I recently made a post about “fixing” the round deadlift, and in the comments, there was a discussion around when it is appropriate to have the back round on a deadlift. I fully agree that there is a sliding scale of “safety” and maximum performance that can help us to distinguish who should use a round-backed technique and when they should do so.
Today’s article will outline the pros and cons of rounding (spinal flexion), who uses the technique in their deadlift, as well as my professional opinion on who should and shouldn’t use it.
What are the risks?
When discussing spinal flexion in the deadlift, it’s important to distinguish between a fixed flexed position, and dynamic spinal flexion in the lift.
In a fixed flexed position, the thoracic and sometimes the lumbar spine are set into a braced and rounded position. This is a relatively advanced technique as it requires excellent body awareness and intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) control. With this technique, the spine remains in the flexed position throughout the lift. As there is not much movement and lots of stability provided to the spine, the risk of back injury is certainly lower than the dynamic flexion (outlined below) but probably higher than a neutral spine to some degree.
Konstantin Konstantinovs is probably one of the most popular examples of a fixed flexed position deadlift. Take note how his spine is locked into position before the pull starts.
On the other hand, dynamic flexion presents much higher risks of injury [McGill et al]. This is often seen when the lifter doesn’t have appropriate body awareness, control, and strength to perform the deadlift. They will often set up in a somewhat neutral position, but as they initiate the pull, the spine will flex (generally thoracic and lumbar) in order to lift the bar. At the top of the movement, they will re-extend the spine. This type of repeated loaded flexion/extension has been demonstrated as a mechanism for disk herniation.
Who Does It?
There are 3 separate instances I see a either dynamic or fixed flexion deadlifts occur:
- Unskilled lifters who never learned proper technique (who should definitely read this article)
- Beginner-intermediate powerlifters or strength trainees who just want to lift more weight, and
- Advanced powerlifters who use rounding in a controlled fashion to improve mechanics and increase their max pull.
When is it appropriate?
Disclaimer: I am not advocating that anybody deliberately rounds their back on deadlifts from a safety standpoint.
Recreational lifters and non-powerlifting athletes: Rounding should be avoided as much as possible. Given that the technique is largely based around improving performance in the deadlift while accepting an increased risk, there’s no purpose to trying to squeeze an extra 10kg out of your pull at the risk of sidelining yourself. Realistically, you can get all the benefit you need out of deadlifts for your personal satisfaction or sport with a neutral spine while managing risk more appropriately.
Beginner and Intermediate Powerlifters: If you compete in powerlifting up to an intermediate level and still aren’t medalling, I would generally keep my advice the same as for recreational lifters. You are taking on increased risk without the additional benefit of meaningful sport performance improvement (i.e. winning the competition). Some lifters do alright with a locked-flexed upper back and neutral lower back, but more often than not full on “neutral” is the best bet for these lifters. Don’t lose sleep over a little bit of rounding on the odd rep here and there, but don’t make it your goal either. Choose your training weights accordingly.
Advanced Powerlifters: At the top level of competition, maximum performance can come at the expense of safety, to a degree. If you are in contention for medals and don’t have a history of back problems, using some fixed rounding to boost your total is a perfectly reasonable strategy in order to decrease the range of motion the hips have to go through in order to make the lift. The bulk of your training should be spent with loads that you can maintain technique with, but a 3rd attempt to secure the gold might even entail a little bit of dynamic flexion in order to make it happen.
Like anything else nuanced, the answer to “should I be worried if my back rounds on a deadlift” is much more complicated than yes or no. Hopefully this has helped to clear up my thoughts on what deadlift technique you should use, given your goals and experience level.