Most trainees who begin Deadlifting are told that holding a neutral spine is correct form. However, many will fail to learn this movement pattern from the start or will simply accept that they are stronger with a rounded spine and continue on with that technique. Spinal neutrality in the Deadlift is a choice every Powerlifter will need to make.
The first difference between round-backed deadlifting and flat-backed deadlifting that always comes to mind is safety. We’re taught that it’s much safer to deadlift with a safer spine. However, spend any amount of time around a gym and you’ll notice a multitude of seemingly healthy individuals pulling with a rounded back. If round-backed lifting is unsafe wouldn’t there be more lifters with back injuries?
Suffice it to say, rounded pulling is probably not going to land you in a hospital assuming your body has adapted to the position. There may be a slightly higher risk of injury pulling rounded but that’s not to say that pulling flat will guarantee that you’re safe from back injuries.
The other major difference is sticking point. Generally if you have a rounded pull you’re going to be fast off the floor and and will slow down somewhere around knee level. If you pull flat, you’re more likely to be slow off the floor but will pick up speed as the lift progresses. This is pretty important. Your choice in pulling style will determine your sticking point.
How to Tell Which Form You Use
Maybe you don’t know whether you pull flat or rounded currently. What’s the best way to know? Film yourself! Recording video of your workset is a good idea for any serious Powerlifter as it will give you feedback on various details, RPE, technique, etc. In our case filming will immediately tell us whether we pull flat or rounded.
Another pretty good giveaway is where your DOMs are localized. If you tend to feel more sore/stiff in your low-back after pulling you probably do so with a rounded back. On the other hand if you tend to have a lot of Hamstring soreness after pulling with very little low-back soreness you’re probably more of a flat-backed puller. Keep in mind these are generalizations.
How to Start Pulling Flat-backed
At this point you’ve determined that you’re pulling with a less-than neutral spine and you’d like to improve your spinal position in the pull. Again, we don’t judge if you’ve decided to pull rounded or flat. This is a personal choice everyone needs to make. But if you’d like to pull flat here’s one way to go about it:
1. Start filming all of your Deadlift sets
This is extremely important. You need to start mentally associating what it feels like to pull with a neutral spine. Video is the best form of feedback as it’s almost instantaneous. You can perform the set and double check to see that it looks the way you want it to.
2. Lower the weight on the bar
It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to fix your spinal position just with a cue. Your body has gotten stronger in a rounded position, you need to teach it to be strong in a flat position. If you’re using percentages I’d recommend starting somewhere in the lower 70% range. If you’re using RPEs you should factor in your technique into your RPE ratings. That is, when you start to see some rounding in your form you’ll say that you’ve hit your prescribed RPE for the day.
3. Consider lowering the rep range
Lower reps can help by allowing you to practice the setup without too much fatigue. Naturally, you’ll need to do more sets to accumulate the same amount of volume but we’re more focused on quality here rather than quantity.
4. Get your lats involved
Mike explains it best:
5. Play with hip position
You may need to lower your hips if you have them fairly high at the moment. Lowering your hips can have the effect of slackening your hamstrings just enough to allow you to pull the slack out of your low-back.
6. Play with stance-width
Sometimes getting into a position where you can shove your knees out more will make it easier to get your low-back set and tight.
7. Don’t rush the setup
Often times trainees cannot pull with a good position because they never get into the good position in the first place. Take the time to get setup correctly. Don’t rush things. Only pull when you’re ready.
Why can’t I just use assistance work to target the weakness?
While it’s conceivable that something in the muscular chain is weak and will keep you from maintaining a neutral spine it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fix it by solely working on the musculature. Rather, the issue lies in the movement pattern. You’ve learned the movement one way and now you’ve got to learn it another.
Think of it this way. Say you learn how to play the trumpet. Suddenly you break your dominant hand and can’t play using that hand any longer. Do you think you’d be able to play with the same speed and fluency with your non-dominant hand just by doing some hand strengthening exercises? No way. You have to relearn with a different pattern. It won’t be 100% starting over but it will still take time. The analogy isn’t 100% applicable to Powerlifting but I think it’s good at illustrating what’s going on.
If you decide to transition to flat-backed Deadlifting it will take time to relearn the pull with new mechanics. You will need to reset your expectations of your Deadlift.
For an example of a transition to flat-backed Deadlifting, check out Arian Khamesi, IPF Coach and how he fixed his Deadlift using a similar process: