Neutral Spine While Deadlifting: Why It's Necessary

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 9, 2023

It’s a pretty frequently heard term among method weightlifters - that of maintaining a “neutral spine” or “neutral lower back”. So much so, in fact, that the term correct deadlift form  has become almost synonymous with the aforementioned phrase. 

The term “neutral spine” refers to the spinal column (and by extension, the back muscles) being in a specific curvature that is conducive to advantageous resistance distribution and each structure of the back being able to support the other - thereby improving stability and reducing the overall risk of physiological injury.

What Does “Neutral Spine” Mean for the Deadlift?

When lifters speak of a neutral spine during the deadlift, they mean ensuring that the lower back and core muscles are braced in such a manner that the spine is maintained in its natural curvature - stacking each individual disc atop the other in a way that pressure and shear force are evenly distributed, ensuring that no individual disc or muscle is forced to bear more resistance that it is capable of sustaining.

This will generally involve contraction of the entirety of the core musculature, producing a stable and more supportive base through correct pelvic and leg positioning, and ensuring that the muscles of the erector spinae (and other back muscles) are contracted in an isometric manner as efficiently as possible.

Ensuring that the lifter is keeping a neutral spine is as simple as ensuring that they are performing the deadlift with the correct form cues followed - as well as the usual proper exercise mechanics, such as maintaining the valsalva maneuver and keeping the head facing forward.

What Does a Neutral Spine Look Like?

Though it can be difficult to physically see your own back while performing the deadlift, recording oneself or asking a friend to observe your deadlift execution can provide important clues as to whether you are in fact maintaining neutral spinal curvature or not.

deadlift neutral spine

Generally, the lower back will appear to be flat throughout the movement of the deadlift, with the core appropriately braced and a straight line being formed from the base of the skull to the anterior section of the pelvic structure.

From the lifter’s point of view, it may feel as if the stomach is being pulled into the spine, and that the chest is pushed outwards as the shoulders remain squared on both sides.

The Risks of Poor Spinal Curvature

While it is widely known that curving the lower back is generally a bad idea while deadlifting, rarely do people explain what happens if this vitally important aspect of deadlift form is ignored.

Severe Physiological Injuries

The spinal column is simultaneously quite durable and flexible when in the correct position, yet also quite prone to damage when in a disadvantageous state and under load.

A host of possible acute injuries may be sustained by the lifter in the event that they are unable or unwilling to maintain a neutral spine during the deadlift, the most grievous of which being slipped or fused discs of the spinal column, of which can often result in nerve damage, reduced range of motion and life-long symptoms of pain.

Other issues that may occur are tears or inflammation of the various muscles of the lower back, pinched or damaged nerves along the pelvic area or seemingly unrelated injuries elsewhere in the body due to the lower back being compensated for.

Sub-optimal Deadlift Performance

For powerlifters or individuals who wish to maximize the amount of weight they are capable of moving with the deadlift, ensuring that the back is maintained at a neutral curvature is especially important, as it is from this area that many large muscle groups will provide resistance with - thereby increasing the gross strength output of the entire body.

Not only will maintaining the correct spine curvature allow for such an effect, but so too will it allow for other optimizations in deadlift form to occur - such as advanced bracing control and greater hip drive at the initial pull of the deadlift, two major techniques used to maximize the amount of weight lifted during a deadlift set.

Poor Carryover to Athletic Activities

Like many other aspects of physical fitness, ensuring proper deadlift form must become a habit in order to be effective. This equates to deadlift spinal neutrality becoming an unconscious action, even when performing other athletic activities that will call for heavy lifting to occur.

As such, failing to instill proper spinal curvature into your subconscious and muscular memory can lead to other aspects of your athletic performance being affected, potentially resulting in injuries during your chosen sport or otherwise affecting your capacity to perform as an athlete.

Other Areas of Deadlift Form Failing

The deadlift is a whole body movement, meaning that any issues in its execution can subsequently affect other portions of the lift - thereby resulting in seemingly unrelated injuries or general failure to maximize one’s own strength during the lift.

In relation to failing to maintain neutral back curvature, this can have an exaggerated effect, leading to the chest or shoulders collapsing inwards, the pelvis hyperextending and the core generally failing to brace properly as the entirety of the torso is pulled out of alignment by a poorly utilized back.

Cues for Maintaining Neutral Spine Curvature

Though most experienced weightlifters will automatically learn to maintain a neutral spine over the course of their training career, ensuring that you are mindful and properly adhering to form cues that are conducive to maintaining the correct curvature will accelerate this development and maximize your strength output during the deadlift.

Chest Pushed Out

One of the most important cues to follow when attempting to keep a neutral spine is to maintain a puffed out chest and somewhat externally rotated shoulders. This places the abdominal muscles in a more advantageous position for keeping intra-abdominal pressure, as well as ensures that the cervical and thoracic portions of the spinal column are kept in a neutrally-stacked form.

Furthermore, maintaining a pushed-out chest ensures that the lifter can intake as much oxygen between repetitions as possible, aiding in proper muscular contraction which will also ensure that a neutral spine is maintained.

Retract Pelvis During Initial Pull

Pushing the hips back as the lifter initiates the deadlift can greatly aid in maintaining a tight and stable lower back, thereby ensuring that a neutral spine is kept throughout the repetition.

In order to do this, the lifter must retract their pelvis or draw their buttocks somewhat backwards and downwards, making use of the momentum and force generated by their posterior chain musculature in order to pull the barbell from the ground.

Utilize Hip Hinge

Utilizing the hip hinge is mechanically quite similar to retracting the pelvis, wherein the lifter will thrust the hips backwards and down as they initiate the first pull of the deadlift. 

The term “hip hinge” refers to this particular movement, where the lifter will hinge at the hips and draw the torso upward, thereby pulling the barbell upward but also aiding in maintaining neutral lumbar spine curvature.

PVC hip hinge example

The best method of practicing the hip hinge is to simply perform the deadlift with an empty bar, placing additional focus on the horizontal plane of their buttocks and ensuring that it is dipping at the same time as the muscles of the legs initiate force into the ground.

Avoid Hyperextension

Hyperextension of the back is a state wherein it will bend to a degree that is beyond the ordinary range of motion of most back musculature. This can place the spine in a highly disadvantageous position, potentially compressing the discs in such a way that they may slip from the column or bear too great a load.

This can occur during the start of the deadlift repetition, where the lifter is attempting to pull the barbell from too far away - or at the end of the repetition, where the lifter will extend their torso too bar back as the barbell reaches the end of the range of motion, placing the lower back in a dangerous position.

Both cases are remedied with simple practice of both deadlift execution and stance form, with performing the deadlift with an empty barbell being the most efficient manner of doing so.

Brace the Core Correctly

Perhaps the most important cue in any sort of heavy resistance movement, being able to brace the core correctly and maintain a proper valsalva maneuver is essential for ensuring that the deadlift does not impact the spine in any negative manner.

This is done by familiarizing oneself with contraction of the core musculature, as well as learning to breathe properly during a deadlift repetition. 

To do so, the lifter should practice regular core isolation exercises, as well as learn to maintain a valsalva maneuver - achievable by inhaling, bracing the core, then subsequently holding this intra-abdominal pressure as the lift is completed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Should Deadlift Spine be Neutral?

Yes - outside of a specific few exercises, maintaining neutral spinal curvature is absolutely essential when performing any sort of heavy resistance training movement. This is especially true for the deadlift, which can cause significant pressure and shear stress to be placed on the spinal column if it is not in a neutral position that distributes the load to other parts of the body.

Can Deadlifts Damage Your Spine?

Deadlifts can indeed damage the spine and surrounding tissues - though this will only happen if the lifter is performing the exercise incorrectly in some way

Performing the deadlift with the wrong form, poor programming or some other deficit in training methodology can easily lead to poor results and injuries, especially those of the spine and back. In order to avoid such occurrences, it is vital for the lifter to perform deadlifts with the correct form, in the correct manner and with the correct recovery methods.

What Does a Neutral Spine Feel Like?

Depending on your flexibility, a neutral spine may feel like nothing more than your torso being angled in a manner that allows you to flex your core muscles and breathe more easily. 

When performing heavy exercises like the deadlift or squat, maintaining neutral spinal curvature can often feel as if the lower back and core are “tight”, though not in an uncomfortable way. Breathing should show some level of resistance around the diaphragm, though not in such a way that inhaling becomes difficult.

Feeling excessive tightness or fatigue in these areas may be a sign that one is failing to maintain a neutral spine, or otherwise training to excessive volume within their workout.

In Conclusion

Checked your form cues but still finding issues with your spinal curvature? 

Try asking for the help of an athletic professional, as there may be something you have overlooked in your deadlift form that is affecting your ability to hold a neutral spine.

Otherwise, keep in mind that maintaining proper back neutrality is perhaps the most important aspect of correct deadlift execution, and it is entirely unsafe to perform a working weight set with a curved or otherwise unbalanced back.

References

1. Howe, Louis & Lehman, Gregory. (2021). Getting out of neutral: the risks and rewards of lumbar spine flexion during lifting exercises. Strength and Conditioning.

2. Ulrika Aasa, Victor Bengtsson, Lars Berglund & Fredrik Öhberg (2022) Variability of lumbar spinal alignment among power- and weightlifters during the deadlift and barbell back squat, Sports Biomechanics, 21:6, 701-717, DOI: 10.1080/14763141.2019.1675751

3. Florian Michaud, Manuel Pérez Soto, Urbano Lugrís, Javier Cuadrado. (2021) Lower Back Injury Prevention and Sensitization of Hip Hinge with Neutral Spine Using Wearable Sensors during Lifting Exercises. Sensors 21:16, pages 5487.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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