The Deadlift is NOT a back exercise… unless you pull rounded

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The neutrality of your spine during a deadlift has big ramifications when it comes to your weak points, the force curve, and the utilization of muscle groups during the movement. In my opinion, the differences are large enough such that their rounded and flat deadlifts almost constitute two separate exercises. In this post we’ll talk about both separately, how they differ, and what that means for you as an athlete. I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: I do not advocate for either style. It’s up to you to decide what is best for you.

What I’m smoking

This might be a bit controversial and perhaps even rustle some jimmies. When I’m speaking in terms of associating musculature with a movement, I’m associating the prime movers with that movement. For instance, you could make a case that the Squat is primarily a leg and hip movement. Obviously these are compound movements and utilize a lot of musculature but again, I’m speaking of the prime movers and muscles that go through a range of motion during the movement.

Speaking in this context then, the flat-backed deadlift only works the back isometrically and is a much more hip-dominant movement. Conversely, if you pull with a rounded style, Spinal extension is part of the movement. You are literally working the Erector Spinae through a range of motion and must do so to finish the pull. This should mean that the back musculature of a rounded puller is much more developed than a flat puller. It’s not that pulling flat won’t develop the back but in my opinion it’s not to the same extent as rounded pulling.

Flat-backed Analysis

To illustrate the difference between the two, I’ve picked two extremely impressive examples of these two styles. While these two are on the more extreme ends of the spectrum, obviously some individuals will fall a bit more in the middle. Let’s watch Mike Tuchscherer as he pulls almost 800 pounds with a neutral back angle. I’ve chosen a side angle for maximum benefit (starts at 57 seconds in):

You can see that as he breaks the floor his hip angle is very acute due to his back angle. He’s slow off of the floor but quickly begins to accelerate. Once the bar passes his knees all he needs to do is extend his hips to lockout. Locking out requires no spinal extension because his back is already neutral.

Round-backed Analysis

To illustrate a round-backed style check out Eric Lilliebridge’s 900 pound pull (starts at 19 seconds in):

Due to his rounded back his hip angle is a lot more open as the bar breaks the ground meaning his hips end up closer to the bar earlier in the pull. Because of this, the bar breaks the ground with a lot more speed. Once the bar passes the knee the lift is finished with mostly spinal extension. Eric has built enough strength in his low-back that he can extend his spine even while holding 900 pounds.

How do you pull?

As you can see, the amount of spinal neutrality has a lot of bearing on the mechanics of your deadlift. It’s important to understand where you fall on the spectrum. I recommend you video your deadlift worksets from the side across several sets and compare to the two videos above. If you find that you are rounded but you’d prefer to pull flat check out my guide to transition to pulling flat.

How to adapt your programming to fit your style

I mentioned that there are some ramifications for your programming depending upon your style of pulling. If you pull with a neutral spine then the lift will probably be a lot more hip-dominant for you. To develop the muscles used in your style you should work on the hip extensors. Hip thrusts and hamstring dominant deadlifts, such as RDLs and SLDLs could be useful. Your weak point will be when breaking the weight off of the floor. Paused deadlifts (an inch from the floor) and deficit deadlifts could be useful in working on your weak point.

If you pull with a rounded back I think working on the musculature of the low-back could be of use to you. Specifically, Round-Back Extensions should imitate the lockout of your deadlift. You may also find Round-Back versions of hamstring dominant deadlifts useful. Your weak point will be the lockout and so you should emphasize this position. If you train Rack Pulls as a way to build the lockout you should be careful to imitate the same level of rounding that you usually encounter near lockout. Many tend to use a more neutral spine position when doing Rack Pulls vs their off the floor deadlift. If you want to be specific to your competitive pulling style you’ll need to ensure you’re not accidentally pulling flat. Pausing just below the knee can also be useful.

Own your style

If you find that you do pull rounded and don’t feel the need to re-work your deadlift then I encourage you to fully embrace this form of the deadlift. If someone asks you why you do it, explain to them your reasoning and don’t make excuses for why you pull this way. Use this information to adapt your programming to your style of movement, or inform your coach why you think certain exercises might be a better fit. Own your deadlift.

That last paragraph might sound accusatory or make it seem that I’m on the side of flat-backed deadlifting. I’m really not. I’ve just seen too many claim that their back is flat (or that it’s only their thoracic rounding) when it’s pretty plain to see there’s rounding in the lumbar as well. I think we should keep the younger lifters in mind and be truthful when speaking of the pros and cons of both styles.

I would be very much open to any comments on the matter.

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