Deadlifting with your back straight or rounded is somewhat controversial in powerlifting. While deadlifting with a rounded back is not as dangerous as people think if you're braced properly and know what you're doing, I still think deadlifting with a straight back is a safer movement. If you chose to deadlift with a straight or rounded back is your personal decision. But if you have decided that you're going to switch from a rounded back pull to a straight back one, the change may be harder than expected, and I'm writing this article to provide some guidance.
First, we need to establish 2 big basics of deadlifting itself: setup and lat tightness.
Setup is absolutely crucial for the deadlift. There are 3 major factors to take into account:
1. Make sure your shoulders are over the bar. Trying to squat the weight is a very natural tendency, but it's ultimately misguided and counter-productive. The deadlift is not a squat, and your hips will rise if they're too low by their own accord if the weight is heavy enough.
2. Make sure to brace your core. This is known as the Valsalva maneuver. It's a breathing technique to allow you to produce maximum force, by stabilizing your trunk. It's a must for any heavy lift, both for maximum strength and safety. Your core should be as tight as possible and full of air. A common cue is to think about preparing to get punched in the gut. You automatically brace for impact. That's the goal. Although in that situation most people think about drawing the core in. In this context, it's more about pushing the core out. And a lot of people have a tendency to focus on pushing it forward as well, but it needs to be 360° degrees. How I like to visualize is imagining a cylinder pushing the air towards the bottom. As it runs out of room, it expands in every direction. If you're a novice and still unsure how to do it properly, you can check a 3-part video by Jordan Syatt, here, here, and here.
3. Take the slack out of the bar. This one is a bit hard to explain in written form, so I'll link a video instead, as it's much easier to understand.
Now that you have the triad of the setup down, the next most important factor is lat tightness. The deadlift works your entire back, but the lats specifically play a super important role. They prevent the bar from drifting away from you (which makes staying with a flat back much harder if not impossible). They need to be super tight before you even start to pull, and they need to stay tight throughout the entire lift. Slightly tucking your elbows inwards before you pull will help.
A common cue for this is "putting your lats in your back pockets". I personally struggle with that one, and I rather think of as if I'm flaring my lats and I was about to do a row. Whatever works for you. For people who have trouble feeling their lats, I like to use the cable or band pullover. It's really easy to feel the lats with it. I often use it as a pre-activation exercise or as a normal back movement after all the main work. Once it "clicks" in your mind with the exercise itself, it's much easier to reproduce it while deadlifting.
The standing cable pullover. Credit to http://seannal.com.
If you got these 2 factors down, the setup and lat tightness, you're well on your way to a good, straight-back deadlift. However, this is more of a checklist to make sure you got the basics down. If you have been lifting for quite some time, it's likely that you know all this, but potentially still struggling to get from a rounded back to a straight back pull. This is very common. Transitioning from a rounded back deadlift to a flat back is actually pretty hard. People think you just need to think about having a flat back and that alone will fix it. It sure sounds nice but that’s rarely how it works in practice. And the more time you had spent deadlifting that way, the harder it will become to correct it. Here are a few things you should take into account while transitioning:
- It takes practice and time
You may already be tight in your core and your lats, but you can be even tighter. It's a long-term improvement, you can always get better, and it takes years of practice. However, you need to train the deadlift in the position you want to be in. You can take 5 years practicing all the advice I gave above, but unless you're actually doing the deadlifts in a straight back position, that will do very little. And that means you will have to lower the weight. It's a big hit for the ego, especially if you have been deadlifting for years and years, meaning that reduction can be quite significant. But it's necessary. I know it’s cheesy, but as people say: “it’s a marathon and not a sprint”, it’s one of the most important things you can remember. Focus long-term, always. And skill is a part of that journey.
- You have to overcome your ego
You need to think of it as a new lift. Whatever your last PR was is irrelevant. It was made with a form you're not happy with and not something you want to replicate in the future, so just forget it. When you're deadlifting, always be in a flat back position. If you lose your position, you consider that a technical fail and the rep doesn't count. Just like if you missed depth on squats or your butt came off the bench. You don't need to be insanely strict about it and make sure every rep is 100% perfect all the time (that may be useful in the very beginning), but it needs to be within the realm of acceptable form. The problem is that this is subjective and may at times be hard to determine, so always lean towards being more conservative, rather than convincing yourself that it wasn't that bad. Recording yourself is helpful to look at your technique more objectively, and perhaps even send it to a few friends.
- Implement accessory work
There are 2 exercises that I found to help this transition quite significantly. The first being the snatch grip deadlift, and the second being paused deadlifts. Both teach you to be super tight, and they're a very valuable as accessory movements. I also combine the 2 from time to time, pausing with a snatch grip. Make sure you're pausing right after the bar breaks the floor, and not below the knee as it's commonly done.
In terms of more bodybuilding work, exercises that work the posterior chain will help. The most obvious choices are romanian deadlifts (which can also be done with a snatch grip to emphasize lat tightness) and stiff leg deadlifts (if your leverages and mobility allow it). Less specific exercises can also be useful like good mornings and back extensions. Just make sure you're maintaining a straight back with all these lifts. Just like the actual deadlift, if your back rounds, that's a failed rep.
- Your shoulders should be over the bar
- Your core and lats should be as tight as possible.
- Always deadlift with a straight back, which will likely require lowering the weight
- Think about straight back deadlifts as an entirely new exercise
- Never allow your back to round
- Implement accessory exercises that help you maintain that position like snatch grip deadlifts and paused deadlifts
And most important of all, have patience. Powerlifting takes more skill than people give it credit for. And skill requires practice, and practice takes time. Sometimes you're already doing everything you can, but you're still not where you want to be. But that's not because you're missing some magical exercise or cue. You just need time. Embrace the grind, just focus on moving forward.