The lifting manual says that rounding of the back could hurt the spine. As a result, anyone who deadlifts with a rounded back has always been considered a stupid brah buying a ticket to Snap City.
This may be correct if we are talking about beginners, but there is also a group of advanced and educated lifters who pull bending barbells with rounded backs without injuries. Why are they breaking the rules?
One of the most famous defenders of the rounded back deadlift was Bob Peoples. He used a hook grip and a rounded upper back to shorten the range of motion.
When you deadlift with a hook grip, instead of the mixed one, you can hold the bar with a narrower grip (observe the picture above). This shortens the pull.
Another popular rounded back deadlifter is the legendary Vince Anello. He set many world records using the ugly form below.
The picture above will certainly give nightmares to the form police. After all, they don’t teach this in school.
Lower Back vs. Upper Back Rounding
Rounding your lower back does not help your deadlift one bit. You will never see a deadlifter set world records with a rounded lower back. It just doesn’t work. When you round your lower back, you’re exposing the weakest link to a tremendous stress without getting anything in return.
In the image above, the kid is rounding his lower back. This should be avoided at all costs.
The next photo shows the popular Latvian powerlifter Konstantīns Konstantinovs.
He rounds his upper back significantly when he deadlifts. This becomes even more apparent in videos:
Conclusion: Rounding of the upper back allows you to lift more weight by improving your leverage, and many people can get away with it. On the other hand, rounding of the lower back only comes with risks.
Note: The examples above are of powerlifters who deadlift with a rounded back by choice, not by accident. They have all done their fair share of regular deadlifting.
Why aren’t they getting injured?
The body is good at adapting to stress. When you deadlift with a rounded back, the structures and tissues responsible for maintaining the position get stronger too. Otherwise, deadlifting 400 kilos in a similar fashion would be impossible.
Besides, there are different levels of rounding. Very few deadlifters follow the form of Vince Anello.
Some Upper Back Rounding Is Expected
Undoubtedly, heavy weights will result in some upper back rounding regardless of how hard you try to fight it. It may be subtle, but it will be there.
In the photo below, Ed Coan’s back is also slightly rounded, although he isn’t a rounded back deadlifter.
Note: The upper back is more likely to round when you do conventional and narrow stance sumo deadlifts. The regular sumo deadlift, on the other hand, rarely results in rounding.
Deadlifting with a rounded back could be done safely but is reserved for lifters with experience. If you are just starting out, you don’t have an excuse to do it. Beginners should use the standard form.
What is the main reason for upper back rounding?
Rounding of the upper back is not safe, but people do it because it provides several mechanical advantages:
a. Longer arms.
When you round the upper back, you are essentially elongating your arms. This results in a shorter pull.
b. Less stress on the hamstrings
Sometimes the back is more than strong enough to finish the movement but bends in order to reduce the work done by the hamstrings.
In other words, rounding of the upper back can be the result of a weak posterior chain rather than a weak back. Very often this is the actual culprit.
In fact, the rounded back deadlift requires some serious back strength to finish the pull.
In the video above, you see David Hensen – a modern day Vince Anello.
His sticking point in practically every attempt is the lockout. It’s slow and excruciating.
There are two reasons for that:
a. He does conventional deadlifts.
b. He rounds his back.
Eventually, his spinal erectors have to contract actively and “uncurl” so that he can stand tall and lock out the weight. This requires a lot of back strength.
Should I deadlift with a rounded back if I can get away with it?
Ultimately, it’s up to you, but since you asked for my opinion I will tell you.
I used to deadlift with a very rounded back. Technically, I didn’t get injured so I guess this means that I can get away with it. And yet I don’t want to deadlift like that for three main reasons:
I never got injured, but my upper back used to hurt at the point where it bends. The pain used to last only a day or two, but I doubt this is healthy in the long run.
b. Less work
The rounded back deadlift reduces the stress on the posterior chain. In other words, it works less muscle mass than the regular version.
c. It looks ugly as hell.
I am sorry, but excessive rounding of the upper back makes the pull ugly. I personally don’t want to look like that when I deadlift.
d. People round for ego purposes
Rounding of the upper back has only one benefit – more weight on the bar.
How can I stop rounding my back?
a. Evaluate your form.
Record a heavy set and see how much you are rounding.
b. Lower the weight.
c. Make a conscious effort to prevent your chest from caving in.
Don’t just pray about it, be about it.
d. Tight lats
Before initiating a rep, tighten your lats by pulling the bar as close to you as possible. Imagine that you are bending the bar around your shins with your lats. Tight lats keep the bar closer and help you maintain a straight back.
e. Don’t use an extra narrow stance
Super narrow stances place more stress on the back and less on the legs.
f. Focus on your leg drive.
Actively think about using your legs. If the next day your hamstrings are sore as hell, that’s a good thing. Note: If at the top of the pull your legs a shaking, that’s a sign that your legs are working hard.
g. Don’t get caught in the ego game.