverages while still maintaining lower back neutrality. A good example of this is Eli Burks, the current 105kg IPF World Powerlifting Champion.
Eli is known for his deadlift, with a personal best of 810lbs in competition.
But notice that even at lighter weights, his back appears rounded. As you look closer though, you’ll see that flexion comes from his mid to upper back, while his lower back and pelvis stay neutral.
This is a fairly advanced conventional deadlift technique, and unless you are an experienced powerlifter I would not recommend this off the bat, but rather shoot for achieving neutrality throughout the back.
But, for World Champions, this is a common technique just like arching on the bench press to achieve more optimal leverages for strength.
Let me explain.
If you have ever heard of the deadlift cue “long arms”, this is exactly what is happening.
Richard Cho is a good example of this within the sumo deadlift.
Richard actively promotes protraction of the shoulders and the opening of his scapula to create “long arms” that allow him to start with a higher hip and torso position.
Here’s what Richard had to say about his deadlift position:
I’m a huge advocate of protraction in the thoracic region when executing the deadlift although I generally reserve this technique for higher level athletes. In terms of my upper back position, I allow my shoulders to adopt a forward position with respect to my torso as I intentionally round the upper thoracic back while keeping a relatively neutral lumbar back.Richard Cho (@pugthegoat)
In other words, pushing the shoulders forward will round the upper back slightly, which will reduce the overall range of motion that the barbell has to travel. This is a very common practice among sumo deadlifters, as the main advantage of sumo is creating leverage advantages through a decreased range of motion.
So when we see a rounded back in the deadlift, we need to understand the context of this and where that rounding is coming from.
If it is from the lower back, I would revert back to my original point that we want to maintain a neutral position as much as possible to create the most efficient position. But with the upper back, it is common practice to create thoracic flexion to create more advantageous starting positions.
Some people like to improve their upper back strength by using the Zercher squat.
Individual Leverages Will Dictate The Acceptable Amount of Rounding For Deadlifts
Each of us is different.
The main situation I’ve found where lower back rounding tends to just be a part of the lifter’s form is those with longer torsos and average to short arms who choose to use the conventional deadlift.
- You have a long torso if it makes up 32% or more of your overall height
- You have average to short arms if they make up 38% or less of your overall height
(Read this article if you want to know how to measure your segment lengths).
When I have had a lifter in this scenario, they tend to have slight rounding of the lower back even with lighter weights. But, in order for this to be ‘okay’, there is one key factor that I am looking for:
Does the rounding significantly increase as they move to heavier weights, or does it stay within a fairly similar range as the original rounding?
If there is no further back rounding as the weight gets heavier, and there is no pain or greater form breakdown, then I see no issue with it. A good example of this is one of my lifter’s Dan:
I have coached Dan for over 5 years now and we have added 158lbs to his deadlift in that time. He has never once experienced back pain nor ever had a single issue from this.
In the beginning, I tried countless times to work on creating better neutrality, and even had the benefit of being able to meet with him in person. We even tried sumo deadlift, but anatomically Dan’s hips were just not built for that, so conventional it is for him.
The more I coached him the more I learned that because of a longer torso, average arm length, and a fairly shallow pelvis, that slight back rounding was needed for him to get into an optimal deadlift start position.
And, what you’ll see with Dan is that position is maintained from low intensities to high intensities. He stays within that range no matter the weight and is able to be very efficient with it.
But I do want to notate that we did try to strive for neutrality.
The only reason I was able to come to the conclusion that this slight rounding was acceptable was from years of coaching him and attempting to create better neutrality. But after time it was obvious that this was the way he was best suited to deadlift.
And, since he has zero pain from it, it’s hard for me as a coach to create an argument against it other than trying to force generalized opinions of acceptable form on him.
I hope the internet experts have gotten a deeper understanding of what is rounding of the back in the deadlift, what is an acceptable range, and why some slight rounding is not a death sentence for a powerlifters.
Back rounding in the deadlift, within an acceptable deviation, is most likely going to occur in a sport where we are trying to lift the most weight we possibly can.
For beginners, I highly recommend focusing on creating neutrality and choosing weights that allow you to maintain position as you progress in strength. Stay below that threshold of form breakdown and build up your capacity to maintain that neutral position at higher intensities.
As you become more experienced and knowledgeable or have a coach who is guiding you, then apply the understanding of neutrality is a range within your training. Above all, create efficient positions that allow optimal force production and strength output, while maintaining your health. In reality, that statement right there is the recipe for success in powerlifting in a nutshell.
About The Author
Steve Denovi has 10+ years of experience working with clientele from all walks of life and currently specializes in working with powerlifters and their pursuit of strength. He has his MBA in Marketing but found himself after college following his passion within the fitness industry. Steve now coaches athletes all across the USA and takes a special interest in helping to mentor new coaches and providing content to help educate the strength community.