Last updated on February 17th, 2023 at 02:30 pm
I’m sure you’ve noticed that the heaveier deadlifts get the more difficult it is to keep your back straight.
And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you just how dangerous “rounding your back” during deadlifts can be.
Well, here’s the various reasons this occurs and what you should do to fix it.
There are various reasons why you can’t keep your back straight during deadlifts. The most important of these is that you should take time to properly set yourself prior to lifting. Many people view the deadlift as simply picking a heavy bar up off the floor. However, before you even pick the barbell up it’s important to load your hamstrings, engage your posterior chain, and hinge at the hips. If you miss any of these points you are more likely to pull with your arms, rather than using your lower body, to lift the barbell. This will cause the back to round.
You’re Not Setting Yourself Correctly For The Deadlift
The main reason that you can’t keep your back straight during deadlifts is that you don’t take the time to set yourself up correctly.
Now, I don’t mean grunting, shouting, and making lots of noise.
I certainly don’t mean throwing chalk around everywhere and slapping yourself countless times in the face.
And there’s definitely no need to be doing that “jerking thing” on the barbell prior to lifting.
No, what I mean is getting your body into prime position to deadlift and marking off all the “deadlift checkpoints”.
So, as you can there is a lot more to just walking up to the bar and simply lifting it off the floor.
I will also say that I tend to reset myself with each rep.
Therefore, I’m not banging through reps at a serious rate of knots.
No, I will ensure that I have hit each of the checkpoints prior to every single rep.
If you do this then there is less chance of your back rounding and you’re more likely to adhere to good form.
Your Hamstrings Are The Problem
I’ve mentioned that you should “load the hamstrings” prior to deadlifting.
Now for many of us this can be a problem.
Basically, you need to activate the hamstrings in some way prior to deadlifting.
This could involve performing some simple bodyweight exercises first, or spending more time than usual on your light, warm up sets.
That being said, if you’re someone who has tight or weak hamstrings this will impact on your deadlift.
In fact, tight or weak hamstrings are typically responsible for not being able to keep the back straight during deadlifts.
In effect, you don’t have the flexibility, or hamstring strength, to get yourself into the correct position, never mind using your posterior chain to lift the barbell off the floor.
So, it may be time for you to work on your hamstrings first before you even think of deadlifting a heavy load.
You would be better off learning to Romanian deadlift correctly first before going back to the traditional deadlift.
Think of the Deadlift as a “Push” Not a “Pull”
There is the argument that has raged on for years as to whether the deadlift is a leg or back exercise.
And this will typically impact on which particular day you choose to do deadlifts.
For me, it’s a leg exercise.
Always has been, always will be.
Basically, you are using your glutes and hamstrings to lift the bar off the floor.
With that being said, most people would class the deadlift as a pull exercise.
So, when looking at the lower body, you would say that the squat is a push and the deadlift is a pull.
However, I want you to take completely the opposite view.
By doing so you are more likely to use the target muscles to get the bar off the floor.
Plus, this should also help you to keep your back straight during deadlifts.
The way I like to look at it is that I am leg pressing the floor, as opposed to pulling with my arms.
So, if you concentrate on pushing your feet into the ground you’ll actually find that you’ll be using the glutes and hamstrings to get the bar off the ground.
You’re Lifting With Your Arms
I guess this moves on nicely from what I’ve just said.
You are using your hands and arms to pull the bar from the floor.
By doing this you are turning the deadlift into a back exercise, and more specifically a lower back exercise.
And let me tell you for nothing that once you start lifting some serious poundage it won’t be long before your lower back can’t keep up.
Herniated disc anyone?
I’ve often seen people prepare to deadlift with a slight bend in their elbows too.
So, in effect, the first past of the movement will involve “pulling” in order to straighten the arms.
Your back will automatically round when you try to lift the barbell with a pull of the arms.
You are no longer using the glutes and hamstrings to get the bar up, so the “rounding” is almost a form of protection for your spine.
This also means that it’s likely that you’ll be using your upper back and lats more during deadlifts.
I like to view my hands as simply being hooks that I wrap around the barbell.
My arms will be perfectly straight and my entire body is tight and ready to lift.
There will be absolutely no pulling or jerking with the hands or arms.
Remember, this is a lower body exercise.
You could actually just view the barbell as an extension of your arms and hands, so they are literally one unit.
And your aim is to move this entire unit upwards by pushing your feet through the floor and using your glutes and hamstrings.
You’re Using Too Much Weight
Pure and simple, if you can’t keep your back straight it’s time to drop some plates off the bar.
You have all the checkpoints you need here to ensure that you deadlift with perfect form.
So, for me, you should learn to perform the exercise correctly with a lighter load, and then move on to heavier weights once you’ve mastered this.
I see absolutely nothing wrong with deadlifting with just one plate on either side of the barbell if that’s what it takes.
In fact, I often do a conditioning workout that involves using this very weight to perform 100 non-stop deadlifts.
This is not something I would suggest to someone who doesn’t have their form on-point.
However, I can tell you for nothing, the 100-rep workout is better than any cardio machine you can think of.
So, put your ego in check, get rid of as many weight plates as you need to, and get your technique right first.
Key Learning Points
- Deadlifts are so much more than just picking a heavy load from the floor. You need to ensure your set up is correct beforehand, e.g. tight body, chest up, load hamstrings, activate posterior chain, etc.
- If your back tends to take over when you deadlift you probably need to work on your hamstrings. You may have weak or tight hamstrings, plus it makes sense to activate your hamstrings prior to lifting.
- View deadlifts as a push exercise rather than a pull. Doing so will engage the glutes and hamstrings much more, which takes the strain off your back.
- View your hands as hooks and your arms as levers. Therefore, all the force generated to lift the barbell comes from your posterior chain and not your arms and back.
- If you’re still struggling to keep your back straight, reduce the weight and work on perfecting your deadlift texhnique.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.