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Kyphosis? Maybe Not! (Rounded Back Deadlifts)

If you coach the deadlift, you will find that some people simply cannot get their backs extended all the way. After a while, you quit trying to get the picture-perfect deadlift and just the best back extension you can from a client. Looking at the clients, I found that those who had difficulty were often of a particular body type. They either had long torsos, short legs, short arms, or some combination of all three.

Kyphosis? Maybe not!

Is your deadlift not perfect? Do you envy those who can assume a standard deadlift position with a perfectly extended back? Have you been accused of being kyphotic?

Kyphosis is an exaggerated curvature of the spine, commonly known as a “hump back.” Although usually seen in the elderly (caused by poor posture and weak bone tissue compressing on itself), kyphosis can also develop from malformation of the spine during childhood. Mild cases are not very problematic, aside from aesthetic concerns.

I have been accused of having kyphosis. I even considered that I might have Scheuermann’s disease (a childhood condition that causes the vertebrae to grow unevenly, wedging the spine into kyphosis):

When I deadlift, my thoracic spine is curved. It looks really bad. It has stumped very competent coaches at seminars. On their advice, I spent the better part of a year deloading my deadlift to try to fix it—to no avail. It was wasted training time. There was nothing I could do to remove the curvature in my spine.

But at some point, I realized that I’m not kyphotic. I can stand up straight, and I don’t have a hump. So why does my deadlift look so weird? It took me a while to figure this out.

If you coach the deadlift, you will find that some people simply cannot get their backs extended all the way. After a while, you quit trying to get the picture-perfect deadlift and just the best back extension you can from a client. Looking at the clients, I found that those who had difficulty were often of a particular body type. They either had long torsos, short legs, short arms, or some combination of all three. I have all three. I am very tall sitting down but only slightly above average height standing up. My arms are quite short. I have to bend to the side to reach the change in my pocket. Because of my anthropometry, I have great difficulty hitting the landmarks of a conventional deadlift:

  1. Barbell over midfoot
  2. Shins in contact with the barbell
  3. Hands gripping the barbell
  4. Shoulders slightly in front of the barbell

Every good heavy deadlift will hit these landmarks. Numbers 3 and 4 are very hard to accomplish if the torso is long and the arms are short. As you can see from the diagram, the poor stick figure has no hope of reaching the barbell with an extended back.

In my exaggerated figure, you can see that Mr. Stick has to curve his back excessively even to get his hands on the barbell. But this doesn’t really happen, does it? No one is as bad as Mr. Stick! Sadly, I am nearly as bad as Mr. Stick.

Look at me setting up for the deadlift with a straight back, bar over midfoot, and shins in contact with the barbell. You can see my hands uselessly dangling.

One can’t deadlift without holding onto the barbell.

Here is what it looks like when I put my hands on the barbell with my shoulders slightly in front of the barbell. Notice how my thoracic spine has to bend. I contend that this is not kyphosis; it’s me taking the only position possible for me in the conventional deadlift. Something in my back has to bend, or I can’t do the lift.

This is not kyphosis. This is a case of trying to stuff 50 lb. of potatoes into a 25 lb. bag. I have too much torso and not enough arm.

Coaches need to understand that some of their lifters will not be able to achieve a classic deadlift setup. Don’t have them attempt the impossible. Do have them get their chest up as hard as they can before squeezing the barbell off the floor. Most importantly, make sure that the back doesn’t change shape as the barbell comes off the floor.

If there has to be curvature, try to have it higher in the back. Lower back tweaks are common in the deadlift, but upper back tweaks are much less common in my experience.

Not every lifter’s form will look perfect. Experienced coaches will know when the deviation is an error and when it’s dictated by anthropometry.

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