Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means I earn from qualifying purchases.
One of the biggest technique cues for the deadlift are the deadlift back angle.
We've all seen lifters at the gym who deadlift with a rounded upper or even lower back. But, is this safe?
The truth of the matter is that everyone has different ideal deadlift back angles.
The angle highly depends on your limb and torso sizes which varies for each individual. In fact, many lifters find rounding the back beneficial during the deadlift.
So what is the best deadlift back angle? This depends on your limb and torso length. Different angles activate different muscle groups and can vary for each lifter. Each deadlift variation also plays a role in the back angle. Sumo deadlifts have a more vertical back angle whereas conventional deadlifts have a horizontal back angle.
Ideally, a good deadlift back angle will allow you to lift most weight efficiently without injury. This highly depends on your own limb and torso length.
Lets continue with this technical article about deadlift back angles and different builds for each lifter.
What Is A Deadlift Back Angle?
You will be familiar with the joint actions/kinetic chain that is required to set you up for the concentric phase of the deadlift. The back angle during the setup is noticeable, some individuals may present a near vertical position, whereas others may be more horizontal to the ground (1, 2).
In most cases the back angle will form by default via a couple of variables known as lever length and deadlift type, which I have highlighted within this article.
A vertical set up can reduce scapula retraction/elevation, therefore placing a lower stimulus on some of the posterior trunk muscles (Trapezius, rhomboids, rear deltoids).
The setup also places a greater emphasis on the lower extremities (1, 2).
Vice versa, a more horizontal from the ground will yield considerable force from the back. Thus, reducing some tension on the lower limbs (1, 2)
Cues To Perfecting Your Deadlift Back Angle
Regardless of limb length and different builds, there are a few coaching cues that must be established to perfect the deadlift set up.
1. Foot Positioning
The loaded barbell should be positioned directly over the center of the foot, which will allow you to drive from the center and ball of the foot (plantar flexion).
Followed by sliding the bar up the shins during the pull/knee extension. If the bar is too far in front of the toes, back rounding can occur, thereby causing a spinal injury. Not to mention, the center of gravity of such a position can cause irregular balance and falls (3, 4, 5).
2. Torso Positioning
The shoulder blades should be positioned directly over the loaded bar; where the anterior deltoids will be slightly in front if we analyze the position in the sagittal plane (from the side).
This position would promote a straight bar path (3, 4, 5). However, if you are positioned too far forward, the barbell could swing out causing a weight shift towards your toes.
Subsequently, losing balance and increasing fall risk (3, 4, 5). Lastly, if your shoulder blades are positioned too far back, the knees would protrude out. This would cause an irregular bar positioning of pulling around the knees which is not optimal for muscle contraction (3, 4, 5).
How Does Limb And Torso Length Affect Deadlift Back angle?
Lower limb and torso length will determine the back angle of the conventional deadlift. I have highlighted some exaggerated metrics just to allude to the point.
1. Neutral Back And Hip Position
An individual with relatively proportional limb and torso length will present a back arch of around 45 degrees and neutral hip position (1, 2).
This position will engage the back and legs adequately (1, 2).
2. Horizontal Back And High Hip Position
Someone with a shorter torso and longer lower limb length would display a high hip position and horizontal back position to the ground of around 70–80-degree (1, 2).
Therefore, the lift will rely on a lot of scapula retraction and engage the posterior torso muscles to a greater extent, in comparison to the legs (1, 2).
3. Vertical Back And Low Hip Position
On the other hand, those with longer torsos and shorter lower limb length, would flex the hips into a low position and the back angle would be more vertical at around 10-15 degrees (1, 2).
This specific position is not expected to engage the back as much as the horizontal position. Thus, creating a greater stimulus on the muscles of the legs (1, 2).
Back Angle And Deadlift Variations
1. Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the conventional deadlift, where the leg stance is a lot wider and the feet are more flared out (6, 7).
The wide leg stance reduces the lower limb leverage, allowing one to flex into a more vertical back angle with a low hip stance (6, 7). As mentioned, a vertical back angle may emphasize the legs greatly.
In fact, a study by Escamilla et al. (6) compares the conventional and sumo deadlift in terms of lower extremity muscle stimulation. They identified that the sumo deadlift activated a greater number of muscle fibers within the Vastus medialis, Vastus Lateralis (quadriceps) Gluteus (buttocks) and the tibialis anterior (front of the calves).
In my opinion the sumo deadlift can be used as an alternative for those with proportional limb-torso ratios with the intention to target the legs. Perhaps even prioritized for individuals with shorter torsos and longer limbs who will not engage the legs as much during the conventional deadlift (1, 2).
Although, in terms of powerlifting competitions, those with longer torsos-lower limb ratios may be able to produce a greater lift during the sumo stance. This is due to their biomechanics and having a greater amount of muscle in the target area.
Read our comparison article for a detailed breakdown on Sumo vs Conventional Deadlifts: Which One Is Best?
2. Conventional Deadlift
Once again, due to the conventional deadlift creating a sharper back angle compared to the sumo deadlift, the upper back muscles will fire by default. Whereas, those with proportional anthropometric measures will stimulate the lower and upper extremities adequately (6, 7).
The deadlift back angle would be even more exaggerated for those who possess shorter torsos and longer lower limbs, thus emphasizing the back more (6, 7).
Such individuals may be required to incorporate other exercises that engage lower extremities (I.e., sumo deadlift). On the other hand, those with longer torsos and shorter limbs will present a ventricle back and drive primary from the legs (6, 7).
These individuals could incorporate other alternatives that I will cover. However, in regards to powerlifting meets the shorter lower limb-torso ratio may be able to produce a stronger lift. This is primarily due to possessing more muscle strength in the back and biomechanical advantage.
3. Partial Deadlift
With the partial deadlift you can adjust the bar on the safety for a starting position of around the lower thigh with a slight knee bend. This can manipulate a more pronounced back angle due to a lesser hip flexion, thus primarily targeting the upper back muscles (8).
In fact, this is a great addition for lifters with longer torso and shorter lower limbs, who would normally flex into a vertical position during the conventional deadlift and may neglect a lot of the back retraction (8).
Best Deadlift Variations For Each Back Angle
Neutral back angles will adequately engage both lower and upper extremities.
Lifters with a more horizontal back angle can use the conventional deadlift, but, take into account that majority of the stimulation will be placed on scapular retraction/back muscles. Therefore, leg focused alternatives could be used or even prioritized, depending on muscle genetics.
Using a more vertical back angle for the conventional deadlift is beneficial. But, take into account that majority of the stimulation will be lower limb extension/leg muscles. Therefore other back focused alternatives could be used and even prioritized depending on muscle genetics.
The sumo deadlift will be great for periods of focusing on the leg.
Generally I would say that the sumo deadlift is definitely recommended or even prioritized. This is due to the emphasis placed on the lower extremities from drawing a more vertical back positioning. Then again you must take into account muscle genetics as the individual may have good lower limb development potential.
This exercise would probably not be recommended, as the it reduces lower limb leverage, which is already lacking within the lifter metrics.
The partial deadlift is great for focusing on the upper back muscles.
This exercise would probably not be recommended as the lifter would generate a lot of back action from the conventional, unless in the case of poor back genetics.
For most lifter with the vertical back angle, the partial deadlift can be a great alternative to develop upper back muscles which are neglected during the conventional deadlift. Unless, the lifter posses superior upper back genetics.
Common Mistakes For Back Angle During The Deadlifts
Depending on your deadlift back angle, there are common mistakes that lifters can make. Let's discuss these mistakes now.
1. Loading The Bar Too Much
We’ve all seen the ego lifter or guilty ourselves of racks up so much weight on the barbell that their back begins to round during the deadlift to compensate, regardless of how great their set up is (9).
Not only does this hinder back angle it can also cause moderate to severe spinal injuries (9), subsequently taking the lifter out of action for a period of time (10, 11).
A lifter could observe their deadlift via a camera or an experienced coach to identify if the setup, back angle and lift is performed adequately (12).
Secondly, you could conduct a 1RM test to determine the maximum amount you can lift prior to the back rounding. The 1RM can then be used to vary your intensity for example, 80% intensity of 440lbs would be 352lbs (13, 14).
2. Lacking Sufficient Core Stability
At times beginners attempt the deadlift without developing a foundational level of core stability and balance (12). Thereby the lifter cannot maintain spinal neutrality (straight spine) which hinder back angle and cause spinal injuries (11).
Prior to attempting the deadlift beginners should opt for alternatives like the smith deadlift, exercises on an exercise ball, planks, side planks, body bridge (15).
These exercises will engage the core stability and balance muscles, as well as motor units to get more fluent with resistance training. The exercises will help in preparation for more advanced lifts such as the free-weight conventional deadlift (16, 17).
3. Setting Up Too Far From The Barbell
It's common to set up with the shoulder blades too far back from the loaded barbell, causing the hips to overly flex and set an ineffective vertical back angle (18, 19, 20).
This unnatural set up will cause the knees would protrude (18, 19, 20). The lifter would be forced to lift out and around the knees during the first pull, which hinder range of motion, balance and the kinetic chain. Thereby, causing an in adequate muscle contraction and increases injury risk (18, 19, 20).
A pro tip from me would be to position the scapular (shoulder blades) and shoulders should pass the bar in the set-up. This will allow the lifter to form an individualized natural back angle, be it vertical, horizontal to the ground or neutral (18, 19, 20).
4. Setting In Front Of The Barbell
Some lifter adopts a set up where the shoulder blades are presented too far in front of the bar, which will create ineffective horizontal back angle (18, 19, 20).
This position will cause the lifter to convert much of the inertia onto the toes, hindering balance, thus increasing fall and injury risk (18, 19, 20). Furthermore, the lower extremities may not induce much due to the lack of triple flexion during the set-up (bending the keeps and hips and flattening the foot) (18, 19, 20).
Once again, I stress that the shoulder blades should be slightly over the barbell to help form an individualised back angle and smooth bar path.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Best Back Angle?
In my opinion, biomechanically the best back angle is the neutral position, as it sets you up to adequately engage the upper and lower extremeties. But this back angle can only be achieved via proportional lower limb and torso lengths and cannot force this set up as it may not suit your metrics.
Is Sumo, Conventional, or Partial Deadlift Best?
All three exercises serve their, but may not suit some and may be a priority for others, as I highlighted in the table within the article.
Is The Basic Idea To Bring My Chest Up And Create Tension Throughout My Body?
You should focus on keeping your spine neutral engaging the core and positioning and shoulder blades and shoulder Infront of the bar, where you chest will inflate by default.
How Important Is Leg Width?
A wider leg width can cause the hips to flex further which would influence a vertical back angle also known as the sumo deadlift. As I have stressed, a wider leg stance is more optimal for lower limb development.
What Would You Recommend For Inexperienced Coaches Teaching The Deadlift Set Up?
During my observation, I have witnessed coaches try to alter their client's set-up positioning I.e., my observation they request clients to drop the hips lower.
As we have learnt from the information within the article, these coaching cues may not always be ‘correct’ based on individual biomechanics. I would recommend coaches to request clients to stand shoulder width with the bar positioned at the mid foot and the shoulders positioned in front of the bar, while drawing into a flexed position.
The best deadlift back angle will entirely depend on the anthropometric measures of the lifter, specifically torso and lower limb length.
This ‘accurate’ back angle will be achieved by default if the proper deadlift set-up ques are followed. However, some back angles will dictate the muscle groups that will be prioritized and disadvantaged during the lift.
Such individuals can incorporate deadlift alternatives that can manipulate certain back angles to compensate for the disadvantages as I have highlighted.
As a final take-home message to achieve your best back angle during the conventional deadlift, here is the summary of tips.
DISCLAIMER: This article is for intended for educational purposes only and not as an individualized exercise prescription, therefore no one can be held liable in the occurrence of injuries, damages or monetary losses as a result of the information.
1. Cholewa, J.M., Atalag, O., Zinchenko, A., et al. Anthropometrical Determinants of Deadlift Variant Performance. Journal of Sport Science and Medicine. 2019; 18(3): 448-453
2. Lockie, R. G., Moreno, M.R., Orjalo, A.K., et al. Relationships Between Height, Arm Length, and Leg Length on the Mechanics of the Conventional and High-Handle Hexagonal Bar Deadlift. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2018; 32(11):3011-3019
3. Beckham GK, Lamont HS, Sato K, Ramsey MW, Haff GG, Stone MH. Isometric strength of powerlifters in key positions of the conventional deadlift. Journal of Trainology. 2012;1(2):32-35.
4. Bird, S., &., Barrington, B.H. Exploring the Deadlift. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2010; 32 (2): 46-51
5. Clifton, H. Understanding the deadlift and its variations. ACSMs Health and Fitness Journal. 2020; 24 (3):17-23
6. Escamilla, R.F., Francisco, A.C., Kayes, A.V., et al. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2002; 34(4):682-688
7. Escamilla, R.F., Francisco, A.C., Freisig, G.S., et al. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2000; 32(7):1265-1275
8. Beeler, M.K., Inglis, S.D., Ammon, R., et al. A Kinematic And Kinetic Analysis Of The Partial And Conventional Deadlift in Resistance-trained Males. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 2017; 49(5S):390
9. Kirsten, S., &., Mathew Croiss. The effect of increasing loading on powerlifting movement form during the squat and deadlift. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise. 2015,10(3): 764-774
10. Dobkin, B., Barbeau, H., Deforge, D., et al. The Evolution of Walking-Related Outcomes Over the First 12 Weeks of Rehabilitation for Incomplete Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury: The Multicenter Randomized Spinal Cord Injury Locomotor Trial. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.2007; 21(1): 25-35
11. Bengtsson, V., Berglund, R., Aasa, U. Narrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadlift. BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine. 2018; 4 (1): e000382
12. Tranberg, R. Analysis of body motions based on optical markers. Accuracy, error analysis and clinical applications. 2010; Doctoral Thesis, Göteborg University.
13. Navvaro, R.M., Cava, A.M., Penas, P.E., et al. Load-velocity relationship of the deadlift exercise. European Journal of Sport Science. 2020; 19(3):452-459
14. Thompson, W. (2010). ACSM's guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (8th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
15. Aly, S.M., El-Mohsen, A.M.A., El-Hafez, S.M., Effect of Six Weeks of Core Stability Exercises on Trunk and Hip Muscles’ Strength in College Students. International Journal of Therapies & Rehabilitation Research. 2017; 6 (2): 9-15
16. Gentil, P., Fisher, J., Steele, J. A Review of the Acute Effects and Long-Term Adaptations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises during Resistance Training. Sports Medicine. 2017; 47(5):843-845
17. Stock, M.S., &., Thompson, B.J. Effects of Barbell Deadlift Training on Submaximal Motor Unit Firing Rates for the Vastus Lateralis and Rectus Femoris. PLOS one. 2014; 9(12): e115567
18. Hales, M. Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2010; 32(4):44-51.
19. Schmidi, M.S., &., Bradford, J. SELF-CORRECTION OF DEADLIFT FORM UTILIZING REAL TIME VISUAL FEEDBACK INFORMATION. 2016; Doctoral Thesis, Angelo State University
20. Edington, C., Greening, C., Kmet, N., et al. The Effect of Set Up Position on EMG Amplitude, Lumbar Spine Kinetics, and Total Force Output During Maximal Isometric Conventional-Stance Deadlifts. Sports. 2018;6 (3):90
About The Author
Zack Shakoor Kayani was born and raised in the South East of England/London. Zack has attained a bolus of knowledge regarding biosciences through academia and his career experiences. In terms of his educational background, he has a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology (Hons.), a Postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition with the International Olympic Committee, and a Master’s of Science in Nutritional Sciences. Zack has been fortunate enough to apply his Exercise Science and Nutrition Knowledge to aid Hundreds if not Thousands of Patients and Athletes, providing 1-1 consultation, Personal training, Information sheets, offering recommendations to collate nutrition and exercise programs, etc. Not to mention, in 2020, he authored a book called ‘Obesity Decoded’.