Rounded Back Deadlifts are dangerous for your lower back. Rounding your lower back can increase how much you Deadlift. But the risk of lower back injury is higher. And the reward isn’t worth the risk for most people. The safest way to Deadlift is with your lower back neutral.
Some elite Deadlifters pull rounded back. But they avoid full lower back rounding, brace their abs and understand the risks. They also Deadlift to win competitions. They don’t Deadlift to achieve maximum health. Rounded back Deadlifts aren’t a great model of form for most people.
On StrongLifts 5×5 you should Deadlift with a neutral lower back. This is the safest way to lift. Rounded back Deadlifts are only for lifters who have been Deadlifting for several years. Lifters with above average strength who are willing to risk their lower back to achieve bigger PRs.
Benefits of Rounded Back Deadlifts
Deadlifting with a rounded lower back makes the bottom of the pull easier. Rounding your lower back puts your hips closer to the bar. The shorter the distance between your hips and the bar, the closer the bar to you, the easier to lift the weight. Rounded back Deadlifts are particularly effective for people with long thighs like me. It puts your hips closer to the bar as if you sawed a few cms of your thigh bones off.
Rounding your upper-back during Deadlifts further makes the weight easier to lift. Your shoulders hang lower when your upper-back rounds. The lower your shoulders, the lower the bar. The lower the bar, the shorter the distance it must travel from floor to lockout. You can move weight more easily over a shorter distance than a longer one. That’s why pulling with a rounded upper-back increases your Deadlift.
Many of the most successful Deadlifters who ever existed pulled with a rounded back. Konstantins Konstantinovs Deadlifted 426kg (939lb) without belt in 2009. Bob People Deadlifted 329kg (725lb) weighing only 82.5kg (181lb) using a rounded back in 1949. Vince Anello Deadlifted 373kg (821lb), more than 4x times his body-weight, with a round back. Rounded back Deadlifting works, but there are risks and drawbacks…
Drawbacks of Rounded Back Deadlifts
Deadlifting with a rounded lower back increases the risk of lower back injury. It compresses the front part of your spinal discs. The more your lower back rounds, the bigger the compression. The risk of injury is highest when your lower back is bent as far as you can while you Deadlift heavy. This can result in a lower back injury like a herniated disc. Note that wearing a belt doesn’t prevent injuries from rounded back Deadlifting.
Rounded back Deadlifts are harder to lockout. The weight comes faster off the floor. But once it reaches your knees, you’re stuck. Your knees and hips are already locked so they can’t help lift the bar further. Your rounded spine has to straighten to finish the rep. This is hard. You’ll fail lockouts more than with neutral back Deadlifts. Keep in mind hitching the bar up by rebending your knees or arms doesn’t count.
It’s possible to Deadlift with a rounded upper-back while keeping your lower back neutral. This shortens the bar path without squeezing the discs in your lower spine. Several elite rounded back Deadlifters use this technique. Unfortunately the average Deadlifter lacks the motor control to do the same. If your upper-back rounds when you Deadlift, your lower back will usually round too. This puts your lower spine at risk.
Unlike what some believe, not all elite Deadlifters round their lower back. World Champion Andy Bolton, the first man to Deadlift 1000lb, drops his shoulders to shorten the range of motion. But his lower back remains neutral. World Champion Mike Tuchscherer also keep his lower back neutral despite Deadlifting heavy weights. Max attempts never look perfect. But rounded-back Deadlifts aren’t the rule.
Should You Deadlift Rounded or Neutral Back?
Most people should Deadlift with a neutral lower back to avoid injuries. Your lower back must be neutral during on every Deadlift rep. If it rounds, don’t pull the weight. Consider it a fail. Repeat the weight next time, lower it if you have to. You shouldn’t even think about rounded back Deadlifts until you can Deadlift 180kg/400lb with a neutral lower back. Build a solid base of technique and strength first.
Different answer for competitive powerlifters. If you want to be a champion and rounding your back increases your Deadlift, it might be worth the risk. But keep in mind the more your lower back rounds, the higher the risk of spinal injury. Don’t Deadlift with full rounding (flexion) of your lower spine. Maintain the lower back curve you setup with. And brace your abs to support and protect your lower spine.
I’ve done and quit rounded back Deadlifts. They made the bottom part easier but the lockout harder. Rounding my lower back artificially shortens my long thighs by bringing my hips closer to the bar. The weight leaves the floor faster. But it gets stuck past my knees. My back has to lockout by straightening against the weight because my hips and knees are already locked. Instead of failing at the bottom, I fail at the top. Same result.
Rack Pulls didn’t improve the lockout for Rounded Back Deadlifts. The lower back position is different. Unlike Rounded Back Deadlifts, you can do heavy Rack Pulls with a neutral lower back. This limits the carry-over from Rack Pulls to Rounded Back Deadlifts. A more effective way to improve the lockout is to Deadlift with chains. But these didn’t stop the lower back pain I was getting from Rounded Back Deadlifts.
That back pain made me decide to stop Deadlifting with a rounded back. It wasn’t worth it in the long-term. I want to lift heavy and be strong. But I also want to keep lifting for the next couple of years. And I want to be healthy. So I took a step back, lowered the weight and focused on Deadlifting with a neutral lower back. Anytime my lower back rounded, I chose not to pull the weight to avoid going back into bad Deadlift habits.
The picture at the top shows this work paid off. The weight is the same but there’s about a year of Deadlift practice inbetween. This shows you can strengthen your back muscles to Deadlift heavy weights with a neutral spine. What made the biggest difference was MIke Tuchscherer’s cue to squeeze the lats before pulling each rep. This helped keeping my upper-back neutral which helped keeping my lower back neutral.
“But Elite Deadlifters Round Their Back! So Why Can’t I?!?”
Elite powerlifters Deadlift to win competitions. They don’t Deadlift to be healthy. They use the technique that enables them to Deadlift the heaviest weights possible. That technique may not be healthy for their lower back. They can injure their spine, herniate a disc or develop chronic back pain by trying to win at all costs. Elite athletes don’t always make the healthiest choices. Drug-use is a great example of this.
Besides, not every elite Deadlifter rounds his lower back. Konstantins Konstantinovs does but Andy Bolton doesn’t. There are examples of both. In some cases, the spine looks more curved than it is. More strength is more muscle. Strong Deadlifters have bigger back muscles. Their upper-back muscles can be huge, bulge out and create a more rounded look. Big lower back muscles can also fill the arch and make it look flatter.
More important, elite Deadlifters can reduce the risk of pulling with a rounded back. They pull differently than the average lifter who tries rounded back Deadlifts or who can’t stop lower back rounding. Elite Deadlifters have more experience, better technique and better motor control. They can still injure their spine because it’s not neutral. But they’re less likely to injure themselves than the average lifter. Here’s why:
- Elite Deadlifters avoid full lower back rounding
- Elite Deadlifters round mostly from their upper-back
- Elite Deadlifters maintain the curve in their lower back
One, Dr Stuart McGill Phd says the last two-three degrees of lumbar flexion are most dangerous. The more your back rounds when you Deadlift, the bigger the risk of spinal injury. Elite Deadlifters avoid full lower back rounding when they Deadlift. This isn’t as safe as pulling with a neutral back. But it’s safer than full flexion. The average lifter who tries rounded back Deadlifts curves his spine like a taco. This is higher risk.
Two, elite Deadlifters round mostly from their upper-back. This shortens the bar path and increases effectivness. But it reduces the risk of injury because they don’t round their lower back fully. The average Deadlifter can’t keep his lower back neutral when his upper-back rounds. His whole back rounds because he lacks motor control. More rounding is more squeezing of your spinal discs. The risk of injury is higher.
Three, elite Deadlifters maintain the curve in their spine throughout the lift. They setup with a rounded back. They brace their abs hard. They then pull the weight while maintaining the curve in their back. The average Deadlifter starts neutral and goes rounded. Or he starts rounded and bends his back further as he lifts the weight. Moving your spine during heavy Deadlifts is dangerous. It increases the risk of injury.
Plus, elite Deadlifters have years of experience. They usually started light to let their back adapt to rounded back Deadlifts. Their spine and lower back muscles are stronger. Their abs are stronger and protect their spine. They’ve perfected their technique to avoid full lower back rounding. The average Deadlifter has less experience, weaker abs and a weaker spine. He gets injured more easily when Deadlifting rounded back.
Keep in mind world record Deadlift videos on Youtube may not represent the normal training of elite Deadlifters. Max attempts always look ugly. Heavier weight makes it harder to maintain proper form. It’s possible they Deadlift submaxmimal weights with a more conservative neutral lower back to avoid injuries that could put them out of training. They could reserve more aggressive rounding for PR attempts a few times a year.
What’s sure is what works for elite Deadlifters may not work for you. Some Deadlift rounded back for years without issues. You might not be that lucky. Maybe your back doesn’t hurt today, but it could in a year. Maybe it hurts later every time you tie your shoe. Is it worth the risk? You only get one spine. And wearing a belt doesn’t make your back bulletproof. Rounded back Deadlifts squeeze your spinal discs. It’s higher risk.
How to Stop Lower Back Rounding on Deadlifts
The goal is to Deadlift with a neutral lower back for maximum spinal safety. To stop lower back rounding, setup with your spine neutral before you Deadlift the weight. You should have a straight line from your head to your hip bone. Once you’ve setup like this, get tight to maintain that position. Contract your muscles and take a big breath so your back stays neutral once the weight leaves the floor. The three keys:
- Raise your chest to put your upper-back neutral
- Push your hips to the ceiling if your lower back rounds
- Squeeze your armpit muscles to maintain your back position
The first way to stop lower back rounding is by keeping your upper-back from rounding. Some elite Deadlifters can pull heavy with a neutral lower back while their upper-back rounds. Andy Bolton drops his shoulders to lower the range of motion when he Deadlifts. But most average lifters lack the motor control to keep their lower back neutral when their upper-back rounds. So keep your upper-back neutral.
Raise your chest to stop your upper-back from rounding. Setup with the bar over your mid-foot. Shoulder-blades over bar, shins against bar. Raise your chest to straighten your back. Pull on the bar to contract your muscles harder. Don’t pinch your shoulder-blades (this raises your shoulders, increases the ROM and makes the weight harder to lift). Chest up, shoulder-blades down, neutral upper-back. Big breath, pull.
If your upper-back rounds despite raising you chest, squeeze your lats. Contract the muscles in your armpits before you pull the weight. Setup for Deadlifts with the bar over your mid-foot, shoulder-blades over bar. Raise your chest to straighten your back. Then squeeze your lats to lock your back in position. World champion Mike Tuchscherer gave me this tip, it helped me a ton to stop back rounding on Deadlifting.
The lower back of some lifters can still round after doing all of the above. If yours does: arch your lower back harder. Setup for Deadlifts, raise your chest and push your hips to the ceiling. If you do it right, your lower back will go from round to neutral. The natural arch will show. I never use this cue when I setup for Deadlifts because I tend to hyper-extend my back. But if your lower back keeps rounding, this cue is the fix.
Stretching your hamstrings won’t fix lower back rounding on Deadlifts. The problem isn’t that your muscles are too tight. The problem is they aren’t tight enough. You must get your lower back tighter to stop the rounding. It can’t be loose. To do this, raise your hips to the ceiling when you setup. If this feels exhausting, you’re doing it right. If your lower back hyper-extends, you’re overdoing it. Natural arch in lower back is the goal.
Neutral lower back doesn’t mean flat. It means Deadlifting with the natural arch in your lower back. You shouldn’t round your lower back (flexion) or over-arch it (hyper-extension). You should Deadlift with the natural curve in your lower back. The same curve you have when you stand. Note that lower backs of strong Deadlifters can look flatter if they have developed lower back muscles filling up their natural arch.
Similarly, neutral upper-back doesn’t mean flat either. Your spine has natural curves. Your lower back (lumbar spine) has a natural arch (lordosis). Your upper-back (thoracic spine) rounds naturally (kyphosis). Neutral upper-back means maintaining its natural curve when you Deadlift. Here too, strong Deadlifters with big upper-back muscles bulging out can have an upper-back that looks more rounded than it actually is.
Videotape yourself Deadlifting to get feedback on your lower back. Don’t look in the mirror, you can’t see your back position from the front. If you Deadlift aside a mirror, you’ll twist your neck. Don’t trust how your back feels either. You might round your lower back even though it doesn’t hurt yet. Videotape yourself doing Deadlifts and watch the video between your sets. Fix your form based on what you see yourself doing.