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Starting Strength in the Real World

Low-Back Position in the Deadlift

by Mark Rippetoe | March 30, 2022

lifters at the start of the deadlift with different appearances

“Normal anatomical position” is the term applied to the human body standing upright, feet facing forward, palms facing forward, face looking directly forward, with knees, elbows, hips and spine held in extension – the position that establishes the least amount of angle between the joints in the bodypart. Normal spinal position is determined by the shape of the vertebral bodies and the intervertebral discs, in which they are oriented in this standing position with an even amount of compressive force distribution across the superior and inferior articulation planes. The shape of the spine in this position includes three curves: a lordotic (forward or anterior) curve in the lumbar spine, a kyphotic (backward or posterior) curve in the thoracic spine, and a lordotic curve in the cervical spine.

The entire spine is loaded in both moment and compression in a deadlift, and the most efficient (and safest) way to apply force to the structure is in normal anatomical position, where the discs and vertebral bodies can distribute the force as evenly as possible across the articulation surfaces, following their normal morphological shapes and minimizing excessive compression on smaller surface areas.

This requires that the spine be held in normal anatomical position against anterior forces that are trying very hard to pull it into flexion (the opposite of extension). The muscle mass surrounding the spine maintains this position, while the knee and hip extensors push the bar away from the floor. All of this muscle mass strengthens at the same time, as the weight on the bar slowing increases through the process of training.

The load is anterior, the spine must resist flexion while the hips and knees extend, and if it doesn't start off in extension, some of the battle is already lost. There are numerous articles and videos on this website, and the blue book goes into detail on the how-part of this. Much attention has been paid to low-back position, by us here and by various fools who like to say stupid things like “Buttwink!” as they pronounce their disapproval from a position of superficial understanding. Let us now deepen our understanding.

Normal anatomical position varies with the individual, as most things do. Some people have a pronounced lordotic curve – to the extent of being a pathology, while other people have a fairly straight lumbar curve. The same is true for the thoracic spine, with a pronounced kyphosis present in some older people, like me. If you are looking for correct start position by matching your client's spinal picture to an ideal anatomical example, you don't understand what we mean by model, and your coaching cannot be applied across the normal human population.

Extended spinal appearance in the start position varies with body composition. A 107lb female will show a very visible concave lordotic curve in her start position, while a muscular 220lb male will usually appear to have a flat low back due to the bigger spinal erector muscle bellies, and a fatter 250lb male might well show a convex low back. Just because the big guy's back doesn't have the pleasing appearance of a 175lb CrossFit Level VIII Athlete, don't automatically assume it's in flexion. The physical appearance of the low back may tell you nothing about the position of the spine encased therein.

A little lumbar flexion is not a spinal death sentence. If the human spine were exquisitely dependent on absolute extension under a load, wheelchair sales would be far more brisk. As you may have noticed, most people deadlift – and do everything else – wrong, and yet here they still are. The fact is that you can load the spine in flexion without a huge risk, unless the spine belongs to an old person with intervertebral bone spurs. Even then, the actual recipe for disc injury is flexion and rotation at the same time. Very strong men have lifted 400-pound stones which cannot be handled without some spinal flexion, but they were careful not to rotate their backs under the load – rotation must happen at the feet on the ground, not within the spine.

Lumbar overextension is really worse than a little flexion. If you are skinny enough and flexible enough to set up your pull in a position of concave lumbar overextension, resist the temptation. It jams the posterior structures of the vertebral segments together, puts a bunch of leverage on the SI joints that they shouldn't be subjected to, and it requires you to relax your abs to a certain extent. Abs should not be relaxed. In fact, nothing should be relaxed when you pull.

The key to back stability is, amazingly enough, stabilityPlace your back in the best position you can get it in – extension, but not overextension – and then tighten everything as hard as you can. Don't allow your tightening to change your extended position. Tighten the back first, and then in a circle around the spine, just like your belt (which should aid in this process). Everything between your ears and your knees must stay motionless and rigid. Ribs, abs, neck, asshole – everything gets as tight as you can make it before a heavy pull. No attention should be paid to any single piece of this structure, since your cue should be pushing the floor away and you can't keep several things in mind in this short span of time.

The thing to remember is that your anterior muscle mass is as important to the deadlift as focusing on your erectors. We have probably overemphasized the attention paid to the posterior muscle mass, so here is the correction: a stable back is a 360-degree job of contraction. Take your breath, set the low back, reinforce the whole circle, and push the bar away from the floor with your feet.

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