Deadlifts & Your Spine

November 10, 2017

Deadlifts & Your Spine

Today's articles comes from our long time homie, Evan Chaffey. Evan is the owner of Next Level Strength Systemsan online coaching company focused on providing quality, evidence based program design to powerlifters of all levels. You can follow him on his IG Page for more!

Strength sports are a world of ever changing and conflicting trends. Powerlifting in particular has seen: sumo emerging as a more and more popular stance, the ever popular “arch” and its cheater tendencies, and more recently the debate of lumbar extension versus neutral spine in the squat and deadlift. While the other topics are interesting, I want to talk about the last one: what should your spine do during that damn deadlift?

Not even 5 years ago, personal trainers were cuing clients to “stay on your heels”, “reach your butt back”, and “keep your chest high” … i.e. the very stereotypical hyperextended squat that would get critically torn to pieces today.  Similar cues were given for deadlift, encouraging hyperextension.

I’m not here to bash either position, but instead, to talk about when extension should be encouraged, and when athletes are getting TOO “neutral”.

Before we dive in, let’s define our terms.

Positions of the Lower Back

Lumbar extension – the backward bending, or arching, of the lower back.  Naturally, the lumbar spine rests in slight extension, but has the ability to hyperextend into an even larger, more excessive curve.
For the visual learners out there, the picture above may help; See how the lower back has that natural backwards curvature to it? Cool, hang on to that in your head for a bit. You can see the natural, backward curve in the spine on one side, and a more exaggerated arch on the other.

Lumbar flexion – the forward bending of the lower back; the exact opposite of lumbar extension. A good way to visualize this position is to think of a dog hiding its tail between its legs.  Here, try it yourself: try to tuck your tailbone toward your belly button and make your back go flat. That’s lumbar flexion.

Neutral – Oh man, where to even start? Neutral is such a debated topic between fitness professionals.  Remember that bit I told you not to forget regarding the “normal” lumbar curve? Good. Since the lumbar spine naturally sits in a lordotic, extended curve, this is typically the position in which the lumbar vertebrae and discs line up best to absorb and transfer force. This isn’t one specific spot either: neutral is a RANGE.  There is a varying degree of movement individuals may have between flexion and extension that is still considered “neutral” and still perfectly safe under load. Flat back does NOT necessarily mean neutral spine, like many assume. The flat back topic is far more complex to get into in this article, so let’s continue with extended versus neutral discussion.

Neutral as a Range

Now that we’ve defined things a bit, let’s continue. We’ve found ourselves in this new era of everything needing to be neutral: squats, deadlifts, breathing. I mean, for fucks sake, there’s even a bathroom stool so that we can poop in neutral.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’re headed in the wrong direction by encouraging less extreme lumbar motions with lifting. In fact, Dr. Stu McGill has done some incredible research on the spinal flexion/extension mechanics during training and has shown that a neutral spine is important, especially under load.

The deadlift is clearly a lift that would benefit from maintaining rigidity and a neutral spine from start to finish. Simply put: the fewer moving parts we have in a lift—in this case, the spine—the more efficient the lift will become.  If we start adding in more flexion or extension of the spine, we’re increasing the number of moving parts and creating a more inefficient lift.

By far, the most common issue I see with many deadlifts is that the lifter tends to be in far too much lumbar flexion when they think they’re “neutral”. Often times people are so focused on pulling themselves into a flat backed position that they get TOO neutral, ending up in lumbar flexion. This lumbar flexion position is typically seen in the starting position, before the bar even leaves the floor.

When a deadlift set up leaves you in too much flexion, it becomes it incredibly hard, if not impossible, to lock out the lift.  Having a tucked tailbone and rounded lumbar at the start of a deadlift puts the glutes in a much more advantageous position to do work.  Now, you’re probably sitting there saying, “Yeah, cool Evan. Sounds like a good thing, what’re you getting on about?” so let’s break it down:

Pelvic Tilts and How They Affect Your Pull

As a whole, your pelvis has two different forward and backwards motions:

Anterior tilt and posterior tilt.  

Anterior tilt is like trying to point your belt buckle down at the floor in front of you, while posterior tilt is like trying to point it up towards your chin. In terms of the deadlift, posterior tilt is essentially the same thing as the lumbar flexion we see in the bottom position. Posterior pelvic tilting is also referred to as hip extension, or when your hips are fully locked out. Essentially, we’ve got three different concepts all talking about basically the same thing. Confusing, I know. For simplicity’s sake, think of it like a chain reaction:

Posterior pelvic tilt => Lumbar flexion => Hip extension

If we are STARTING our pull with some hip extension already coming from the flexed lumbar spine, it creates a hip extension deficit at lockout.  We’ve only got so much hip extension range of motion that we can perform, so if we take some extra at the bottom, we pay for it at the top.  This is why we see lockout issues plaguing round back deadlifters when the weight gets heavy. They seem to move so quick off the floor, but miss the lift 1 inch from full lockout…heart breaking.

Now, the glutes aren’t the only muscle that can extend the hip, that’s the job of the hamstrings as well. When we’re in posterior tilt WITH bent knees—exactly like the bottom position of the deadlift—our hamstrings are on slack.  So, by starting our deadlift in a flexed position, the glutes are in a more advantageous position to work while the hamstrings are doing less.  Here, let’s think of the posterior chain like a rubber band.  If that band is stretched, it can produce force and shoot across the room. However, if there is no tension on our rubber band, like the slacked hamstrings mentioned before, its not going to go anywhere fast.

If the glutes are working more than the hamstrings from the beginning of our deadlift, we encounter a problem. As we pull farther through the range of motion, the glutes will have already exerted the majority of their force by creating lumbar flexion and can’t provide any additional help with full hip extension for lock out. We’ve found ourselves in a sticky situation:  hamstrings are slacked and can’t help us lock out and our glutes have already done all they’re able to.  This is why it is nearly impossible to lock out that rep.  

Also, something else to think about is that when one muscle is on slack, another is on stretch.  In this case, the erectors are put on stretch while hamstrings are slacked.  Neither position is advantageous for producing optimal force.

Attacking the Issue

Now that we know more about the problem, how do we fix it? Well, you might say “Evan. The answer is pretty simple: stay out of lumbar flexion.” Well…yes, but it’s not that easy.

Lifters who have deadlifted like this for a long time have grown accustomed to this movement pattern, and it will consequently take a good bit of work to correct. There isn’t one correct way to address the faulty starting position, but I do have a series of drills that I prefer to use.

  1. Verbal and/or visual cues. Start with the simplest actions first by trying to get yourself/your lifter to see what they are doing versus what they should be doing. Then, after educating them on the correct movement, allow them an opportunity to try and perform it. If you are working with someone in person, tactile cues (cues that you can actually feel) work great because you can physically move them into the correct position, so that they can get a feel for it.
  2. Learning to hip hinge properly. Separating the upper body from the lower body during movement and “hinging” at the hips is a crucial movement for not just powerlifting but for sports and everyday life. Master hinging through as great of ROM as you can, train the hell out of it, and get those hamstrings strong in a lengthened position.
  3. Light load paused deadlifts just off the floor. Are you now able to assume the correct starting position, but maybe you default back to rounding as soon as you apply tension to the bar and initiate the lift? The lower loads prevent you from compensating by using your glutes first and rounding your spine while the pauses are working to engrain the new movement pattern by forcing a better initial pulling position.  The most important aspect is to make sure you’re staying completely out of lumbar flexion throughout the lift, otherwise, this movement is just reinforcing bad positions. Progress loads of this movement linearly to match progress.
  4. Tempo eccentric deadlifts.  So now, you’ve almost fixed your deadlift: you can do singles or the first rep of each set with good technique, but then form breaks down between reps. Tempo eccentric deadlifts slow the lowering portion of the lift down to really emphasize loading the hamstrings and keeping the lumbar spine extended. Loads will need to be lighter here but not quite as light as used for paused deadlifts.  Try to perform each rep independently and slow the eccentric portion down to 3- 5 seconds to emphasize loading the hamstrings and not falling into flexion.

That’s it! This progression series probably won’t take place over the course of a week or two, and may be in fact a humbling process of lowering the weights of working sets.  It could potentially take as much as a couple of months to fix the issue, but staying diligent and putting in the behind the scenes work will set you up for greater progress in the long term.

By and large, the deadlift is a highly-complicated lift, much more so than people give it credit for. The best lifters are the ones paying attention to all the small details and technique. If you’re really struggling with lockout issues that’s not grip related, it may be time to start looking at how your position at the bottom.

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