To Round, or Not to Round

Keep your chest up!

Flat Back!

Abs tight!

Do you ever hear these statements from your coach? Especially when you are warming up your deadlift?

Some trainers recommend that you keep your back flat in the deadlift. Others say a rounded back is fine with a tight core. Which is it? What should you do? Why is it called the deadlift when there are no dead people in it? Here’s what you need to know.

Let’s start with the deadlift.

This movement has some dark history, dating back to battlefields where soldiers had fought face to face. The term is presumed to have been coined from militia who needed to pick up and move the deceased after a battle.

As it turns out, dead people aren’t very good at doing burpees or cooperating when you need them to leave your property. So, to pick them up safely and move them, you had to organize your spine, brace your core muscles, right foot in, right foot out, then grab them and drive up with your legs. That was the deadlift… or the Hokie-Pokie. I’m not sure, but it’s how a Weekend at Bernie’s should end.

Some BACK-story:

When you have to pick up a heavy object, you brace your mid-section very hard before and during the lift until you’re done. You do this because abdominal activation helps keep the spine in a static position as you move objects or yourself. Static spine under load = happy spine under load.

Imagine that you’re about to be punched in the gut. Push your belly outward and contract your whole mid-section like a Pabst Blue Ribbon with too much pressure inside the can. That’s bracing.

Now, If you can keep your spine in the same position from start to finish in a lift, then you generally have a stiff and safe brace happening.

You can apply this to multiple movements like pistol squats and atlas stone lifts. Those moves require a rounded back but in a stable and braced position. Movements like the deadlift and front squat are usually taught to be done with a neutral spine (flat back).

Regardless of the back position, there should always be a solid abdominal brace happening.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

When your spine moves or shifts during a lift, is when you have an issue.

So to Inspecteth thyself e’re thou conspire to wrecketh thee, video yourself doing deadlifts from the side view. Use a challenging weight that you know you can handle for multiple reps. Watch your back at the start of the lift, during the lift, and at the end of the lift when you set the weight down. Does your back stay rigid as you move? That’s what we want to see.

So, to finally give you what you came for and stop using you for screen-time scoring on my blog, here’s the upshot.

We are finding that more and more people can safely lift with a flat back vs. a rounded back because they can hold a brace statically for reps that way and feel when they can no longer hold the brace. When the brace begins to fail, the back rounds and the athlete’s spine becomes disorganized. The weight should be set down at this point… Just so we’re all clear.

That’s how the Cookie Crumbles. 

MOST people’s bracing will fail at heavy loads before they run out of juice to keep cranking out reps. If their flat back disorganizes into rounding, where does a back that started in a rounded position disorganize to?

Maybe just a more rounded position, maybe the upside-down, who knows, but one thing is certain, it will need to round even more to get there, and extreme levels of back flexion (fancy trainer talk for rounding) doesn’t seem to make a better athlete, lifter, or human organism.

Dear Armadillo Lifters:

This conclusion may be partly drawn from most people not lifting long enough to practice both variations without any real noticeable difference. In which case, it makes sense for the majority of people to learn and practice lifting with a neutral spine. When rounded-back movements occur in training or daily life, they can still be done as long as a brace is maintained, which can eventually apply to deadlifts.

Ultimately, you can do what you like, but you need to make sure you hit the following.

  • Learn and practice proper bracing.
  • Video yourself (or get a coach to watch) to make sure you can hold the brace.
  • Watch Weekend at Bernies

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk


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