Today’s post title probably instantly made you either say…
“Of course not!!” or “Of course you can!!”
Having such strong opposing views honestly makes me a bit crazy. There are differences in every industry on how someone might approach addressing an issue, but almost every industry has what are called “best practices”. Which typically means, “procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective.”
Sadly, with fitness there are A LOT of reasons that end up preventing the industry from having best practices which leaves a lot of people just following whatever influencer they like best. That can be scary because we aren’t debating what maybe gets you another 10% better result or something like that, we are basically asking if one method is safe or unsafe.
To put that in perspective, imagine if you had two contractors wanting to build your house. They had VERY different ways of building your house, one said that your house could collapse if it was built one way and the other claims, “there is no evidence” and that it is perfectly acceptable to build your house the way they wanted. Would you feel nervous? Would you want a lot more information on what “evidence” means? Hopefully you are answer is YES! So, let’s do that for the idea of rounded back lifting that some advise for deadlifts.
The debate is between two sides, let’s look at both. The “it is okay (maybe even preferential) to round the back during deadlifts” group will argue the following…
-There is no evidence rounding back lifting hurts your low back
-Injury is usually because you didn’t build up the strength in the low back
-“I do it and I’m not injured” argument
Is there truth to these points? Let’s look at each…
“There Is No Evidence Rounding Back Lifting Hurts Your Low Back”
Obviously the other side of the debate is rounding the back on deadlifts or any exercise increases your risk of injury. Now, that is first important to understand, “increased risk”, no one said that it is guaranteed that injury occurs from rounding back deadlifts instantly. The accumulation of stress with such lifting can lead to injury over time. I’ll provide you some actual science on the topic, but let’s use an every day example because I am sure someone is yelling “Josh, don’t be ridiculous, our spines are resilient!”
Let us address that last point really fast because I hear it a lot and it never makes sense to me what people are actually saying. Are our spines resilient? Well, yes, to a point. Resilient is NOT the same as indestructible, I think people who say this believe they are the same thing. Let me give a really practical example of this concept with car tires.
Are car tires resilient? Sure, to a point right? If car tires were like glass it wouldn’t make sense to even put them on your car at all right?
This is from the Brookstone tire company website, “Just as vehicles, drivers, and driving habits are different from each other, not all tires are the same and they can wear at very different rates. For instance, high performance tires for sports cars wear more quickly than touring tires for a family sedan. However, a variety of factors can cause a tire to wear out sooner than expected, and/or cause it to wear irregularly and create noise or vibration. Two common causes of early tire wear out and irregular tire wear are improper inflation pressure and out-of-spec alignment conditions.”
There a few things I want you to get from the above…
-Just like tires, everyone’s spine is different and what their resilience is to wear and tear can vary. Dr. Stuart McGill (who has researched the spine almost more than anyone else) shared the following, “Determining the tolerance and capacity of each individual is paramount to ensure that a given exercise dosage is matched to the client. Each individual has a loading tolerance which, when exceeded, will cause pain and ultimately tissue damage…A person’s capacity is the cumulative work that he or she can perform before pain or troubles begin. An example, someone who can only walk 20 meters before pain sets in has a low capacity. This kind of person won’t benefit from therapeutic exercise that’s performed 3 times per week; instead, he or she has a better chance with 3 sessions per day. Corrected walking in 3 short sessions per day, never exceeding the current tolerance and capacity, is an alternate approach to building capacity.”
Research DOES show how we create wear and tear on our spines by being “out of alignment”.
This means one person could potentially round their back during deadlifts and not experience any issues for quite some time (if possibly ever), while another person could do one workout, one set, even one repetition and experience issues in their low back. So, MY first question to anyone that wants to recommend people perform deadlifts with rounded backs is, “how do you know which spine you are dealing with?” Not to mention, “how do the risks outweigh the benefits?”
-If you notice in the tire quote, “alignment” was mentioned. We know in a lot of different machinery (yes, the body is different than a machine but in this case they are similar) if you don’t align parts well then over time the various parts can start to wear out. The same can happen to the body, that is why most people don’t experience a knee issue just performing one step during a run. However, if they have foot, ankle, hip/core issues, over time as they run more and more, we start to see knee issues. The alignment being off caused excessive wear and tear on other structures and we ended up with an issue that isn’t about running per se, but our alignment while running to absorb forces.
I believe another big issue in the rounded back deadlift discussion is when people say “there is no research saying rounded back deadlifts are bad.” Well, they might be right there is no study that takes people and has them round their backs during deadlifts for a prolonged period of time to see if they develop injuries. There are A LOT of reasons such research doesn’t exist, one of the biggest is that you can’t do research on people knowingly putting them in a positions of known risk of injury.
When research is done, they usually look at past research, there is enough evidence on models of the spine to know that such extended loading often will lead to injury. Then, we would also have to disqualify a lot of people predisposed to spinal problems from our study, and so forth. Instead, we can just look at the existing research and make some extrapolations. Models are often used to mimic what WOULD happen to the body because what would you do if a study created a permanent back injury for someone? Who would want to be part of such a study?
Even when lifters were standing with a barbell on their backs and just moved their pelvis forward and back, there was pain experienced by some of the lifters which resulted in termination of the study. People need to know how research actually works.
There is quite a bit of research showing that loaded flexion (loaded being a key point here) does increase risk of low back injury because the changing of the mechanics of the spine as well as the other structures around the spine.
In fact, a study done on powerlifters lifting very heavy weights found that once a vertebrae reached full flexion the lifter experienced pain/injury. We are talking just a couple of degrees of change of movement (change probably unnoticeable to the human eye), there was an injury to a very well trained lifter.
People often will also say that the true problem is that lifters don’t just build up the strength to lift rounded back. Ironically, there is no evidence where this is the case and there IS evidence that our bodies generally go through wear and tear the greater demand we place on our body. That doesn’t mean movement is of course bad for us, but when things get more extreme the chances of breaking down the body do increase.
Ultimately, if you decide to perform rounded back deadlifts for yourself, that is up to you, I’m not interested in being the exercise police. I can only provide as much information as possible and trust me, this long blog post could be MUCH longer if we wanted to get into all the science around this topic. My concern is when people come to us an entrust fitness coaches with their health, their finances, and their time do we choose the BEST thing for them or the most controversial idea being willing to roll the dice just to see what happens? I think if we were the person coming to a professional for help what would be the best practice (the safest and most effective way to achieve our goals) for ourselves, no?
You can find out way more on healthy ways for to build spinal mobility in our Myofascial Integrated Movement program as well as how to build mobility and stability for our spine in our DVRT Rx Courses you can find all HERE for 25% off with code “winter” along with 25% off all Ultimate Sandbags/Water Bags HERE
Here are 2 ways to progress your deadlifts and build greater spine stability and resilience
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