What’s Best – Straight Back Vs Round Back Lifting?

It’s no secret that how you use your spine during lifting is important … but ‘the optimal way’ might not be what you think.

For as long as I can remember the consensus has been the same … keep your back straight when you lift. You know, we’re told to bend at the hip and knees, and keep a straight spine.

Especially when we squat or deadlift.

It’s a message so ingrained that there’s guaranteed to be a myriad of form nazi’s or keyboard warriors happy to correct you if you mess it up.

But in 2013 that notion was turned on its head for Rad and I when we started learning from a variety of new teachers who consider the old school (wrap the body in cotton wool approach to movement) wrong.

As a result, many of the movements we now use in our Foundation Movement System actually do the exact opposite. In particular, we may encourage people to flex and extend the spine under load.

And the results have been good.

More recently though we were lead to question the optimal technique of heavy lifting. Was it really correct to teach people to keep a straight back when deadlifting?

An interesting discussion ensued this week on Unity-V with leading physical therapist Tom Cartwright.

Tom had been following the work of world renowned physiotherapist Sarah Key. (Also known as the physio to the Queen)

Sarah is challenging the straight back thesis based on research that has been conducted from as early as the late 80s. She’s essentially saying that we actually shouldn’t arch our back (keep a concave curve in our lumbar spine) when we lift.

Instead, opposing conventional advice … by suggesting it’s ok, and possibly even better, to keep a rounded spine when you lift.

After attending a recent seminar in Sydney with Sarah where she furnished her arguments with a number of current studies (listed in resources) our resident physical therapist Tom Cartwright indicated that it might actually be time to reconsider the old school approach to lifting.

Or at least raise the discussion.

Here’s why …

When you bend and put a convex curve in your lower back, you’re actually making better use of the spinal ligaments to (sort of) tighten your back so that it’s much stronger during lifting.

This idea is in contrast to the firm belief that without a straight back, you potentially damage the discs.

To really explore this topic better we think it’s beneficial to pay attention to how professional powerlifters deadlift. If you watch closely, you’ll actually see their lower back bow a little as they’re setting up and preparing to pull the bar.

According to Tom, what they’re doing is actually tightening the ligaments that support the spine, which builds tension within the intra-abdominal cavity. This providing something to push against when they brace for the lift.

He says that by doing so, you can actually utilize the pressure in your discs a lot more effectively.

As Tom indicated during our discussion, both of us (Tom and Yani) must plead a little bit of ignorance here because neither of us are powerlifters. Although I personally lift weights five or six times a week and can pull a 200kg deadlift, it’s significantly less than what’s considered strong in the discipline.

I’ve achieved my max deadlift using the old school, straight back technique … which has served me ok, but also certainly limited my progression as I usually stop before my back rounds, because I considered it dangerous.

Although compelling, Sarah’s research hasn’t convinced me to suggest outright that we should never arch our back. (just yet!)

But I am open to a little self experimentation.

I’m well aware that what works for me may not necessarily work for everyone else. And vice-versa. There’s definitely an element of lifting that’s very individual.

One must take into consideration their different history … and also their different physical limitations.

Which is important to note … because acknowledging your personal history, and finding your limitations may be key to also finding what works best for you and maximising your strength.

But I will leave that for another article!

For now, I will continue experimenting with my own lifting techniques and hopefully increase my deadlift without destroying my spine.

Here’s to safe and successful lifting my friends!

Cool  Opportunity For 10 Lucky Readers!!

P.S. Great News … In case you missed it … in conjunction with the launch of the Federal Government’s Sport 2030 plan and Sport Australia’s ‘Move it’ initiative we want to help encourage people to MOVE more. Not just any old movement! Optimal … Unity Gym … style movement which includes the support and coaching that will empower you to find your optimal lifting technique.

*** Special Reader Discount – 50% Off The Regular Price – First 10 People Only ***

Interested people should register by clicking here. This will take you to a mini webform where you’ll:

  1. Shoot Rad a brief email with your details
  2. Then … he’ll be in touch to chat about the program
  3. And you’ll get a unique opportunity to join our movement community

This is NOT your average gym program folks! And this offer is NOT available to the general public! This will be a unique opportunity for a few lucky people to come a try our Foundation Movement System (FMS) for half price with zero obligation to join aftwerwards.

If you haven’t trained with us for a while … be prepared … a lot has changed!

You’ll learn to correct weightlifting technique for your body type, how to bend and stretch, do handstands, muscle-ups, levers and flags … whilst developing core foundation strength and mobility … and a balanced body with a generalists approach to exercise.

Before I go … please note, due to our cosey gym and limited trainers we can only offer 10 places … so get in touch quick!

Resources

As promised, here are Sarah Key’s studies from her recent visit to Sydney:

Farfan and Gracovetsky [1985]: the lumbar spine should remain fully flexed to engage the posterior ligamentous lock

Purslow [1989]: back muscle strength is substantially higher in flexed postures

Adams, McNally, Chinn, Dolan [1994]: it is not necessary to preserve the lordosis when lifting

Bogduk [1997]:contraction of the back muscles is distinctly undesirable because it disengages the posterior ligaments

Daggfeldt & Thorstensson [1997]: spinal unloading effect is greatest with the spine in a flexed position

Dolan and Adams [2001]: moderate lumbar flexion equalises compressive stress across the entire disc

Arjmand, Shirazi-Adl [2005]: freestyle moderate flexion is the posture of choice in lifting

Arjmand, Shirazi-Adl, Bazrgari [2006]: small flattening of the lumbar curvature yields smaller compression and shear forces

Dolan, Mannion, Adams [1994]: the widely held belief that weightlifters should, or even can, maintain a normal lordosis is evidently mistaken