• Thoughts for Round-Back Deadlifters

      It seems like every week, I get into a discussion with someone about round-back deadlifting. So I decided to write down some random thoughts on the matter in order to save some time in the future. Besides, I think more people could use some extra understanding about a lift that usually comprises about 40% of their total.

      I want to start out saying that if a beginner came to me, I would not teach them the round back deadlift. But if they developed into it, understood the risks, and consciously chose it, I would still coach them and develop them as a lifter. I don't see the round back style as incorrect -- just different with a different list of pros and cons.

      Some pros of the round back deadlift (compared to flat back)
      • Easier to get the bar moving off the floor
      • If this is your natural tendency, you might just pull more weight using this technique, which is pretty important for a powerlifter

      Some cons of the round back deadlift (compared to flat back)
      • Harder to lock out
      • Greater risk of injury to your back

      The sticking point in the deadlift is largely due to leverage changes. If you pull with a flat back, it will be tough to break off the floor, but once you pass the top of your shin, you will probably make it. If you pull with a rounded back, it will come off the floor much more easily, but the top of the shin is where you will start to lose all your bar speed. Then from a leverage standpoint, you're left with almost pure spinal extension at the lockout, which is why so many people miss so close to the top.
      As an aside, that's also why so many people don't get transference from rack pulls. Generally, the people who think they need lockout work are those who pull with a round back. Then they set up for a rack pull and it's much easier to get into a flat back position. Plus you can pull a ton more weight in the rack with a flatter back (remember, better leverage at lockout). So then you think, "wow, I can pull 600 from below the knees in the rack, but I can't lock out 500 when I'm pulling from the floor. Rack pulls don't work." They work, but you were practicing the wrong skill.

      Back on topic...
      You do have a greater risk of injury pulling with a rounded back. Dr Stuart McGill is largely considered THE expert on spine health. He has made a fantastic case for why repeated spinal flexion, in particular loaded spinal flexion (the kind seen in a round back deadlift) is dangerous for the lower back. He's a researcher and has done work to back this up, but I don't have the links off hand. I'll try to circle back and post those in here later.
      It's always about probability though. Flat back deadlifting is not guaranteed safe. Round back is not a guaranteed injury. It's just that with round back deadlifting, you're putting yourself at greater risk. Some people can get by with it for a long time. Others can't.
      Your job is to balance that risk with the fact that you just might be stronger pulling this way. And by stronger, I mean you might have a greater strength potential over the long term by pulling with a rounded back. But then again, maybe not. If you're currently pulling with a rounded back, it's probably because you can pull more weight with it right now. And maybe your greatest potential lies with that technique. It's hard to see potential clearly in the midst of the problem though.
      And while we're talking about injury risk, please don't tell me that you pull with a rounded upper back and keep your lower back neutral. I hear lots of people say this and almost always the whole thing looks cat-back'd as hell. Is it possible? Maybe. It's often hard to see. But even if it is possible, not many people can do it. And if you can do it, it may or may not reduce the risks.

      Round Back Deadlifting or Deadlifting with a Rounded Back?
      So now that you understand some pro's and con's, how do you do a Round Back Deadlift properly? This isn't an excuse to deadlift however you want. That's right -- you still have to pay attention to technique.
      • When you start, set up with a rounded back. You don't want to start flat and fall into rounded after you begin. Set up in a rounded position and brace -- HARD! You need to hold that position until lockout without falling into any greater flexion. Remember -- loaded flexion is something you want to avoid.
      • Hold the bar in close to your body. It needs to be close the whole time. Should you roll the bar at the start? Honestly, I don't care. The trouble people get into from rolling the bar is the bar starts too far away from them in the start. This causes them to roll forward more... loaded flexion.
      • Avoid end-range of motion. Being rounded is fine. We talked about risks already. But if you're rounded to the point of end-range of motion, then you're at much greater risk and I can't in good conscious tell you that's okay.

      So as a way to model correct round back pulling behavior, here's a video of everyone's favorite round-back puller, Konstantinovs:

      Notice that he:
      • Starts rounded
      • Keeps the bar in tight
      • Braces HARD to prevent further flexion
      • Avoids end-range of motion (though he appears to be close -- at least to my eye)

      Additional resources:
      I kind of threw this article together quickly. Since I probably didn't cover everything, I wanted to include two other pieces on this topic that can provide you with more information:
      Matt Perryman's Article
      Bret Contreras's Article
      Comments 12 Comments
      1. ambrashura's Avatar
        ambrashura -
        Thank you for the article.
        "Avoid end-range of motion" Can you clarify this a little bit more?

        Also there is a facebook video, where KK teaches some girl to rounded back deadlift:

        About KK injuries. In interviews he told that his injuries is from fighting. Interviews were pretty old (2012 and earlier). Not sure what was his latest injury and its reason.
        About sumo. According to some Latvian guy on Russian strength-related forum KK isn't going to switch to sumo, that was just an assistance lift.
      1. timdog57's Avatar
        timdog57 -
        Thanks for the article Mike! Good stuff!!

        So, I'm not sure I follow you on the point about rounding the low back versus upper back. When I watch KK videos, to me it looks like he's rounded at the thora-columbar and higher. To me it looks like the low back stays neutral. I've definitely seen untrained lifters trying to pull too much weight, and rounding the low back, but this looks like a neutral upper back and a rounded upper. What am I missing?

        I pull with a round back as well, but I feel like I'm keeping my low-back in neutral and only rounding the upper back. Whenever I do a heavy pull the DOMS is always in my low back never my upper back. I attribute this to the thought that my low-back erectors are working super hard to hold neutral, while my upper back erectors get a bit of a break. Maybe I'm crazy though...
      1. Mike Tuchscherer's Avatar
        Mike Tuchscherer -
        ambrashura: Thanks! I've corrected the article accordingly. And thanks for that video too -- helpful! What I mean by end-ROM is that I don't recommend being flexed fully forward. If you are flexed as much as your structure allows, I think it's an even riskier posture.

        Timdog: Yes, KK looks like he's rounded at t-spine and higher. But IMO you can't tell for sure just by looking. There are a lot of structures in the way on a guy like him. Someone like Benni looks like he pulls flat or close to it, but that's not the case when you watch how he moves. And even if these guys do pull with the flexion isolated at the t-spine, I'm can't say for sure if that overcomes the injury potential. After seeing a video of your deadlifts, it looks pretty obvious to me that you're getting quite a bit of lumbar flexion. The DOMS doesn't prove your argument. It could just as easily be that you get more DOMS in the lumbar region because you're flexing under load (eccentric contraction). Or maybe not. DOMS isn't conclusive of anything.
      1. ambrashura's Avatar
        ambrashura -
        Oh, now I see what you mean. That differs from KK opinion. KK told (in interviews) that his style is maximum possible rounding with maximum flexed abs. This allows him NOT TO ROUND even more while he lift. He says that rounding after starting with flat back is dangerous (rounding under load) and rounding before start and flattening whlie lifting is not dangerous.
        Here is my pretty bad Russian to English translation:

        You can get injury if you bend back under load. I'm round back very much at start, thrust [not sure about correct translation for this word..] into abs and save this position to the end of the lift, then I open up at the top. And that's it. Even if I can't lift the weight, I will not bend my back more that it was bend at start.

        Я же скругляю спину очень сильно в самом начале, упираюсь в пресс и остаюсь в таком положении до самого конца движения, затем вверху я раскрываюсь и всё. Даже если я не смогу поднять вес, я не сгибаю спину больше, чем она была согнута в начале движения.
        Interview from Iron world 2012/04
      1. Mike Tuchscherer's Avatar
        Mike Tuchscherer -
        I suppose we just disagree on that point. I agree that flexing under load is bad. But if you're already at max flexion, then you add more weight to the system... I am not comfortable coaching someone to do that.

        I appreciate the input! Always nice to have another perspective!
      1. mgarozzo's Avatar
        mgarozzo -
        Interesting article Mike, you and I have discussed this in the past with my deadlift as well. Thanks for posting it.
      1. ambrashura's Avatar
        ambrashura -
        Should I feel hamstring stretch at the bottom of the deadlift? (question is both for flat and rounded back)
      1. ChadHydro's Avatar
        ChadHydro -
        You may feel some amount of tension in your hamstrings when getting in position (I do). But this will probably vary depending upon setup, hamstring flexibility, etc.
      1. ambrashura's Avatar
        ambrashura -
        I asked this because I want to use "no hamstring stretch" as an indicator of incorrect setup. I dont know is it right idea or is it perfectly okay not to have hamstring stretch.
      1. ChadHydro's Avatar
        ChadHydro -
        You'll have to experiment and see if this is a valid indicator.

        I've worked on this a lot lately. The best advice I can give is to record every workset after your warmups. This way you'll become intimately familiar with what a neutral spine feels like.

        For me, the best indicator that I didn't get into/hold a good position is the need for double knee bend when locking out
      1. Dale's Avatar
        Dale -
        I can't seem to find it, but there is a video of KK deadlifting shirtless with a trap bar that illustrates his technique quite nicely. Anybody know the one?
      1. ambrashura's Avatar
        ambrashura -
        I downloaded it long time ago. Now it is not available on KK youtube channel.
        So I uploaded file for you: http://www.filedropper.com/justonedeadliftdayfromkk