By Tony Gentilcore Stack.com
It was the best of spines, it was the worse of spines.
Forgive the literary pun, but when it comes to the action of deadlifting there’s no denying the fitting nature of the phrase.
Although there are unique circumstances where rounding of the spine is warranted and sometimes encouraged, save for the most elite lifters—who have spent years honing their craft and perfecting technique—for most people, most of the time, including you, rounding your back when performing a Deadlift is, well . . . not a good idea.
Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the world’s foremost spine researchers and resident Godfather of “you should listen to him because he’s smart,” has long championed the notion that repeated spinal flexion/rounding (and extension), particularly under load, is the easiest path to disc herniation(s) and bulge(s). Many “healthy” individuals who round their backs while lifting weights are walking around with asymptomatic backs (no inclination of injury or pain), but they are the exception, not the rule.
Make no mistake: it’s dangerous. You are risking irreparable harm. If you’re someone who rounds his or her back during a Deadlift, you’re playing with fire.
More to the point: rounding the back during a Deadlift does not pass the eyeball test.
You know that face you make when you eat something gross or walk into a room and catch your parents making out? That’s the same look that should happen when you watch someone deadlift with a rounded back.
How to Fix Back Rounding
Whether your word of choice is “flat” or “neutral,” when we refer to either of them regarding back positioning while deadlifting (or any lift for that matter), the spine does have both a natural kyphotic (rounded) curve in the upper spine and lordotic (arched) curve in the lower spine.
It’s semantics, but it needed to be said.
That said, for the sake of this article, it’s generally in most people’s interests to avoid any excessive rounding in the spine during weightlifting activities, especially the Deadlift.
Tension. Get It!
The Deadlift, while simple in description—hey, all you’re doing is bending over and picking up a barbell off the floor!—is anything but simple in terms of execution.
Where many people falter is in their initial set-up. A lackluster set-up in the Deadlift will lead to lackluster performance.
The latissimus dorsi (“lats”) are key. It’s the broad muscle that expands from the intertubercular groove on the humerus down to the posterior crest of the ilium, with attachment points on the vertebral column (both thoracic and lumbar) and in some populations, the scapulae as well.
Getting the lats to engage to a greater degree is a fullproof way to provide more spinal stability and prevent the back from rounding during a Deadlift.
A mistake many trainees make—in an effort to increase back tightness—is to pull their shoulder blades together prior to their set. This actually increases the distance the bar must travel. By pulling your shoulder blades together you make your arms shorter, which makes it more difficult to get to the bar.
Instead, I like to tell people to “place your shoulder blades in your back pocket.” Then, when you bend down to pick up the bar, you should use the bar as a counterbalance to “pull your chest up.” Another way to say this is “bend the bar before you pull,” which helps take the slack out of it.
The combination of these cues will help activate the lats and provide a ton more stability to the spine.
Another effective cue to give people is to tell them to “squeeze an orange in their armpit.”
If none of these verbal cues work, sometimes it helps to build context with people by having them perform the pattern with bands. The tension provided by the bands helps people automatically engage their lats, and in turn learn how things are supposed to feel when a barbell is in their hands.
Try those cues (and drill) today and see if they help prevent you from rounding your back during your Deadlift. Your spine will thank you.