Is it okay to round the back during deadlifts? Does it increase the risk of injury? Why is form important? You will find the answer to all of these questions (and many more) below. Exercising too strictly can sometimes prevent you from progressing in the amount you could. Exercising too loosely can sometimes prevent you from exercising due to injury. Balance is key, as it is with everything else.
What does it mean to have good form? Why is it important? A good form is that which allows the individual to perform the selected exercise in a safe manner, in the way that the exercise’s inventor intended. This minimizes the risk of injury and the amount of ego lifting (Exercising improperly so as to lift more weight for the sole sake of the ego and feeling confident in oneself) and maximizing the amount of strength or hypertrophy gain. Minimizing the risk of injury keeps the individual exercising without a halt in progress. Reducing ego lifting helps keep the injury-free status. Having poor form leads not only to injury, but also to worse gains and neuromuscular adaptations.
When Bad Form is good
There are certain occasions in which practicing loose or less strict form is beneficial to the individual and either does not increase the risk of injury, or increases it insignificantly. Beginners should always have “textbook” form in order to learn the movement patterns correctly. A prime example of this is the cheat curl. The cheat curl is performed in the same way as its’ strict variant, with added hip and leg drive, caused by bending the knees and the lower back on the start of the concentric portion of the lift and straightening them on the way up. Does this increase the risk of injury? Yes and no. If an individual were never to have lifted more than 30 kg on the curl, hopping up to 80 kg would be a bad idea. This goes for every other exercise. Many individuals do this exercise for the purpose of biceps training but do not realize that it is not very useful in regards to that specific muscle. Cheat curls are used for overloading the forearms, because the momentum allows the weight that the biceps cannot lift by themselves to be moved.
Another exercise in which strict form is not key is rows. Cheat rows have two benefits that make them a great replacement for their strict alternatives. Firstly, the weighted stretch provided by 180 kg is much larger than the one provided by 100. This results in more hypertrophy over time than doing strict rows. The other benefit is that the cheat row has carryover to the strict row. If an individual were to increase his strength on the cheat row, the strict row would also increase. This means that the strict variation is replaceable in favor of the one with loose form. An important thing to mention is that cheating has its’ own limits and while form is not as important on rows as on other lifts, some rules still apply. “Rowing” for 10 cm is not rowing. Go through as much range of motion as you possibly can, but remember that full ROM will not be possible with very high weight. When the ROM gets too short, it is time to lower the weight. You yourself judge what is too short.
Everyone has seen videos of people deadlifting with their backs resembling that of a terrified cat, with their bodies shaped like a reverse “U”. Let us clarify one thing: utilizing this technique does allow for the individual to lift more weight, in most cases. However, is it safe? Again, yes and no. It is hard to say. A beginner should never do this, as the development of his spinal erectors is insufficient to prevent injury in the case of a rounded lower back. An experienced lifter might be able to get away with doing this a couple of times without consequences, but it should never replace the strict form of the deadlift. The only way to cheat safely when deadlifting is by rounding the upper back. Beginners should not do this either, but experienced lifters and elites can do it without issues. Rounding the upper back shortens the range of motion and makes for an easier lift off the ground. Shortly: if you are not a beginner and you must round the back, do it with the upper part.
When Not to Cheat
There are certain exercises in which one should never cheat. This is either due to there being no benefits in cheating or due to the increased injury risk outweighing the possible benefits. An example of the first reason not to cheat is the pull-up. Kipping or utilizing any other sort of momentum on the pull up will not result in more hypertrophy or strength adaptations. An example of the second reason not to cheat is the squat. Doing only half of the repetition leaves room for many sorts of injuries. The easiest example of this is when going near failure and accidentally failing with 140 kg on the back. What happens to the knees of an individual who has never squatted ATG (Ass to Grass), but suddenly almost sits on the floor? A moderate injury, if lucky. If partial repetitions are the desire, one should always do them automatically, and not manually. Automatic partial range of motion in this case means that the pins of the squat rack are in the exact vertical position on which the individual wants the eccentric portion of the repetition to end.
Some exercises benefit the individual for cheating. Some injure him. The most important thing to do is to learn the biomechanics of exercise and thus think about which effects utilizing loose form will bring about. Beginners are not do perform any exercise with loose form. Deadlifting with a rounded lower back is almost never okay. Deadlifting with a rounded upper back is much better, but still not for beginners. One should never perform exercises in a manual eccentric partial range of motion.