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The "Do You Even Deadlift" Clinic
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StrikeBack Offline
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Post: #27
RE: The "Do You Even Deadlift" Clinic
Why your back rounds in the deadlift

If your deadlift resembles a cat taking a shit, this post is for you.

Without getting too deep into biomechanical analysis, here are the reasons why your back rounds, from the most common / most likely, to the least / unexpected.

1. You think deadlift is a back exercise

This is probably the first thing you're told when taking up lifting, be it for general fitness, bodybuilding or powerlifting. That is not wrong, but it often causes people to lift with just their back. The intention of their movement is not good, if you want back strength AND longevity. They then accept that (or get told that) it is normal for the back to round a lot under heavy load. You hear this not just from recreational lifters but from experienced powerlifters as well.

In powerlifting's rule book, there is nothing said about the back in the deadlift. It just says, pick the bar up off the floor and stand erect with it (plus some other stuff about locking your shoulders and knees). Which is why you see a variety of deadlift techniques in competition. Each technique emphasizes a certain movement intention, and they're not always about the back leading everything. Of course people know the sumo is less back and more legs and hips, but there are conventional deadlifters who don't use that much back either.

I learned about that through two different and very strong conventional deadlifters. One is a guy at my club who used to hold the WR deadlift with an over 4xBW pull. I would look on with amazement that his back never rounds when he pulls 3.5xBW for reps, and get even more amazed when watching him train back, because his back strength is definitely less than mine. He hit the weight off the floor with such force that you hear the bar loudly slam into the plates hard before the whole lot leaves the ground. I asked him what muscles he felt at that moment. His response: abs, quads and low back, in that order. The other was a multi-times WR holder in the IPF, heavyweight class. He used to kill it in squat and bench, but get murdered by the competition in the deadlift. He talked in a seminar about his breakthrough with the deadlift one day, after chatting with an old coach. What he switched to was "set the back tight, and leg-press the ground away."

This movement intention - of using abs and quads to pop the bar off the floor (and later to thrust the glutes through to lockout - is the foundation of the setup and lift-off techniques I explained in previous posts. Don't take it wrong, your back will work plenty hard, but it is not the only muscle group that does. My back gets plenty of stimulation, but it never rounds with any weight, including third attempts at competitions. It is not really because I have a strong back (relatively I have much stronger quads and hips) but because the weight that would cause my back to round would be too much for my abs and quads to get off the floor anyway.

Remember, like every tip, it will take 3-6 weeks before you get used to using your abs and quads to lift the bar off the floor, and it might move slowly at first.

2. There is too much slack in your arms, shoulders and upper back

The bulk of my elaborate setup is to eliminate the slack in your arms, shoulders and upper back, the closest points of contact with the bar. Slack means leaking power, and if there's slack anywhere, the heavy bar will correct that for you by rounding the hell out of your upper back.

The deadlift is not just a lower body exercise, and it's often limited by the weaker upper back muscles, so make sure you lock them tight before lifting.

3. You yank on the bar with your arms

This is directly related to #2. Some people yank hard on the bar with their arms from a bent position, which immediately causes the back to round once the bar leaves the floor. Do you start tug of war or pull a car by yanking on the rope with your arms? This lovely technique also has the potential bonus of a bicep tear.

The good old "grip dip and rip" technique is a variation of this.

4. You don't know how to brace your abs

This is the biggest cause of low back rounding. Most people do not know how to brace abs. Most newbies who start with Starting Strength and the likes get told that their abs get worked plenty via the compound lifts like squat and deadlift. That is a big load of shit. I've tested countless lifters with low back rounding issues, including some reasonably strong ones, and they all fail my abs exercises (e.g hollow body position). They're both weak and inactive there.

Learn diaphragmatic breathing, tighten your abs and low back down and out 360 degrees, pushing into the belt. Brace it hard like you're going to take a punch. Explode off the ground from the abs, not low back.

Train your abs hard with exercises like ab wheel rollouts, hollow body position etc.

5. You think wearing a belt will stop your back from rounding, but don't know how to wear it

You may be wearing the wrong belt. Some people wear the weightlifting belt (thick at the back, thin at the front) to deadlift. That doesn't do shit for your back. The powerlifting belt (which is also good for bodybuilding) has the same thickness and width all the way around. That is for your abs and low back to brace against, 360 degree.

You wear a belt to keep your pants up, not to protect your back. In other words, the belt is too loose. It should feel like a car tyre jammed around your mid-section, and you have to brace hard just to get some air in the abs.

6. You learn a back dominant technique without knowing that it is so

e.g you learn it from Starting Strength.

If you lift using mostly your back, then of course it gets worked too hard and rounds, because nothing else is helping.

7. You don't know how to lock your lats

Half have no idea how to lock the lats or feel the lats at all. The other half think they're locking their lats by pulling the shoulder blades back tight, like they're benching, squatting, doing lat pulldowns, rows etc. That is wrong. The muscles that keep the shoulder blades back and tight are too small and weak to play with the deadlift. By setting up like that, you are introducing a lot of slack in the upper back area unknowingly, and as soon as the bar leaves the ground, it will correct your mistake by rounding your back.

The correct lat locking position is shoulder blades down, and neutral (not back). It is very similar to the lat spread in bodybuilding. That is where the lats are strongest to statically hold the weight.

Easiest way to feel this is to deadlift a light weight (135lb will do for an average guy), bend over in the half way position in a deadlift, and stay there for time. Try pulling your shoulder blades back and see how long you last (not long). Now stay there and let your shoulder blades and lats settle into their strongest positions, while keeping your shoulders in the sockets and down tight.

8. You think your back rounds because it is weak

Those are the people who work tirelessly to strengthen their back (not a bad thing) because they believe it is weak which causes rounding. Yet whenever they deadlift, it rounds anyway. More back training then! The madness never stops.

In lifting (or movement in general), typically what you see failing is often actually the last thing that fails, because a whole lot of other stuff have already failed before that. Often that last failing part is in fact the strongest.

Many cat-backers actually have very strong back, but very weak or inactive abs, quads and glutes in the movement. Since none of the other muscle groups wants to help out, the poor back has to do it all and fails.

9. Your grip is too wide

The wider your grip is, the more taxing on the upper back the lift is. That is why a snatch grip deadlift is so much harder and makes a great back exercise.

We've established the idea here that your hands must be like hooks and arms like ropes. Ropes hang straight down, not diagonally. Make sure your arms are going straight down under your shoulder joints, and elbows are locked (not hyperextended). Feet and legs should be directly under the hip joints (in case of conventional deadlift), arms just outside the legs, even slightly rubbing on them during the movement.

Keep the grip width tight to give your back a better fighting chance.

10. You put the bar down wrong

You have a solid setup, and the first rep was pretty good with back strong and straight. Then everything turns to shit and you're doing a cat back. Why? You keep dropping your chest hard when lowering the bar, and/or dropping the weight like a stone. Maybe it's because you want to be a hardcore brah, maybe some idiot coached you that you need to conserve energy for the next rep, or to make it more like the first rep for strength off the floor.

Dropping the bar like that is throwing away all the tension and tightness you've carefully built before the first rep. It also puts the bar slightly in front of you, and gets worse every subsequent rep.

Simple solution: bring your butt down first, while looking up or forward at whatever spot you choose for the entire set, including when you put the bar down. Don't worry, the floor will always be there, you don't need to look down to find it.

Bring that bar down with control.

11. You breathe into your chest at the bottom

You're under stress and fatigue, so you breathe into your chest instead of abs at the bottom, which causes your shoulders to rise out of the sockets, loosening up all the tension and tightness you've been building.

12. You let the bar swing away from your shins

This is either a setup problem or a bar path problem. In the former, you have too much of your body in front of the bar. Not good, your shoulders (the whole joint, not just the anterior shoulders) should be directly above the bar. In the latter, you are pulling in the wrong path. With a heavy weight, it is straight up off the floor, dragged up the shins then immediately pulled slightly backwards (body leaning back for balance).

13. You overarch your back

You get told to arch your back hard to protect it. You do so, and immediately do a cat back when the bar leaves the ground, inverting the arch. Incredibly frustrating!

This is a very common problem for more flexible guys and especially girls. An overly arched back is in a weak position and also deactivates the abs and glutes.

Stand up, brace your abs and squeeze your glutes. Feel the position of your back now? That's a neutral spine. Keep it like that when you deadlift.

Note 1: you can lift a lot of weight, including WRs with a back dominant style, but people who are worried about rounding their backs are not among those.

Note 2: there is a powerlifting specific style called the round back deadlift, where the lifter deliberately sets up with a round T-spine from the start. That is to keep the hip closer to the bar for better leverage, and amplifies abs and quads involvement. That is not the same as someone starting with a straight back then becomes a cat taking a shit half way up. Do not attempt to learn this technique without a coach who actually knows it well.

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(This post was last modified: 04-17-2015 09:36 AM by StrikeBack.)
04-17-2015 09:34 AM
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RE: The "Do You Even Deadlift" Clinic - StrikeBack - 04-17-2015 09:34 AM

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