Is Deadlifting With A Flexed Spine Inherently Dangerous?

  • flexed spine
2017-08-02T14:39:22+00:00 By |

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There’s No Such Thing As “Perfect” Spinal Neutral

Being unable to train the deadlift and squat, heavy or frequently kills progress. With nothing interrupting gains in the big lifts, like low back pain. Because back pain rarely strikes once, it often comes knocking again and again. Killing progress throughout the years, unless action is taken.

When it comes to lower back injuries, trust me, I have been there. Low back pain stopped me in my tracks back in 2013. Doing one-handed kettlebell swings, I felt that dreaded intense twinge, it almost floored me. For weeks I wanted to train but could only manage upper body exercises. When I finally got back to lifting I had inevitably gone backwards.

Being cautious by nature, my response was to focus on “perfect” technique whenever I lifted, by maintaining a neutral spine. Avoiding rounding/flexing my lower back at all costs. Keeping an arch in my lower back, stopped my spine from shearing/grinding under a heavy load. Which leads to damage to the discs of our lumbar spine, as well as overloading of spinal ligaments (6).

Lower Back Injury Rates In The Lifting Population

I was not alone in this. The injury incidence in lifting is estimated to be between 2.4–4.4 injuries/1000 hours of training (Asa,2016). Now this doesn’t sound like much but if you consider it only takes one back injury to ruin a lifting career, it is relatively common (Aasa,2016). Which is why many clients, in my Osteopathic clinic, present with spinal damage because their back did something it was unprepared for.

My emphasis on technique worked well when I:

  1.  Never loaded the barbell above 80% of 1RM. Because “Many lifters find that when the weight creeps over 90% of their 1RM, their back starts to round, and the rounding gets more pronounced as the load approaches true maximal weight.”(3)
  2. Avoided the temptation to force out an extra rep, letting my technique get sloppy.

However, I inevitably tempted fate, by going a little bit heavier, deeper or trying for that extra rep. Unfortunately my lower back had become rigidly fragile(5), only being stable under the strictest parameters.

With my spinal muscles yielding easily, whenever they were lengthened under load. Resulting in my unprepared lower back rounding, when challenged. In spite of my conscious effort to keep an arch in the back, whenever I trained. Inevitably I have had 2x more lower back episodes, from workouts when I pushed the envelop. 

But there is an alternative to lifting in constant pain. Those who spend the time to protect their lower back, don’t lose the momentum that progress demands. Plus it only takes an investment of five minutes per workout. But before we dive into how to bulletproof your lower back, it’s important to understand the research and application of neutral spinal positions with heavy loading.

What The Research Says About Lifting With A Neutral Spine

The research clearly shows that the only solution was to stabilise my lower back to protect my spinal discs. With my back muscles being the stabilisers. It became clear that I needed to get bigger and stronger lower back muscles.

I was stuck because on one hand, the quickest way to build strength and hypertrophy muscles, is eccentric training.

On the other hand, eccentric exercise would be an idiotic thing to do for a rigidly fragile (5) lower back.

Even though eccentrics would have the greatest metabolic effect. With eccentrics increasing type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibre (Hedayatpour,2015) (Douglas,2017).  As well as type 1 (slow-twitch) muscle fibre (Vikne,2006). With overspeed eccentrics (Farthing,2003) and heavily loaded eccentrics (Hoig,2009), having the biggest effect. Eccentrics would be asking for injuries.

The Connection Between Manual Labor & Spinal Resilience

It became quite clear to me that the strongest historical figure, did lots of manual labour before they became athletes. Christian Thibaudeau points out “We all know examples of strong and/or muscular people who got like that through manual labor”(12). For a great book about the subject check out purposeful primitive (11).

Examples of athletes with a history of manual labour are:

  • Magnus Samuelsson  (ex farmer) – 1998 World’s Strongest Man
  • Richard Froning (ex fireman) – 5x CrossFit Games Champion
  • Ed Hall (ex lorry mechanic) – Current Deadlift World Record Holder

All of these individuals appear to be testimony to the fact manual labour can give you strong and stable lower backs. So I looked for clues in what manual labourers do. Manual labourers, certainly did not consciously try to keep a neutral spine, like I did. They rounded their backs when they worked on the field for 8 hours a day. How else can you lift an awkward shaped objects from the ground?

I began to wonder if they would have had more injuries if they consciously avoided lumbar spine flexion? How do they not injure themselves more?

Most manual labourers spend more time on “the concentric, or positive portion of a movement. For example, Throwing bales, pushing a plough, stacking bales. They got “rid of the eccentric phase, and of course the amortization phase as well.(1)”. This was more energy efficient for them and was not as problematic then slowly lowering the weights, and risking their back giving out on them. In other words their lower back muscles shortened and contracted at the same time (4). Reducing the risks associated with eccentric or stretch-reflex/plyometric training.

Manual labour stimulates the lower back in a unique way:

  • Through endurance work. As the lower back muscles are stabilisers, which don’t need to produce power, they are built for endurance. Being predominately slow twitch muscle fibres, (Mannion,1997), training them for power would never lead to hypertrophy.
  • They avoid the more dangerous eccentric portion when it comes to stimulating the erector spinae to grow. Being one of the riskiest muscles to train. Not so much because you will completely tear them like a bicep, but because if they fail to stabilise. All to common chronic low back pain can develop.
  • Frequent stimulation not annihilation. Christian thibaeudeau believes that it is frequent sub-maximal practice that explains their strength: “doing fairly heavy, but non-maximal labor at a high volume… can make you much stronger, bigger, and leaner. And for years I tried to find a way to duplicate this “manual labor strength.”(12)

The Safer Lower Back Hypertrophy Solution To Lifting

Although concentric-only lifting, may not be as strong a stimulus as eccentric (Douglas,2017) (Vikne,2006). Labourers who have done manual lifting for many years, all had massive lower back muscles. Concentric-only movements, has been shown to hypertrophy muscles, according to research (Stock,2017). I mean how could the muscles not hypertrophy, when they are placed under load for hours every week.

Clever strength coaches have learnt from the old-school strongmen. Mimicking farm work in the gym, with profound effect. The Olympic lifter coach, Glen Pendlay has said “when weightlifters start doing a ton of extra workouts that are concentric-only, they have a problem: they grow out of their weight class. And that’s with lean muscle, not fat.”

If you want to read about the importance of increasing muscular endurance. Like Glen Pendlay did through a ton of extra work. Have a read of Pavel’s article on why even powerlifters should train their slow twitch muscle fibres (7).

How to Train Concentric-Only for Hypertrophy in the Gym:

  • Training slow tempo, will ensure that the lumbar spinae have enough time under tension (TUT) as Mechanical tension is a pre-cursor to muscle growth (Schoenfeld, 2010).
  • Do isolation exercises only. Christian Thibaudeau said “you can use slow training effectively: when trying to improve mind-muscle connection with one specific muscle on an isolation exercise.(10)”
  • Training high repetitions, to give your lower back a pump. This will mechanically stress your erector spinae, another pre-cursor to muscle growth (Schoenfeld,2010)

The Low Back Spinal Flexion Specialization PROGRAM

Ensure you DO NOT over extend your back at the top of any of the exercises.

Step 1– Concentric only Over a block/bench (8)

This is the safest exercise to train your back in a rounded position:

  • Because the load is lighter, as the hips lever arm is less when we lean forward onto something.
  • The range of motion is also reduced.(4)

Standing Back Extension Programming Phase

Training Day 1:

  • Standing Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 15 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 2:

  • Standing Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 16 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 3:

  • Standing Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 17 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 4:

  • Standing Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 18 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 5:

  • Standing Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 19 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 6: 

  • Standing Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 20 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Step 2– Concentric only 45 degree back extensions.

Back extensions has been a go to back strengthening exercise for decades. Why not go for a pump with by avoiding the eccentric lowering portion.

45 Degree Back Extension Phase

Training Day 7:

  • 45 degree Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 15 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 8:

  • 45 degree Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 16 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 9:

  • 45 degree Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 17 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 10:

  • 45 degree Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 18 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 11:

  • 45 degree Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 19 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 12:

  • 45 degree Back Extension with Rounded Back (Concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 20 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Step 3– Concentric only (Rounded back sled pull-through)

This is one to build up towards as it has the furthest range of motion and does involve eccentric lowering of bodyweight. But unlike the other two it hits the whole of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings and erector spinae).

Sled Pull-Through Phase

Training Day 13:

  • Sled pull-through with Rounded Back (concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 15 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 14:

  • Sled pull-through with Rounded Back (concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 16 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 15:

  • Sled pull-through with Rounded Back (concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 17 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 16:

  • Sled pull-through with Rounded Back (concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 18 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 17:

  • Sled pull-through with Rounded Back (concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 19reps, @ 60% of 1RM

Training Day 18:

  • Sled pull-through with Rounded Back (concentric-only)
  • 2 sets, 20 reps, @ 60% of 1RM

CAUTION: If you have any history of lower back problems, I strongly recommend that you have a study to check if it is safe for you to train your lumbar spine in flexion.

*This article would never have been written if it wasn’t for Tom Hibbert’s influence.


About The Author

adam robertson

Adam Robertson

Adam is an Osteopathic Personal trainer, with over 10 years in the fitness and therapy industries. He is on a mission to put the health, back into health & fitness. 

For more info check out his website: www.overtrainingsolution.com


 Article References

(1) https://drjohnrusin.com/concentric-only-training/

(2) https://bretcontreras.com/abc-ask-bret-contreras-why-do-i-round-my-back-when-i-deadlift-heavy/

(3) https://www.t-nation.com/training/strong-case-for-the-rounded-back-deadlift

(4) “Adjusting a meal plan made simple” by John Meadows via mountaindogdiet.com 

(5) https://www.amazon.com/Antifragile-Things-That-Disorder-Incerto/dp/1400067820/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

(6) http://deansomerset.com/will-back-explode-flex-spine-deadlift/

(7) http://www.strongfirst.com/should-you-train-your-slow-fibers/

(8) Exercise via Christian Thibaudeau – www.thibarmy.com 

(9) Exercise via Tom Hibbert – www.winning-Solution.com

(10) https://www.t-nation.com/training/tip-stop-training-slow

(11) https://www.amazon.com/Purposeful-Primitive-Primordial-Inevitable-Dramatic/dp/0938045717

(12) https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/russian-strength-skill-the-workouts

Research References

Stock,2017 –  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28321637

Hedayatpour,2015 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4620252/

Douglas,2017 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/27647157/

Vikne,2006 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/17019299/

Farthing,2003 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12756571/

Hoig,2009 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/18981046/

Schoenfeld,2010 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20847704

Mannion,1997 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1467636/

Aasa,2016 – http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/4/211

14 Comments

  1. Hayden Gladstone August 2, 2017 at 5:43 pm - Reply

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  3. Andy August 3, 2017 at 10:45 am - Reply

    I agree with Hayden. The author should learn to write or get an editor. There’s no excuse for writing like this. And “hypertrophy” is a noun, not a verb. Also, wouldn’t the cable pull-through also work for this kind of training? Tony Gentilcore had a good video on that.

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  5. Adam August 3, 2017 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I have numerous problems with this article. It contains a confused mix of opinions based on poor knowledge and is supported by useless references. My problem is this article is predominantly rhetoric and may misguide people with genuine injury to inappropriate treatment. Here are a few things that bugged me.

    1. I don’t think I have to point this out, but it is poorly written. If you are going to put your name to something then at least read it through before submitting it.

    2. Your references. You’ve seriously referenced Amazon twice! How does that help me as a reader that wants to check the references out? I know it is a link to a book but do you expect me to read the entire book to find this reference? If you have done a degree then no doubt you have learnt how to reference properly. There’s no excuse for such lazy work.

    3. I don’t think this article helps anyone. You identified yourself the cause of your back pain was inappropriate load leading to poor technique. So the answer to this is avoiding lifting? Why not lift appropriate load with good form? There’s nothing wrong with concentric lifting but I have an issue with trying to dissuade people from addressing the problem of poor technique for concentric exercise. While some lifters can get away with eccentrically loading of the spine I think there is an unnecessary high risk of injury. Your spine is built for dynamic stability. This means being able to create stiffness under high load and allow for appropriate mobility under low load (high load competency and low load competency).

    4. What the hell is “rigidly fragile (5) lower back”. Care to explain? The reference didn’t help.

    5. Labours and spinal resilience. What are you going on about? You claim that labours have spinal resilience, while in some cases they may do the reality is they are the demographic with the one of the highest incidence/ risk of low back pain. This isn’t just my opinion; this is the conclusion of many epidemiological studies on low back pain. You also substantiate this claim with 3 examples of athletes who had a previous job of manual labour. This has nothing to do with the thousands of hours dedicated to training their sport? Need I say anymore on that subject…

    6. “As the lower back muscles are stabilisers, which don’t need to produce power, they are built for endurance”. True, the lower back muscles stabilise. Yes, they have endurance as some are have more of a postural function than others. False, in what world does your spine not need power?

    7. “The research clearly shows that the only solution was to stabilise my lower back to protect my spinal discs” What research are you referring to? There are no references!

    8. “Being predominately slow twitch muscle fibres, (Mannion,1997), training them for power would never lead to hypertrophy”. This statement is just wrong. Training any muscle can produce hypertrophy if done appropriately. Mannion,1997 showed large type 1 fibres, this is a reflection of their postural role, not that the muscle is not built to produce power, it does also contain type 2 fibres. This being said the ratio of different muscle fibres will vary depending on the load/ environment placed on them.

  6. Robert August 4, 2017 at 3:45 am - Reply

    I agree with what Adam said.

    Who references Amazon in an article? This might as well be on The Daily Mash.

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  11. Oliver Chapman September 17, 2017 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Interesting stuff, I think rounded back training can be extremely beneficial, since doing Jefferson curls and rounded back hyperextensions my lower back has improved a lot.

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  13. Marshall Evans October 20, 2017 at 12:52 pm - Reply

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